The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent


Pliny the Younger on lawyers' omitting arguments


Apropos Eugene's post quoting John Quincy Adams, and also relevant to the question of eliminating potential arguments from one's brief, I thought I'd share a quote from Pliny the Younger sent in by reader Martin White:

I have frequent debates with a certain acquaintance of mine, a man of skill and learning, who admires nothing so much in the eloquence of the bar as conciseness. I agree with him, that where the case will admit of this precision, it may with propriety be adopted; but insist that, to leave out what is material to be mentioned, or only briefly and cursorily to touch upon those points which should be inculcated, impressed, and urged well home upon the minds of the audience, is a downright fraud upon one's client.

The dispositions and understandings of men vary to such an extent that they seldom agree in their opinions concerning any one point in debate before them; or, if they do, it is generally from different motives. Besides, as every man is naturally partial to his own discoveries, when he hears an argument urged which had previously occurred to himself, he will be sure to embrace it as extremely convincing. The orator, therefore, should so adapt himself to his audience as to throw out something which every one of them, in turn, may receive and approve as agreeable to his own particular views. I recollect, once when Regulus and I were engaged on the same side, his remarking to me, "You seem to think it necessary to go into every single circumstance: whereas I always take aim at once at my adversary's throat, and there I press him closely." ('Tis true, he keeps a tight hold of whatever part he has once fixed upon; but the misfortune is, he is extremely apt to fix upon the wrong place.) I replied, it might possibly happen that what he called the throat was, in reality, the knee or the ankle.

The whole thing is here. I wouldn't necessarily follow all of the rest of Pliny's advice.