March 27, 2016

Writing An Appellate Brief in Law School

For my LRW class this semester, we had to write an appellate brief over the same topic as our memos from last semester. What was nice about that was that I had already done some research and had a good start. But that doesn't mean that this assignment was necessarily easier. It was basically the only thing we did in LRW this semester and the week before it was due, a LOT of people started skipping class to work on it.

Related: How to write a law school memo

The Brief

This brief was hypothetically for a case that had gone to the District Court, been appealed to the Appellate Court, and had certiorari granted by the US Supreme Court. We had to read a hypothetical 38 page court record for this case and summarize it, find between 14-18 relevant cases to cite, and then write our best arguments. My arguments in all ended up being around 10 pages long.

Most of what we went over in class was the best way to make the summary of the record be in our favor. This included little things like downplaying facts that didn't help our client and reiterating the ones that did. My professor also taught us about keeping our client in the reader's mind by consistently using his name while always referring to the other party simply as Petitioner to depersonalize him. 

My professor had our briefs be their strongest by having us organize them in a way that supported our client while systematically destroying our opponent. My layout was paragraph about a case that I wanted to use followed by another paragraph of legal analysis of applying the law from that case to my client's case. I arranged my arguments to put my strongest argument first, then told my cases so that each argument related on the last, then I addressed my opponent's strongest cases, and finally summarized what all of the cases together meant for my client. 


This assignment was 100% of my grade and all that I did for LRW this semester, so it was a big project. It was very research heavy and I ended up getting a folder to put everything in. Being able to flip through and highlight in the record was pretty convenient and then I was able to use the pockets in the front and back to keep up with all of the rough drafts that my professor gave me and any cases that I printed out. 

Legal research is a painstaking process. I spent over 6 hours one Sunday on Lexis just reading case after case trying to get really good rules of law that I could use in my case. This is because once you find a case that has a really good rule, you can either follow the cases cited within this case as a lead or Shepardize your case and check the cases that cite this case to see if they've got anything good. You basically end up going in circles and it can be hard to keep track of which cases cite which and the order of when they cases were decided and also which courts were deciding these cases. 

What's nice about Lexis is that when you find a great line in a case, you can highlight it and save the case in a folder. I had a folder for cases that supported my client and cases that my opponent might use. Since you can add notes about your highlights, I could click on my client's folder and see all of the cases that I wanted to use for him with little summaries about what I had highlighted. Also, when you highlight something it will give you the citation for that quote. Write that down and now you don't have to worry about figuring out what page of the case your own or any other annoying things that you have to put in your citation!

Not only are you doing this wild goose chase just trying to find cases that support your argument, but you also have to think of what your opponent's best arguments are. You have to find a few of the cases that you know they are going to use and either figure out a way to make them distinct from your case or see if maybe a rule from their case could actually support your argument. I only spent maybe an hour or two on this, but reading all of these cases is still pretty burdensome.

Related: Legal research and writing tips


As for writing the brief itself, that wasn't too bad because I made myself an outline first and just wrote according to my outline. The easiest thing to do is come up with sub-arguments and use these as a theme when you're writing and keep reiterating this theme throughout your arguments to really make them seem strong. So my outline was:
  • Argument for Court's 1st Question
    • Argument I
      • Sub-argument A
      • Sub-argument B
      • Sub-argument C
    • Argument II
      • A
      • B
      • C
  • Argument for 2nd Question
    • Argument I
      • A
      • B
      • C
    • Argument II
      • A
      • B
      • C
  • Conclusion
    • Summary of 1st argument 
    • Summary of 2nd argument

I also printed a numbered list of all of the cases that I wanted to use before and labeled each one for the arguments that I wanted to use it for so that I didn't forget to use a case. I put each case number in my outline so that before I started writing I knew when each case was going to be brought up and in which paragraphs for which arguments. My case list looked like this:
  1. Case name
    • argument and sub-argument when I wanted to use it (ex. II B)
    • rule from the case that I wanted to apply
    • what level the court was (district, appellate, Supreme Court)
This made writing the brief really easy because I didn't have to pull up the actual case to talk about it; instead I could just look at my case list and know exactly what I wanted to say about each case. This also turned out to be really helpful when I had to make my Table of Authorities. 

Final Thoughts

The hardest part was just the amount of time it took to prepare to even begin writing. I think the students who skipped class to work on this kinda got their priorities mixed up because law school classes are not the kind where you can skip and be okay. I still haven't gotten my paper back yet, but I'm now done with LRW so that's one last class I have to stress about :) I've heard that a good number of students are using their briefs as writing samples to try to get on different law journals, so it's definitely worth it to try to write one really killer paper. Overall, this brief was a bitch and now I see why lawyers are willing to pay paralegals to do most of this grunt work but it wasn't the worst thing that I've had to do! 


  1. Wow. I'm about to start my first appellate brief. This is really helpful. Thanks!

    1. I hope it helps! Good luck on your brief! Unfortunately they can be one of the hardest and most time consuming things you do in law school 😕

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