I am a big fan of SPOGG, mostly because I teach legal research and writing courses to paralegal students on Wednesday nights, but also because I’m a little bit of a grammar nerd. If you are the red-pen-wielding type, you will be a fan of SPOGG, too.
Each quarter that I teach, I (vainly) try to impress upon my students the importance of understanding and following the rules of grammar in their legal writing by illustrating the consequences of not doing so. Generally, this lecture is received by a fair amount of whining, eye-rolling and an I-already-know-this exasperation. The complaining is then followed by papers plagued with sentence fragments and comma splices, a failure of subject-verb agreement, an obvious attempt to spell-check followed by an equally obvious failure to proofread, and a sometimes hilarious attempt to “over-write” that ends in the misuse of words the student cannot possibly have consulted a dictionary for definition before using.
So, I decided I needed some back-up. If my students did not believe me, perhaps they would believe the learned justices in the appellate courts who had taken an attorney or two to task for sloppy brief writing.
In my quest for assistance, I have collected some terrific appellate opinions that illustrate the point. My favorite of these opinions is a district court’s order on summary judgment found in Bradshaw v. Unity Marine Corp., Inc. (S.D. Tex. 2001) 147 F.Supp.2d 668.
In the midst of addressing the merits of the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, the Court engages in the following evaluation of counsels’ briefing:
Before proceeding further, the Court notes that this case involves two extremely likeable lawyers, who have together delivered some of the most amateurish pleadings ever to cross the hallowed causeway into Galveston, an effort which leads the Court to surmise but one plausible explanation. Both attorneys have obviously entered into a secret pact – complete with hats, handshakes and cryptic words – to draft their pleadings entirely in crayon on the back sides of gravy-stained paper place mats, in the hope that the Court would be so charmed by their child-like efforts that the utter dearth of legal authorities in their briefing would go unnoticed. Whatever actually occurred, the Court is now faced with the daunting task of deciphering their submissions. With Big Chief tablet readied, thick black pencil in hand, and a devil-may-care laugh in the face of death, life on the razor’s edge sense of exhilaration, the Court begins.
The district court’s commentary goes on, but you get the idea. My students seem to understand the significance of the fact that counsels’ names are forever attached to this unflattering opinion, and at least the next papers my students submit tend to reveal a more purposeful effort at proofreading and quality writing.
Sometimes, the consequence is a bit harsher than simply being mocked by the court in writing. I recently stumbled upon a decision out of the Court of Appeals of Wisconsin, Johnson v. Roma II – Waterford, LLC (2009) 2009 WL 929049 (Wis.App.). Johnson memorializes the travails of the hapless Mr. Hudec, who inadvertently filed a “draft” answer to a complaint, rather than the final version. Opposing counsel obtained a default judgment against Mr. Hudec’s client, based on the client’s failure to answer certain portions of the complaint, and Mr. Hudec sought to have it set aside. The trial court refused, finding that Mr. Hudec’s “mistake” was not excusable neglect.
Mr. Hudec made matters worse for himself on appeal. His brief was in such shambles, the Court of Appeal direct Mr. Hudec, in footnote 8, to “[t]ips for proofreading  found online at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s “The Writing Center”. See http://writing.wisc.edu/Handbook/Proofreading.html”. The Court of Appeal then reported Mr. Hudec to the Office of Lawyer Regulation.
What are your thoughts about the importance of grammar, proofreading and quality legal writing in general? Feel free to share your stories here. I could use them on Wednesday nights.