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  • July 15, 2020

    Good Writing Is Good Advocacy: Insights from Best Brief Competition

    Good writing and good advocacy go hand in hand, says Ryan Walsh, one of five attorneys honored in the Best Briefs Competition by the Appellate Practice Section. Learn more about the winners and their approach to powerful written advocacy.

    Melissa Love Koenig

    July 15, 2020 – Crafting a brief that conveys a compelling argument lies at the heart of effective appellate advocacy. The State Bar of Wisconsin Appellate Section, therefore, seeks to discover and recognize outstanding appellate briefs in its biennial brief-writing competition.

    The 2020 Winners

    Join us in congratulating these winners of the section’s third Best Briefs Competition:

    Joseph A. BugniJoseph A. Bugni of Federal Defender Services of Wisconsin, Inc., in Madison, for the Appellants’ brief filed in the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in U.S. v. Franklin & Sahm. Bugni was also a winner in the first Best Briefs Competition.

    Shelley M. FiteShelley M. Fite, Federal Defender Services of Wisconsin, Inc., in Madison, for the Appellants’ brief filed in the Wisconsin Supreme Court in U.S. v. Franklin & Sahm.

    Ryan J. WalshKevin M. LeRoyRyan J. Walsh of Eimer Stahl, LLP, Madison, and Kevin M. LeRoy of Troutman Pepper Hamilton Sanders, Chicago, for the Appellees’ brief filed in the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Minerva Dairy, Inc. v. Harsdorf. Walsh was also a winner in the second Best Briefs Competition.

    Sopen B. ShahRyan J. WalshSopen B. Shah of Perkins Coie LLP, Madison, and Ryan J. Walsh of Eimer Stahl, LLP, Madison, for the Respondents’ brief filed in the Wisconsin Supreme Court in Porter v. State.

    As in past years, the winning briefs represent diverse practice areas, including civil and criminal matters in both state and federal court.

    Tips from the Winners

    Many lessons can be learned from a finely tuned and powerfully written appellate brief, and appellate attorneys are always striving to improve their written argumentation skills.

    Here are tips from the winners:

    Bugni: Your brief should be considerate of both the reader (the judges) and opposing counsel. The judges should read the brief and enjoy it as a persuasive piece of advocacy. It shouldn’t be over the top, hide the ball, or worst of all, be spiteful and shrill. It should be a pleasure to read. That goes for opposing counsel as well. No one likes to read a brief that attacks the other side – especially when you’re the other side. So I try to make my briefs well-written, persuasive, and fair to the other side’s position and the lower court’s reasoning. There is no reason that anyone should wince when reading a brief.

    Fite: Before you can write well, you have to "think about your case" well. How would you plainly explain to a friend over beer or coffee why the order under review needs to be reversed (or affirmed)? Once you've figured out how to do that, in just a few sentences that would be understandable and persuasive to a nonlawyer, you're ready to start writing.

    LeRoy: Writing well is difficult, but three tips can help: first, make sure the fact section of your brief is essentially complete before doing any heavy lifting in your argument section. Second, keep the formatting of your brief neat. Third, the famous quote that “there is no such thing as good writing, just good rewriting” is absolutely true.

    Shah: Good writing makes for effortless reading. Simpler is better – don’t be afraid of short words and sentences. Also, use subheadings and roadmapping to create a clear overall structure. You want the court to rely on your brief to organize its thoughts on the case.

    Walsh: As Justice Scalia used to say, there is no such thing as good legal writing; there is only good writing. Also, good writing and good advocacy go hand in hand. You might have composed a beautiful paragraph of prose worthy of the New Yorker, but if it is not crafted to carry out a particular legal strategy and to persuade your particular audience, it is bad writing.

    Interested in more tips? See the results of the first and second competitions.

    Judging the Competition

    The competition recognizes great writers, promotes appellate advocacy, and identifies briefs that can be used as models for new and improving appellate lawyers.

    Melissa Love KoenigMelissa Love Koenig, Marquette 1999, is an associate professor of legal writing at Marquette University Law School.

    The briefs, with names redacted, are evaluated by retired Wisconsin judges for clarity of writing, depth of analysis, and persuasiveness, and not on the apparent merits of any issue. The number of winning briefs are at judges’ discretion.

    We are truly grateful for the enthusiasm and time provided this year by Justice David Prosser, Judge Kitty Brennan, and Judge Paul B. Higginbotham, who selected the winning briefs for this year’s competition from approximately 50 entries.

    It is important, said Justice Prosser, to make complex issues understandable through short, simple sentences. “A brief should be enjoyable to read. Repetition and summary are important to aid reader comprehension,” he said. “The issues need to be framed well, and the result should be imperative to a reader.”

    The Next Competition

    Please watch for news about our fourth competition. Briefs may be entered anytime on the State Bar’s website. Briefs entered in the competition do not need to be the winning brief on appeal.

    The Best Brief Competition is run by the Appellate Practice Section’s board. This year’s planning committee included Judge Brian Blanchard and attorneys Jacques Condon, Joseph Diedrich, Malinda Eskra, Amy Hetzner, Melissa Love Koenig, and Jeremy Perri.

    More on Writing Topflight Appellate Briefs

    Looking for additional resources on excellent brief writing? Check out these books:

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