Tip for Law Students (and Young Lawyers) on Formatting Decisions

"Plagiarize! Only be sure always to call it please 'research.'"

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A student asked me how to structure the Table of Authorities in a brief that we'll be filing in a particular state court—whether the Table of Authorities should have all the cases together in one Cases section (which many courts require) or have in-state cases in a separate section from out-of-state cases (which some courts call for), perhaps further broken down by court.

The commonly (and correctly) recommended answers to such questions, of course, are:

  1. Check the rules.
  2. Ask local counsel.
  3. Call the clerk of court's office.

But sometimes the rules don't give the answer, and you don't want to take up local counsel's time (or the time of the clerk's office) with the question. So there's another option:

  1. Figure out what the top firms are in the state, and then search in Westlaw (or Lexis or Bloomberg) for briefs filed in the relevant court by those firms.

Here, it turns out that they put the cases together in one section, so that's how we'll be doing it. There is safety in numbers.

Naturally, this might not be the optimal solution if it costs money to do the Westlaw search, but law students have free Westlaw access, and many firms have a flat-rate plan. Just remember what your mother asked you when you wanted to do what your junior high school classmates did: "If everyone was going to jump off the bridge, would you do that, too?" When it comes to legal formatting conventions, the answer is, "Yes."

It's similar to what H.W. Fowler wrote about pronunciation:

The ambition to do better than our neighbours is in many departments of life a virtue; in pronunciation it is a vice; there the only right ambition is to do as our neighbours.

Of course, as Fowler notes, the one needs to consider who counts as "our neighbours" for this purpose, which is why I recommend following the top firms. Or, elaborating on the response to your mother, "Yes, if all the cool kids are doing it."

(The subtitle, of course, is from the great Tom Lehrer; but remember, you borrow from your friend in Minsk only if you're filing in Belarus courts.)