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Western Center Roundup – May 2022

Light in the dark: acknowledging pain as we celebrate AAPI heritage.


This month was hard. Violence at every corner of the country – Buffalo, Orange County, Uvalde, at the store, at school, at church. The words to express the sadness and loss are few, but our Interim Director of Development, April Walker, penned a poignant expression of anguish after what happened in Buffalo, worth a close read. We do not have a call to action for you – there are too many that need to be taken. The guns, the hate, the racism, the unacknowledged history, the isolation, the anger, the normalization of violence, the adherence to a pathological status quo – there is so much to overcome. Right now we remember the beautiful humans lost in New York, in California, babies in Texas. We grieve and we yearn for an awakening that can heal this country and our humanity.

We also acknowledge the simultaneous impact of the ongoing pandemic, which continues to harm communities of color more than others. The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health released a report this month to “document the equity-driven strategies used to respond to the needs of communities most impacted by COVID-19… strategies implemented in service of LA County’s Black/African American residents, one of several racial/ethnic groups who have experienced disproportionate rates of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths throughout the pandemic.” We hope such continued, targeted care continues for people in the communities most impacted by this country’s deeply imbedded inequality.

As we mourn alongside the loved ones who lost John Cheng, killed protecting his community from yet another shooter motivated by irrational beliefs, we lift him up as part of the incredible tradition of Asian and Pacific Islanders who fought, toiled, lived and died to create a place for themselves and countless others in this country and state. This Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we celebrate the incalculable and diverse contributions, wisdom, language, and cultures of AAPI communities in our shared histories and future.

In the first in a pair of blog posts for AAPI Heritage Month, Western Center senior attorney Helen Tran reflects on the legacy and future of Cantonese, her first language, and explores how government policies influence both its preservation and disappearance. In the second post, Helen walks us through a bit of Cantonese history in the U.S. and its impact on landmark civil rights victories. And in exciting 2022 history in the making, Western Center senior attorney Nisha Vyas was recognized by the LA County Bar Association as an AAPI Heritage Month honoree for her advocacy rooted in the belief that everyone should have access to safe and affordable housing of their choice.

Finally, for something lighter for these heavy times, we suggest RISE: A Pop History of Asian America from the Nineties to Now. “RISE is a love letter to and for Asian Americans–a vivid scrapbook of voices, emotions, and memories from an era in which Asian American culture was forged and transformed, and a way to preserve both the headlines and the intimate conversations that have shaped the community into what it is today.”


Western Center Roundup – April 2022

Our opposition to CARE Court, an opportunity to meet our advocates, and Black maternal health resources


Why Western Center Opposes “CARE Court” 

You may have heard about Governor Newsom’s “CARE Court” proposal, billed as a way for the State of California to help people with severe mental health challenges get off the street. Western Center, alongside 40+ organizations, submitted an official opposition letter to the legislative version of the proposal and we are vocal about our many concerns, which are mentioned in The Los Angeles Times (twice), The Sacramento Bee, and this blog post by our Director of Policy Advocacy, Mike Herald. The bill, SB 1338, passed out of its first hearing this week, which means much more debate to come.

With its lack of necessary interventions like guaranteed housing, we believe the framework of the proposal is fundamentally flawed and will lead to the unnecessary institutionalization of people with disabilities and unhoused people, and likely create a chilling effect that will prevent people from seeking services for fear of being institutionalized. Additionally, by involving the court system the proposal will perpetuate institutionalized racism and exacerbate existing disparities in health care delivery since Black, Indigenous and other people of color are significantly more likely to be diagnosed with psychotic disorders than white people. All evidence shows that adequately-resourced, intensive, voluntary outpatient treatment — not court-ordered treatment — is most effective for treating the population CARE Court seeks to serve.

For more information about the CARE Court proposal and others meant to address California’s homelessness crisis, we invite you to join Western Center policy advocate Cynthia Castillo and senior attorney Helen Tran at 12:30 pm PT on Monday, May 16th for our virtual Meet the Advocate event.


Uplifting Black Maternal Health

Black Maternal Health Week (BMHW) was April 11 –17th, but one week is not nearly enough to cover such an important issue. As you may recall, last year Western Center co-sponsored California’s Momnibus bill package to reduce birth disparities that too often prove deadly for Black people in our state. This year marked the 5th anniversary of Black Maternal Health Week, which was founded by the Black Mamas Matter Alliance (BMMA) to increase awareness, activism, and community building around the issue. You can watch the Black Mamas Matter Alliance’s 2022 Black Maternal Health Week national call here.

Kudos to our partners at the National Birth Equity Collaborative (a BMMA founding member) for their rich 2022 BMHW programming!


DICK’S WRITING TIPS: Feedback Is Good For You Only If You Digest It

Richard Rothschild (Dick) has practiced public interest law for over four decades, and he’s picked up quite a bit of knowledge along the way. Here’s a tip Dick shared with attorneys in our network, broadened out for public use. For more of Dick’s Tips, check out parts one and two of his tips for brief writing!

__________________________________________________________________

People may say they really like getting feedback on their writing. The same people may also say they really like the taste of kale.

In fact, what we all actually want to hear is that our work is brilliant, and that not a single word needs to be changed. So good feedback, like kale, can taste bitter… but like kale, it’s good for you (or so they say). At least, it can be good for you if you know how to approach it. There are three steps involved:

Step 1: Arrange the feedback.

Find somebody with a reputation as a good editor. Hopefully, that will be your immediate supervisor, but even if that is not the case you probably know someone who fits that description. Tell that person that you want to improve your writing skills and are looking for honest and detailed feedback.

Make sure that once you receive the feedback, you review and engage with the edits and comments. Alerting your editor that you would like feedback is an implied promise that you will follow up once you receive it.

Step 2: Write a genuine first draft, not a “rough draft.”

Do not slap together some random thoughts and call it a first draft. Make your best arguments as well organized and worded as possible, then spend a lot of time editing the draft yourself before handing it to the editor.

That does not mean the draft has to be great or won’t need lots of editing and comments. But it does mean that it’s the best work you are able to do at the time. Editors usually know the difference and are loathe to spend more time editing than the author has apparently spent drafting.

Even with your genuine first draft, expect a lot of edits. I’ve heard knowledgeable writing professors caution that too many edits on a first draft is psychologically counter-productive. They advise editors to make a few global suggestions, followed by successive drafts in a multi-week process. Unfortunately, in the real world, particularly in legal services offices, drafts rarely arrive more than a couple days ahead of deadline. Conscientious editors often have little choice but to make substantial revisions.

Step 3: Consciously interact with the feedback.

This is the most important step and perhaps the most difficult.

Let’s say your editor is Maria. What do you do when she sends back an edited document whose primary color appears to be red? Take a deep breath, and pick your ego up off the floor. Carefully read through the comments, which are usually self-explanatory, and the edits, which often are not. For each edit, there are three acceptable internal reactions:

  • “I understand the edit and why it’s an improvement.” Think of ways you can apply that knowledge. If, for example, Maria changed a sentence from passive to active voice, look for other sentences in the brief that need the same change.
  • “I don’t understand the edit and will ask Maria about it.”
  • “I understand the edit, but don’t agree with it and will present my case.” Perhaps knowing the substantive issues better than your editor, you might be right. As an editor, I like it when that happens, and will freely admit to the author that I was wrong. It shows that the author is thinking strategically. (Excessive smirking and end zone dances are discouraged, however).

The key is engaging with the feedback and working to improve, not just for the current piece of writing, but for future work as well. This process, and maybe some kale, will make you stronger. Your editors, and more importantly, your readers, will appreciate that.

Western Center Roundup – March 2022

“It is not enough to teach our young people to be successful…so they can realize their ambitions, so they can earn good livings, so they can accumulate the material things that this society bestows. Those are worthwhile goals. But it is not enough to progress as individuals while our friends and neighbors are left behind.” -Cesar Chavez


Look California in the eye with Western Center’s 2021 Annual Report 

As we celebrate Cesar Chavez today, and as we wrap up Women’s History Month, we recognize and uplift the trailblazers who laid the groundwork for history being made today – like the impending confirmation of this country’s first Black woman Supreme Court Justice, Ketanji Brown Jackson, and by the Dolores Huerta Foundation and its Executive Director Camila Chavez, a 2022 recipient of the James Irvine Foundation Leadership Award for their work “strengthening underrepresented communities by training and inspiring the next generation of leaders.” Judge Jackson stands on the shoulders of many, like Jane Bolin, Constance Baker Motley, and Julia Cooper Mack, all of whom helped set this stage for her to take, as well as community members who provide constant, often quiet support, like those mentioned at her confirmation hearings. Camila Chavez, daughter of civil rights leader Dolores Huerta with whom she co-founded the Dolores Huerta Foundation, and niece of Cesar Chavez, continues to build on their legacies of fierce community activism and leadership in California.

We are grateful for the people – the many women – who form the supportive backbone of our communities: workers, caregivers, and everyone whose labor is regularly undervalued but fundamentally essential. Until we bring parity to our value systems, inequity, discrimination, and poverty will continue to threaten our shared futures. In spite of the two-year health and economic crisis caused by the pandemic, California has the world’s 5th largest economy, 189 billionaires, and a steadily increasing state budget surplus. A lot of “success.” But as Chavez pointed out, it is not enough. In the midst of its success, California has not addressed the unsustainable and ever-rising cost to live here, and more people are going unhoused.

Our 2021 Annual Report highlights Western Center’s work throughout 2021, and presents portraits from photographer Gale Filter, captured through his relationships with unhoused communities in Sacramento – specifically via the organizations ShowUp Sac and Mercy Pedalers. We hope that by viewing this report, you will look at our collective responsibility to make things better for our neighbors most impacted by poverty and other systems of injustice.

Western Center’s efforts to protect people from eviction, increase pay for low wage workers, expand access to health care, and get more money into people’s pockets is in service of one quest – economic dignity for all and its direct correlation, racial justice. We will not stop until we get there. Please join the fight by getting to know and supporting our work, seeking service opportunities in your own community, and getting to know all of your neighbors.


World Day of Social Justice Requires Reflection from California

February 20th is World Day of Social Justice — observed by the United Nations and people around the world. Since 2009, the UN has encouraged World Day of Social Justice as an opportunity to focus on social justice, draw attention to injustice, and inspire cooperative movements for change.

On this worldwide day of reflection and action, I wonder — how can California, a state with so much wealth, also have so many people experiencing poverty?

For many, California represents endless good weather, boundless natural beauty, and limitless opportunity unmatched by other places on Earth. But peek behind the golden curtain, and you’ll find poverty, homelessness, and other injustices that belie the golden image of the golden state. In a state with so much, it is unconscionable that there are so many Californians unable to share in that wealth.

For me, How?, Why?, and What The @!#$? come to mind.

I am proud that I joined Western Center last summer to be a part of the team that asks not only the questions above, but also works every day to answer them. Since Western Center’s founding in 1967, we’ve worked to ensure access for all Californians to justice, housing, healthcare, and financial and community stability. Our multi-pronged approach to systems change allows us to positively impact the lives of individuals while also creating change that ripples across the state.

Western Center’s litigation team trains and supports legal aid communities to help enforce laws where bad actors would ignore or take advantage. Our advocacy team advances legislation in Sacramento to build a better future for all Californians and stymie efforts that further entrench injustice and exploitation. We don’t do this work alone — we know that robust community partnership and coalitions of support are required to make the change we seek.

I invite you to join us.

You might think the most obvious thing I’m going to ask you for is a donation. And while yes, your financial support of our work is greatly appreciated and provides funding to power our mission, there are other ways I’d love for you to consider joining us as well.

Use your voice. It isn’t just lawyers or policy advocates’ voices that matter – yours does too! I encourage you to contact your elected officials in Sacramento, your county, and your local town to let them know what issues are important to you and what change you’d like to see. Make sure you’re registered to vote and vote every chance you get. Your voice matters.

If you’re not sure who your elected representatives are or how to contact them, you can find that information here. If you are not yet registered to vote, you can do that here.

World Day of Social Justice is a great opportunity to raise a hand and join the community of people and organizations fighting for change. As a donor, as a volunteer, as a social media follower – no matter how you engage, there is a space for you.

Today is a great day to reflect on how social justice resonates with you and to seek out organizations and actions that most speak to you. In addition to Western Center, I have a few suggestions for outstanding organizations you might also engage with:

If you’re reading this blog post, it likely means you are a supporter of Western Center and the work that we do. Thank you, today and every day, for fighting alongside us for social justice.

Western Center Roundup – January 2022

Welcome to Western Center’s first newsletter of 2022! The new year also brings a fresh look for our monthly newsletter. Welcome to the roundup!


From North to South, Two Suits Settled 

Two lawsuits settled since our last newsletter: Warren v. City of Chico and Banda v. County of San Bernardino. 
Legal Services of Northern California and Western Center brought the case in Warren v. City of Chico last year to challenge ordinances criminalizing homelessness in Chico. Now under the settlement, the city must build individual pallet shelters for people experiencing homelessness, and is prohibited from issuing citations and arrests for people who live outside when shelter is unavailable. Read more about the case and settlement here.

In December, Western Center, Inland Counties Legal Services, and Public Interest Law Project settled our case against the County of San Bernardino, resulting in several changes to the county’s General Relief program to help more people in extreme poverty access vital financial assistance. General Relief is the program administered by California counties that provides cash assistance to adults who don’t have enough resources or income to meet their basic needs. Our case prompted the county to make substantial changes to its General Relief process, making General Relief easier to access and maintain moving forward. The biggest change is the dollar increase in assistance. Read more about the case and settlement here.


Let the Budget Process Begin

Governor Newsom released his 2022-23 California budget proposal in mid-January – revealing yet another dramatic surplus for the State of California due to rapidly increasing wealth among the state’s top earners. Western Center’s analysis of the governor’s budget proposal outlines its potential impact on Californians — from the positive, like the proposal to expand Medi-Cal eligibility to those currently excluded due to immigration status, to challenges, like the need for more state-funded rental assistance than was included in the governor’s proposal. Read our analysis here.

Despite the large surplus and number of proposed initiatives, the proposal shows reluctance to invest in the state’s ongoing needs. Leading up to the budget’s May Revision, Western Center will advocate for the legislature to review the governor’s proposal with more of an eye toward meeting the short- and long-term needs of all Californians. To learn more about Western Center’s 2022-23 budget priorities and advocacy, you can view the recording of this month’s Meet the Advocate conversation with our Director of Policy Advocacy, Mike Herald.


February Reads    

If you’re looking for an informative read or three heading into February, our blog has you covered!

  • Western Center’s Executive Director Crystal D. Crawford and Manal J. Aboelata, Deputy Executive Director at Prevention Institute and author of a new book, Healing Neighborhoods, reflect on the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and what it could mean for ensuring all Americans the right to live in a healthy neighborhood. Read here.
  • Abraham Zavala, Western Center’s Outreach and Advocacy Associate, wrote an eye-opening post about the struggles facing long-term tenants at City Center Motel in Long Beach, and how the untimely death of one tenant spurred others to mobilize and organize. Read here.
  • Western Center’s senior policy advocate Jen Flory and senior attorney Helen Tran co-wrote a post outlining new patient protections for hospital billing available this year. Read here.

JOHN CRAIGIE KICKS OFF #KEEPITWARM2021 TOUR

“In the tradition of past KeepItWarm tours, Craigie has partnered with nonprofits for these shows to help the communities he plays for, with $1 from each ticket sold going to a regional charity. Organizations include Western Center on Law & Poverty (November California Shows) Northwest Harvest (December Pacific Northwest Shows) and Hunger Free Colorado (December Colorado Shows).”

Read More

 

Meet Western Center’s Newest Staff & Fellow!

We are thrilled to welcome Lorraine López, Kathryn Evans, and Abraham Zavala to Western Center’s staff! We are also excited to have Liv Williams on board with us for the next year as the Social Impact Pro Bono Fellow from the law firm of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP.


Lorraine López, Western Center’s newest Senior Attorney, is based in Los Angeles and works on housing and tenants’ rights. Lorraine is a Chicago native and has worked on tenants’ rights issues since 2005. Lorraine was formerly a Supervising Staff Attorney for the Homelessness Prevention Law Project at Public Counsel. Prior to joining Public Counsel, Lorraine was a Supervising Attorney for the Coordinated Attorney Team at Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County (“NLSLA”), where she led a team of 10+ attorneys practicing a wide range of poverty law areas including housing, consumer rights, public benefits, homelessness prevention, re-entry and family law. Lorraine was previously a Supervising Attorney at Inner City Law Center (“ICLC”) with their Homelessness Prevention Project.

Lorraine began her legal career in 2005 as an Equal Justice Works fellow at the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago (now LAF) where she provided legal representation, community legal education, and outreach programs for participants in the Housing Choice Voucher Program. In 2007, she moved to Los Angeles to work for Eviction Defense Network (EDN).


Kathryn Evans is Western Center’s new Associate Director of Individual Giving, based in Los Angeles. Kathryn supports a dynamic donor engagement program that allows individuals to invest in and advance the mission of Western Center. Prior to joining Western Center in 2021, she was a Senior Community Relationship Manager at the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, Development and Museum Manager at the Santa Monica History Museum, and held various fundraising roles at Planned Parenthood Los Angeles.

Kathryn holds a Bachelor of Arts in History from San Jose State University and a Master of Public Policy from the University of Southern California.

 


Abraham Zavala is Western Center’s first Outreach and Advocacy Associate, also based in Los Angeles. Abraham supports Western Center’s advocacy and community outreach initiatives, with an emphasis on anti-hunger and food justice work.

Abraham was born and raised in East Los Angeles, and grew up in an immigrant family where community activism was centered. He received his BA in History from UC Berkeley in 2010, and subsequently worked as a U.S. History teacher in South Central Los Angeles. In 2016, after gaining labor organizing experience with fast food workers fighting for a minimum wage, he joined organizing efforts for a policy campaign with street vendors in the City of Los Angeles to legalize street vending. Most recently, he mobilized tenants who were being evicted and helped the community pass several housing policies in Long Beach.


Liv Williams is the Social Impact Pro Bono Fellow from the law firm of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, and will be working with us here at Western Center for the next year. Liv graduated from Berkeley Law this year, where she participated in the Policy Advocacy Clinic, working on legislative efforts to eliminate criminal fees. In law school she was also a Student Director for the Workers’ Rights Clinic and a Supervising Editor of the California Law Review.

Prior to law school, Liv completed a year of AmeriCorps and worked for the government in Washington, D.C., and received her undergraduate degree at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

DICK’S WRITING TIPS: Brief Writing with Western Center’s Director of Litigation – Part 2

Welcome to part two of Richard Rothschild’s tips for effective brief writing, a follow-up to last week’s part one. Dick has practiced public interest law for over four decades, and he’s picked up quite a bit of knowledge along the way. These are tips Dick shared with attorneys in our network, now available for public consumption.

 

1. Don’t start off on the wrong footnote: the best and worst uses of footnotes

Footnotes are the bread and butter of law reviews and certain treatises. They are used to provide authority for virtually every sentence in the text; to expand upon points in the text; or just to provide side comments. While all of these may be worthy functions in academia, litigation briefs are different. Footnotes should play a much more limited role; use them judiciously.

Part 1: The Worst Uses of Footnotes —

Putting all the cites in the footnotes: Some brief-writing seminars promote the idea that all citation to authority should be placed in footnotes. This is controversial and should be avoided for two major reasons.

First, it’s not good advocacy. It makes the writer the show, when the show should be the law. The goal of your brief is not to have the judge conclude, “wow, that was a well-written brief!” Rather, you want the judge to think, “yes, counsel did a good job, but of course the facts and the law were totally on their side.” For that to happen, the authority should be in the text. In addition, if the reader pauses to read the footnote, that interrupts the flow of the text.

Second and perhaps more important, courts simply don’t like all the authorities in the footnotes rather than the text. One or two courts have rules prohibiting it, and both appellate justices and senior research attorneys I have heard unanimously condemn it.

Making arguments in footnotes: We have all done this, myself included. It’s particularly tempting when you don’t know where an argument fits into the organization of your brief. But that’s all the more reason to re-evaluate your organization, or to re-evaluate your argument. If the point is important, it should be in the text. If not, it shouldn’t be in the brief at all. Otherwise, you are sending mixed signals. As one appellate court cited in the Rutter Group’s practice book stated, “We are not fond of footnote arguments, as they make us unsure whether the appellant is attempting to raise a ground on appeal or is merely making a passing comment.”

“Educating” judges with information they don’t need: When you know a lot about a subject, it’s tempting to share that information with an audience, especially a captive one, and you might think that footnotes are a good way to do that. Think again. The goal of the brief is to persuade the court, not provide the judge with a free webinar. Ask yourself if the information is necessary for the judge to understand and decide the legal issue. If it is, the information belongs in the text. If the answer is no, delete.

Digressions: Avoid any footnotes that begin with “By the way,” or could easily begin with “By the way.”  Stay focused.

Part 2: The Best Uses of Footnotes –

When necessary to preserve the flow of the text: The brief writing seminars are correct that throwing lots of lengthy cites to authority in the text, especially in the middle of a paragraph, can interrupt the flow of the argument. Sometimes a footnote can help with that problem, as, for example, when you paraphrase a statute and provide the text in a footnote. Footnotes can also help with unusually lengthy citations, such as some internet sites.

When an early footnote saves later space: In a related vein, a footnote placed early in a brief can save space in the later text and make the text easier to read. If, for example, the brief concerns CalWORKs or Medi-Cal, the first time you cite to a statute you can drop a footnote saying, “Unless otherwise stated, all statutory citations will be to the Welfare & Institutions Code.” Then further citations to that code can be signified just by “Section” or “§” followed by the relevant number of the code provision.

Collateral Points: The CEB practice book acknowledges that footnotes can be used to “mention a collateral point.” For example, if you are raising a point on appeal that wasn’t made in the trial court, you might acknowledge that in a footnote and explain why it’s permissible to do so under the circumstances. But arguably, even then you might want to make the point in the text or save it for potential rebuttal in a closing brief. In any case, I agree with everybody who has written on the subject that the use of argumentative footnotes should be very limited. So while it’s unnecessary and maybe not even desirable to eliminate all footnotes from your briefs, use them sparingly and wisely.

2. Addition by subtraction: Improve your advocacy by avoiding these ten words and phrases

What you omit can often improve your advocacy as much or more than what you add. Helpful omissions can range from entire arguments to just a word or phrase.

Here are ten such words and phrases:

1. “including but not limited to…”
Think about it.  Why the “but”?  Is there some universe in which “including” means “limited to”?

2. My oral argument favorite: “With all due respect, judge . . .” 
It doesn’t matter what comes next; when I hear those words in a courtroom, I immediately begin looking for a table to duck under. The judge knows what the attorney really means is, “your power to hold me in contempt prevents me from saying out loud what I really think of you.” And the judge suspects that whatever the attorney next says will be anything but respectful. It’s part of the job description to disagree with a judge at times. You should do so politely and yes, with a respectful tone, but without the “with all due respect” nonsense.

3. “As [opposing party/counsel] well knows . . .”
Three problems with that: (1) you don’t usually know what your opponent knows; (2) it is almost always irrelevant; and (3) it’s likely to irritate the judge as uncivil. Just state your factual or legal proposition without speculating on what your opponent knows. This advice applies equally to communications with opposing counsel (i.e., “as you well know”), especially in settlement negotiations. You want to convey the strength of your position, but without potentially scuttling the negotiations by making matters personal.

4. Using “said” as an adjective, as in, “defendants misconstrue said statute.” 
To be sure, “said” is a perfectly good verb. Indeed, the late Robert B. Parker, in his Spenser novels, never used any other verb to describe dialogue. But as an adjective, “said,” along with its cousin “aforesaid,” is pretentious legalese. Stick with “defendants misconstrue the statute” or “that statute.”

5. [when representing the plaintiff] “Plaintiff contends…”
That suggests: “this is what my client believes; personally, I’m not too sure about it.” Don’t distance yourself from your client; just make the argument.

6. [when in California state court] – “California Civil Code section 1942.5 provides …”
Regardless of what is suggested by the Bluebook, which is written for a national, academic audience, you don’t need to tell a California state judge we’re talking about the California Civil Code, not Mississippi’s. (Unless, of course, you are talking about Mississippi). Same goes for “California Legislature.” Just plain “the Legislature” will do.

7. “Clearly” is the most over-used word in legal writing. 
At best, it means that the author thinks the argument that follows is right, which is not very persuasive. And at worst, especially if used repeatedly, “clearly” will be construed as quite the opposite: i.e., the author doesn’t have the facts or the law, but thinks that shouting at the judge will carry the day. It won’t.

8. “Plaintiffs, through their attorney of record, hereby submit their opposition to the motion…” 
Leave aside for a moment whether the first thing you want the judge to see is what is already apparent in the title of the brief. If you are signing the brief as “Attorney forPlaintiffs,” you don’t need the italicized information. Same with “the parties, through their respective attorneys of record, stipulate . . .” Admittedly, in a stipulation this is fairly harmless. But still, if you omitted that phrase, do you think the reader would conclude that the parties are stipulating through their respective baristas?

9. “[Opponent’s] self-serving declaration…”
Describing a declaration or statement as “self-serving” is unnecessary, unless you think that ordinarily people deliberately make statements that are self-destructive.

10. [when opposing a discovery request]: “this is nothing more than a fishing expedition.”
Of course it’s a fishing expedition; if they already had the information, they wouldn’t be looking, i.e., fishing for it. And if you need to use an insulting metaphor, try something that wasn’t rejected by the Supreme Court 60 years ago. Greyhound Corp. v. Superior Ct., 56 Cal. 2d 355, 384 (1961) (“there is nothing improper about a fishing expedition, per se.”).

While I stand by my position on all ten of these examples, I don’t claim these are necessarily the most important offenders. They are just ten personal favorites, and if you want to call them “pet peeves” I won’t be offended.

DICK’S WRITING TIPS: Brief Writing with Western Center’s Director of Litigation – Part 1

Richard Rothschild (aka Dick) has practiced public interest law for over four decades, and he’s picked up quite a bit of knowledge along the way. Here are some tips Dick shared with attorneys in our network, now available for public consumption. This week is part one, check back next week for part two!

 

1. Write a Compelling Brief Introduction

What are the goals of an introduction and why should we care? Starting with the second question, think about the many news articles, blogs, posts, etc. that appear on your screen every day. If you are like most people, you read the ones that capture your attention and promise to tell you something you don’t know or that will at least entertain you. If the first few sentences don’t accomplish that, you move on.

Judges presumably are no different. While they are supposed to read everything we submit, the opening paragraph can dictate their state of mind as they go through the rest of the brief. First impressions matter.

A good introduction should accomplish two main goals: 
(1) make the court want to rule in your favor, and

(2) make the judge think that the law and facts require that result.

So how do you begin to convince a judge to rule in your favor and conclude that there is little choice but to do so?

Here are three tips for drafting better introductions:

  • Don’t start the introduction until you have written the rest of the brief. At that point, you will have a better idea of what facts and law are most important, and the first thing you want the judge to read.
  • Try beginning with a few sentences that (1) describe the plight of your client as relevant to the main legal issue; (2) something bad that the opposing party has done; or (3) both. Do so by stating facts, propositions of law, or both that (a) advance your argument and (b) cannot reasonably be disputed.
  • Then carefully edit to keep the paragraph as short as possible. The more unnecessary words you omit, the more powerful your message can be.

Here is an example: 
Angie Christensen’s family was denied public assistance because the Department of
Social Services counted the family as having money it never will receive: her husband’s
wages and unemployment garnished to pay child support owed to another family. The
result for the Christensens and similar families throughout California thwarts the
legislative purpose behind both CalWORKs and child support: to secure adequate
financial support to all California children.

That opening paragraph, while far from perfect, describes in two sentences the plight of a sympathetic client and something bad the opposing party did, using indisputable facts and law. While more would need to be written in both the introduction and body of the brief to win the appeal, at least the reader is left with the impression that “what was done to the Christensens seems like an injustice and legal error.”

If you can give your judge that impression, you are well on your way to winning for your client.

 

2. Avoid Overuse of Acronyms and Parentheticals

When I first started writing briefs and began using lots of acronyms and “hereinafter” parentheticals to explain every possible later reference to an entity, I felt like I was becoming a real lawyer. Years later, when I had drastically reduced the use of those devices, I realized I was becoming a better lawyer.

Overuse of acronyms and parentheticals is the enemy of persuasive writing. A good brief makes the reader want to keep on reading. But when, for example, in a brief on a health law issue I see ESPDT, TAR, HCBS, CFCO, and SPA in the same paragraph, I suddenly remember that long delayed need to reorganize my sock drawer. And if I see an unfamiliar acronym on page 14 of a brief, I have to stop and either flip pages back or do a word search to find the acronym’s origin on page 2, thereby interrupting whatever flow the brief may have had.

Make your reader feel smart vs. alphabet soup
One of the reasons some attorneys use acronyms—either consciously or unconsciously—is to demonstrate their superior knowledge of a subject; the author is a member of a select club of experts from which others are excluded. But that is precisely a reason to avoid overuse. Good writing makes the reader feel smart, while acronyms do the opposite, engendering readers’ resentment.

RIP hereinafter parenthetical
First cousin to the acronym is what I call the “hereinafter” parenthetical. Many attorneys believe that if you plan to use a shortened name of an entity in a brief, the first time you identify that entity you must always write (hereinafter “[shortened version]”). But leaving aside for the moment that you don’t need to say “hereinafter” or use quotation marks, how often do you really need the parenthetical at all?

Consider the following opening sentences in a brief: “The County of San Diego denies necessary health care to uninsured indigent residents whose monthly incomes are $1,079 or more. The County requires residents with annual income of $13,000 to pay for their own care.” Beginning the brief instead with “The County of San Diego (hereinafter “the County”) . . .” would slow the reader down for no good reason. The reader will know that “the County” means San Diego County without the author saying so.

This does not mean that all acronyms and parentheticals are bad. Some acronyms are so familiar that there is no need for the longer version of their referent. Thus, a public benefits brief can and should say “CalWORKs” without explaining that it’s short for California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids.

The problem is not the use of acronyms and parentheticals; it’s overuse. Western Center’s Style Manual advises attorneys to limit their briefs to three acronyms, and to be similarly skimpy with parentheticals.

Questions you should ask yourself and some tips for answering them:
The best way to do that, as with any persuasive writing, is to put yourself in the place of the reader.  How much will the use or non-use of an acronym or parenthetical slow down the reader?  Is the acronym or parenthetical necessary for the reader’s understanding? Here are some concrete ways to answer those questions:

  • If you are only going to refer to the entity one more time in your brief, you don’t need an acronym, and you especially don’t need it for a single reference;
  • If the second citation to the entity will not take place for many pages, don’t use an acronym, as the reader will not remember it;
  • If the second reference to an entity very quickly follows the initial identification, you may not need a parenthetical. Thus, if your first sentence in a paragraph identifies the United States Department of Agriculture, you do not need a parenthetical before writing USDA in the second sentence;
  • Where possible, refer to entities with whole words. If you first identify the Association of Amalgamated Widget Servicers, sometimes the second reference can be to the Association rather than AAWS. This particularly works better for possessives (e.g., the Association’s rather than AAWS’s).  But sometimes a familiar acronym works best, as in USDA above;
  • Sometimes you will need a parenthetical, but you never need to introduce it with “hereinafter,” which you can safely eliminate from your vocabulary altogether. And while many attorneys still use quotation marks (e.g., Orange County (“the County”), in my opinion they slow down the reader for no corresponding benefit. Orange County (the County) works better.

The impact of some acronyms
Finally, consider that the use of certain acronyms may have a psychological effect. For example, many people who advocate for and represent survivors of domestic violence use the acronym DV. Whatever the value of that acronym for internal use, it should never be used in a persuasive document such as a brief. The phrase “DV” seems innocuous, while “domestic violence” conveys at least some of the horror of what it reports. Similarly, a brief on behalf of a sympathetic group such as Seniors and Persons with Disabilities should not shorten that group to SPD.

But psychology can work in favor of some acronyms. If you are suing the Department of Motor Vehicles or the Internal Revenue Service, why would you ever refer to those opponents as anything other than DMV and IRS? Conversely, should you ever find yourself working for the federal government in a tax case, consider referring to your client as “the Service” if you can do so with a straight face.

Making conscious choices
Reasonable readers may disagree with some of the choices suggested in this Tip. If so, that’s a good thing. Persuasive writing is all about making conscious choices. The more we intentionally ask ourselves whether use of an acronym or parenthetical is necessary for the reader’s understanding or instead will slow down or antagonize that reader, the better we can represent our clients.