One of my main reasons for starting this blog was to spotlight high-quality appellate advocacy. My motives are both selfish (I improve my own skills by learning from the best, and I learn by writing about it) and not (bringing attention to top-shelf appellate lawyering helps raise the standard of CA3 practice overall). My posts about appellate advocacy have been among my all-time most-read posts: this look at Orin Kerr’s oral argument in the Weev appeal and this post on the power of clear writing, to name two.
Today I want to take a closer look at Howard Bashman’s opening brief in Schmidt v. Skolas, a CA3 appeal he won last week (opinion here). Schmidt arose as a shareholder suit against a drug company alleging below-market sale of assets. The district court dismissed the suit as untimely, and Bashman entered the case on appeal.
Four things stand out that Bashman nailed:
Focus. The best thing this brief does — and the hardest — is pare the appeal down to its core. Bashman chooses one, limited issue: premature statute-of-limitations dismissal. He refuses to clutter his brief and weaken his position by swatting at all the alternative grounds for affirmance; I’m sure he knew they were coming, but he correctly judged that the panel would decline to reach them. He cites his key case in the argument summary’s first sentence. He comes in at 7,560 words, just over half the limit. This brief isn’t a slap-fight, it’s a knockout punch.
Clean writing. Bashman writes not to impress, but to persuade. The sentences are clear on the first reading. Here’s an example from the argument summary. The first sentence explains that suits may be dismissed under 12(b)(6) on statute-of-limitations grounds only in the rarest of cases. Second sentence:
The district court thought that this was such a case, but the district court was wrong — not only on substance, when rejecting plaintiff’s proper invocation of the discovery rule, but also procedurally in relying on materials outside of plaintiff’s amended complaint to hold all claims time-barred.
The single-syllable words in the opening clause are strong and clear. The parts that are hardest to understand are in the second half of the sentence, where the reader can digest them more easily, and they are prefaced with quick summarizing transitions (“not only on substance,” “but also procedurally”).
Clarity like that is no accident. Here’s how a less careful writer might say the same thing:
Because the district court in this case improperly rejected plaintiff’s invocation of the discovery rule, and because it also relied on materials outside of plaintiff’s amended complaint to hold all claims time-barred, this was not one of the extraordinary cases where dismissal at the 12(b)(6) stage was warranted, and the district court’s ruling to the contrary plainly was substantive and procedural error requiring reversal.
Clarity is power.
Confident citing. Bashman writes with authority because he leans less on authority. Lesser advocates fill their briefs with quotes and end every sentence with a citation or three. Bashman hammers the key cases, but his arguments are his own.
Consider his substantive, discovery-rule argument. The first 7 pages contain only 3 case cites. Eight of the first 11 paragraphs are cite-free. Block quotes, record quotes, or footnotes? Zero. That’s radically different from most briefs. I’ve written love notes with more F.3d cites.
Good typography. Bashman didn’t just build a strong house, he gave it a nice coat of paint, too. His brief looks professional because he avoids the most common typography errors: over-capitalization, underlining, two spaces between sentences, boring Times New Roman font. He even gets picky stuff right like using en-dashes instead of hyphens for page ranges. Looks to me like he’s read Butterick.
Yesterday I asked which has a bigger impact on winning, good lawyers or good issues. Reversal in Schmidt was no sure thing, and in lesser hands the outcome may well have been different.