How to Write a Legal Brief

By Teo Spengler
A woman, a man, legal briefs

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Don't be fooled by the term "brief." Legal briefs are often lengthy and complex, and generally take significant time to prepare. To write an effective legal brief, it is necessary to understand the function of these documents as well as the variations in procedural requirements.

Legal Briefs Are Arguments

Legal briefs are written arguments that set out the relevant laws on an issue and describe how they should be applied to the facts of a particular case. A legal brief is generally prepared for submission to a particular court in a particular case, with the goal of convincing the judge to rule in a particular way on certain issues. Given this, only someone comfortable with legal research and familiar with the facts of the legal matter should undertake the task of writing a brief.

Formats Vary Widely

The term "legal brief" is used loosely to mean any type of written statement that presents law, fact and argument, so the format for a legal brief varies considerably not just among different courts, but also within one jurisdiction. A state’s Code of Civil Procedure or Code of Criminal Procedure, as well as local court rules, dictate the format. For example, there are very specific format requirements for a brief that supports a motion for summary judgment in a trial court that vary considerably from the requirements for an appellate brief before the state supreme court.

Organizing the Argument

Before an attorney begins drafting a legal brief, she identifies the exact legal points at issue. To that end, she reviews all the documents filed in the case that relate to these issues, researches the law and determines what types of evidence she will need to support her argument. Once this preparation is done, she organizes the argument to lead the judge, in logical and well-supported steps, from one point to the next, until the desired conclusion appears inevitable. Well-written legal briefs include only information essential to the argument; a critical point can be lost if hidden in verbal bloat.

Reply Briefing

If you filed a legal motion with an accompanying legal brief, often termed a memorandum in support, and the other party filed opposing documents, you often will have a chance to file a reply brief in which you respond to the arguments raised in the other party's brief. It is important to read and understand the position of the opposition before sitting down to write a reply brief, since the intention of this brief is to show the judge the errors in reasoning. Good reply briefs focus on each point raised by the opposition rather than simply restating opening arguments.

About the Author

Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.

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