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Writing for the Online Reader

As more courts are requiring or permitting electronic filing (see Cal Rules of Ct 8.212(c)(2)), briefs will be increasingly read online. The ABA Journal reports that even Supreme Court Justices Kagan and Scalia are using electronic readers to read briefs on the go. Because reading documents online differs in some significant ways from reading hard copies, you need to draft your briefs with these differences in mind.

As reported in the Texas Lawyer, brief writers who expect the judge or law clerk to read his or her brief on a computer should tailor the look and style to such “screen readers” by, for example

  • Using descriptive headings,
  • Placing the most important content in the first sentences of paragraphs,
  • Using bullet points and lists,
  • Simplifying sentence structure,
  • Tightening language,
  • Shortening paragraphs, and
  • Using visual aids.

The article explains that online readers

jump around, skimming and seizing on bits of text…in an F-shaped pattern, looking down the left side for structural cues and then focusing on headings and first sentences of paragraphs.  

This means that you shouldn’t place important text on the bottom right of the screen.

Some disagree with the claim that judges and clerks will read briefs online without printing hard copies to read the more challenging material. In any event, it is still prudent for practitioners to think about the various techniques that make websites more user-friendly and adapt them to your brief writing because it’s clear that more and more will be read from a screen.

For tips on drafting an effective appellate brief, go to CEB’s California Civil Appellate Practice. Also check out our related blog post on Statutes and Rules Amended to Emphasize Electronic Filing and Service.

© The Regents of the University of California, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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