I have practiced family law for 15 years, with a major component of my practice devoted to preparing written submissions to judicial officers, as well as mediators, evaluators, and arbitrators. While the substantive content of these pleadings is of course the most important consideration, too many legal professionals pay scant attention to the aesthetics and accuracy of the pleadings they submit.
Tip 1: Consistent, legible formatting.
Many of you work at firms with well-established forms for pleadings. I am not asking you to re-invent the wheel (unless the wheel is broken). But I strongly recommend that all pleadings you submit have the following characteristics:
- 12 point font (and no, you cannot use Comic Sans, I don’t care how hilarious you think it is). Times New Roman, Helvetica, Arial, and even Garamond are all fine, if a bit boring. If you have adventurous lawyers in the office, Matthew Butterick’s Equity Text is excellent (www.typographyforlawyers.com), and what I use for all my pleadings. Note: when emailing to people who don’t have the Equity font installed on their system, I tend to keep everything in Times New Roman until it’s time for finalization, or I send it in PDF form).
- 1.5″ to 2″ margins on the left and right (again, refer to Butterick)
- Footers on the bottom of every page (except page one), including name of case (or court file number), name of pleading (e.g., Affidavit of Respondent), and page number. A horizontal line just above this information is a nice touch.
Tip 2: Deadlines!
I can’t stress this enough: courts have rules, a lot of which have to do with timing, and if pleadings are late you run the risk of them not being accepted at all. At the very least, a late filing subjects the lawyer to a sheepish “beg your pardon,” not exactly the most effective form of advocacy. The moment a hearing date is identified, it is incumbent upon the paralegals to note the date on the calendar, and then working backwards, input the external (date the filings are due) and internal (reviewing, to/from client) deadlines on to the office calendar system. Also, careful of holidays and weekends and ensure you are working from a deadline that is accurate per the rules of the jurisdiction in which the case is venued.
When inputting the internal deadlines, be sure to leave enough time to an actual review/revision process to take place. For example, if I have a set of pleadings due to the court on December 14th, I’ll want the “internal deadline” for these pleadings to be at least December 12th (easier said than done sometimes, I realize, but this is what we should strive for). That gives me two days to read through everything again, make sure all mistakes have been rectified, and get everything queued up for the filing. I know we all work at places where pleadings are being drafted the day they are due…and sometimes, it’s unavoidable if the issue is one of an urgent nature or a client has not gotten back to you in time, but I submit that these pleadings are ten times more likely to contain silly and avoidable mistakes, including grammatical and spelling errors. A 24 to 48 “resting” period before filing helps ensure the document is as perfect as it can be.
Also keep in mind who is doing the reviewing. The client, for one. The associate attorney for another. Perhaps you work at a firm where a senior associate or partner will want to review the pleadings as well. When establishing internal deadlines, keep in mind all of the different people that may want to review the pleadings before they are filed. And as a general rule, I may send out a “raw” affidavit to a client just to make sure all the facts contained therein are accurate, but I prefer clients see a more finished product.
Tip 3: Proofreading – A Must!
Very few things hinder a lawyer’s credibility more than error-filled pleadings. In fact, the best way to undercut an argument is attempting to buttress it with sloppy written materials replete with punctuation, grammatical, and spelling errors. Take the time to read through everything carefully, and if you’re unsure about a word, check.
Another helpful tip is to read the document backwards; your eye is much more likely to catch a mistake. And, take some time in between proofs to get a cup of coffee, or even work on another project, since a “fresh” set of eyes is much more likely to catch a mistake. I have missed things because I just kept reading over them again and again, and my brain had been “trained” to accept the error as being correct.
Taking a break between reviews alleviates this issue, as does having someone not so “close” to the document take a review as well. In fact, that leads to my next tip, which is to have someone from the office not involved in the case review the pleadings. She or he will not have the background that you do, and will be able to tell you whether the pleadings make sense.
Also, I like to add a “DRAFT” watermark to any pleadings that have not yet been finalized, to ensure an incomplete document is not submitted. In other words, removing the “DRAFT” should be one of the last things you do with a document before filing. It is also a good practice to name (and save) the document something different after every review, so that old work does not disappear and it is easy to reconstruct how changes were made (to that end, I also strongly recommend the red-lining tool in Microsoft Word for any reviewing parties who are not using the “old-school” paper and red ink method of reviewing). Using dates and names help differentiate between versions, e.g., “Client Affidavit (1-1-18)(ZAK edits)” and “Client Affidavit (1-3-18)(Final).”
Tip 4: Filing
Make sure everyone who is entitled to a copy of the pleadings gets one. Opposing counsel, the court, the judge’s clerk, any guardians or other professionals on the case, and of course, the client. We e-file our pleadings in Minnesota, and I also like to send the judge’s clerk an emailed copy at the same time, just to make sure there are no snags. The icy ball in stomach that one experiences when someone in court says, “I never got that” is something to be avoided at all costs.
Also, be cognizant of filing fees, both for initial pleadings to open a case, and for motions. Make sure the client has the funds available in his/her trust account to move over for the filing, or to pay the law firm back if it advances the costs. This is something that should be checked when the deadlines are calendared.
Tip 5: Make Sure Everyone Knows What is Being Filed
Are we just doing a responsive motion and supporting affidavit? Do we need any other affidavits? How about a memorandum of law? Does the court expect, or prefer, proposed orders? Be sure everyone on the team is on the same page with what is going to be filed, who is drafting it, and following the internal deadlines to ensure a polished, professional final product.