Inside Track: What Makes a Stellar Appellate Brief? Find Out from ‘Best Briefs’ Competition Winners:

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    What Makes a Stellar Appellate Brief? Find Out from ‘Best Briefs’ Competition Winners

    The winners of the first-ever Appellate Practice Section Best Briefs Competition represent a diverse range of areas and practices. Learn more about these winning briefs – and about the characteristics they share in common.

    Shelley Fite

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    Dec. 21, 2016 – Congratulations to the winners of the State Bar of Wisconsin Appellate Practice Section’s first-ever Best Briefs competition:

    The four winning briefs represent a diverse range of practice areas: civil and criminal, plaintiff and defense, state and federal.

    Thomas BellaviaThomas Bellavia (U.W. 1999) Wisconsin Department of Justice: State respondent’s brief filed in the Wisconsin Court of Appeals in Soderlund v. Zibolski, a section 1983 case.

    Joseph BugniJoseph Bugni (Ave Maria 2006) Federal Defender Services of Wisconsin, Inc.: Respondent’s brief filed in the Seventh Circuit Federal Court of Appeals in Pigeon v. Smith, a habeas corpus action.

    John PrayJohn Pray (U.W. 1986) U.W. Remington Center: Appellant’s brief filed by the Wisconsin Court of Appeals in State v. Coleman, a criminal appeal, written with two student co-authors: Jaclyn Schwartz and John Sears.

    Joseph SarmientoMichael CohenJoseph Sarmiento (DuPaul 2007) and Michael Cohen (Marquette 1986), both of Miessner Tierney Fisher & Nichols S.C.: Appellant’s brief filed in the Wisconsin Supreme Court in Acuity v. Chartis Specialty Insurance Company, an insurance coverage case.

    Real Briefs in Real Cases

    The competition was unusual, and possibly unprecedented. Rather than asking students or attorneys to prepare writing samples, we asked State Bar members to nominate real briefs filed in real cases (that is, fully resolved, real cases) for consideration.

    Shelley FiteShelley Fite, U.W. 2006, is an associate federal defender at Federal Defender Services of Wisconsin Inc. Previously, she spent seven years in the Appellate Division of the Wisconsin State Public Defender. Fite is chairperson of the Appellate Practice Section Board, and headed the competition committee.

    The purpose is threefold: to recognize great writers, to promote appellate advocacy, and to identify briefs that can be used as models for new and improving appellate lawyers.

    So, last winter we asked judges, law clerks, and other lawyers to nominate any principal brief filed in an appellate case that was fully resolved in either 2015 or early 2016 – up to the deadline of March 31, 2016. The nominations were completely anonymous. All nominations went to a State Bar staff member, who downloaded the nominated brief, redacted the author’s name, and passed it on to section members.

    50 Entries – 50 Tough Decisions

    We were very pleased to end up with about 50 briefs. Six section members, representing diverse areas of practice, whittled the nominations down to 20 excellent briefs for the final judges. This was tough – all the nominated briefs were very good!

    The 20 finalists went to three judges, to whom we owe a huge debt of gratitude: Janine Geske, retired from the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and Thomas Cane and Margaret Vergeront, both retired from the Wisconsin Court of Appeals. We were very lucky that these dedicated jurists came out of retirement to participate in an unusual appellate panel, and they did a fantastic job.

    We told the judges that they could choose any (reasonable) number of briefs as winners, based on how many they thought would make good models for others.

    Characteristics of the Winning Briefs

    The four winning briefs had these things in common:

    1. They use the “Issues Presented” section to their advantage.

    2. They employ simple, clear, succinct language.

    3. They don’t rely on boilerplate and string cites; they weave the language of precedent into their own legal analysis.

    4. They make subheadings work for them to keep the argument moving, and they give their readers clear roadmaps.

    Celebration and Ceremony

    Once the four winners were chosen, it was time to celebrate! At the Brocach Irish Pub in Madison, Chief Justice Patience Roggensack kicked off the evening by talking about brief writing, drawing both from her time as an advocate and from her 20 years as an appellate jurist. Then we presented the winners with certificates and, of course, enjoyed some Irish beer and cheese.

    Appellate lawyers have a reputation for being more introverted than other litigators, and it was nice for us “bookish” types to log out of Westlaw, celebrate the work we do behind the scenes, and hang out in a nonadversarial setting.

    The Next Competition: Coming in 2018

    Our next competition will involve briefs filed in cases resolved between March 31, 2016, and Dec. 31, 2017. Section members will find the nomination form on the section’s webpage for people to nominate briefs on an ongoing basis.

    So keep an eye out for an announcement about that, and, of course, keep an eye out for great briefs!

    Need More Tips on Writing Stellar Briefs? Check Out These Resources:

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