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Appellate Practice

Do Judges Read Online Briefs Differently? Brief Writers May Need to Be Briefer

Posted Dec 9, 2010 6:30 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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As more courts require e-filing, lawyers may need to adjust their writing style to account for differences in the way people read online.

That’s the conclusion of Houston appellate lawyer Martin Siegel in an article for Texas Lawyer.

Online readers “jump around, skimming and seizing on bits of text,” Siegel writes. “Eye-tracking studies show they seek content in an F-shaped pattern, looking down the left side for structural cues and then focusing on headings and first sentences of paragraphs. Heaven help the content provider with important text consigned to the bottom right of the screen.”

Siegel cites a book by Houston appellate lawyer Robert Dubose and a law review article by University of Dayton law professor Maria Crist. Dubose says lawyers writing with online readers in mind should put their most important points in headings and first sentences of paragraphs, use bullet points, and quickly get to the point. Similarly, Crist endorses short paragraphs and condensing chunks of information into smaller pieces.

It’s important to adapt your briefs for online readers, Siegel says, but the important next step is “weaving artistry and real substance into the new form.”

The Legal Skills Prof Blog notes Siegel's article, but questions the assumption that judges and clerks will read online, rather than printing out the materials. And judges looking at online documents will likely read differently than readers of newspapers, blogs and websites, according to the blog post by Nova Southeastern law professor James Levy.

Related coverage:

The Jury Expert: “Accentuate Your Argument and Increase Your Persuasive Power with a Hyperlinked Brief”

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