At Cockle Legal Briefs, we work with quite a few non-lawyers who are looking for tips to help them when writing a legal brief. Occasionally our conversations with our pro se customers move beyond the necessary formatting and content requirements for a Supreme Court brief, and into more basic questions of legal writing. Over time, we have come up with some general legal writing tips. I have previously posted tips, here, here, here, here, and here, and today I offer another post to help the non-lawyer writing a legal brief.
Levin v. U.S.: A Pro Se Petition Filed On The Paid Docket
Steven Alan Levin was a civilian patient at a U.S. Navy hospital. Following eye surgery that resulted in severe injury, Levin brought suit against the surgeon and the United States government. The trial court dismissed the suit, citing established legal precedent holding that the types of claims Levin asserted are barred by federal law. Levin appealed, arguing that the precedent was wrong, and further noting that a plain reading of the relevant federal statutes would allow his suit.
The circuit court upheld the trial court’s dismissal. Levin could not afford an attorney to pursue his appeal in the U.S. Supreme Court, but he wanted to file a booklet-style petition, perhaps noting the much higher success rate for petitions on the paid docket.
His gamble paid off. On September 25, 2012, the United States Supreme Court granted his petition.
Levin v. U.S.: Writing A Legal Brief That Wins
You can find a link to Levin’s petition here. In it, you can see several elements that helped elevate Levin’s petition to the granting of the writ.
First, he sets out a great pair of Questions Presented. He briefly describes the interplay between the two statutes at issue, then presents two concise, effective questions for the Court to consider. And, he gets this all down to a single page. The QP is constrained and not rambling, focused on the law, and not his outrage.
Levin’s Statement of the Case is also quite good. Not lawyerly, but effective. I note his first sentence, “The Veteran’s Administration is my health care provider.” Short, direct, and immediate. Offered in a first person active voice, this sentence effectively sets the stage for the story he will tell. But it also does something else very special: in just eight words he conveys several messages, each with a compelling underlying emotional element. He is likely a veteran, or the dependant of a veteran. The issues here relate to his health, a matter of significant importance both to the individual, and to society. He is probably tied to this relationship, and he does not have the option to select another provider that would be more accountable for its errors. And perhaps most importantly, in this first sentence of the brief, where he finally gets to describe his adversary, he writes without the seething anger of a person who has every reason to detest the VA. With the tone of this first sentence, he has already begun to establish a basis of trust for his reader, like saying, “I don’t want you to feel my rage, I want you to make a fair examination of the law.”
Levin follows this direct, simple style throughout the brief. He doesn’t attempt to cobble together long passages of legalese. Levin integrates direct quotes from persuasive authority in a way that is clear and concise, and not intrusive. His strength is his thorough understanding of the law and facts of his case, and his brief stays focused on that.
One of the most difficult technical challenges of writing a legal brief is inserting citations in a form that does not distract the reader. He handles that problem by simply dropping a footnote for each citation, a style that is not very common today, but perfectly acceptable, and very professional.
Finally, Levin’s petition is not overly long. He probably only used about one third of his available word count limit. Clearly, he recognizes that writing a legal brief is more than just spraying down the Justices with every thought or notion that has come up during the course of litigation.
In the end, Levin didn’t just get his petition granted. He won in a unanimous opinion.
You can find more great legal writing tips for writing a legal brief in our white paper, “How to Write a Winning Appellate Brief.”