Use informative, full-sentence point headings.

Strong point headings make your reasoning easy to track and your brief easy to skim.

If you would like to receive new Elegant Legal Writing posts in your inbox, please subscribe:

Strong point headings make your reasoning easy to track and your brief easy to skim. A judge should be able to understand your argument (and see why you win) merely by reading the table of contents.

Here are some tips for making your point headings strong.

  1. At a minimum, your headings should be informative. “DEFENDANT FAILS TO SATISFY THE RULE 12(b)(6) STANDARD” won’t cut it.

  2. The length of your headings should range from one to four lines of type.

  3. Most of your headings should be complete sentences written in sentence case (as opposed to all-caps or initial-caps).[1]

  4. Use headings to structure your argument and keep it on track. Each paragraph beneath a point heading should relate to the point heading and provide a reason that the heading is correct.

  5. One effective formula for first- and second-level headings is to include both a legal conclusion and a reason: “[Conclusion] because [reason].” Check for examples of this formula in the list of examples below.

  6. Use good heading design principles, as discussed at the bottom of this post.

Here are some examples of good headings:

  • “Charges imposed only upon breach are not ‘options for alternative performance’ because breach is not performance.”

  • “The cases Equity discusses — none of which involve an adhesion contract — are irrelevant.”

  • “The district court erred in certifying the settlement class because Rule 23(a)(4)’s adequacy requirements were not satisfied; the zero-recovery subclass required separate representation.”

  • “The securities convictions should be reversed because the prosecution failed to offer sufficient evidence of a material GAAP violation.”

  • “The District Court’s erroneous jury instruction requires a new trial on the healthcare-fraud counts.”

  • “TransWeb did not prove that plasma-fluorinated polymeric material was in public use before the critical date.”

Here are some examples of bad headings. Consider why each fails to inform or persuade the reader:

  • “ISSUE 5: Whether a genuine issue of material fact on Appellant's contract claim precluded the grant of summary judgment.”

  • “THE INVALIDITY JUDGMENT SHOULD BE REVERSED”

  • “DUPONT'S INTERNAL DOCUMENTS”

And this — an authentic specimen from a filed legal brief — might be the worst heading of all time:

I. SUPERIOR COURT'S PUBLISHED EN BANC DECISION CONTRAVENES BINDING PRECEDENT IN CONCLUDING A HEARING IS NEEDED TO DETERMINE WHETHER RESPONDENT EXERCISED DUE DILIGENCE IN INVOKING THE AFTER-DISCOVERED FACTS EXCEPTION TO TIME BAR. THE EN BANC COURT'S DECISION IMPROPERLY CARVES OUT AN EXCEPTION, SOLELY FOR PRO SE PETITIONERS, TO THE SETTLED RULE PRESUMING THAT PUBLICLY AVAILABLE INFORMATION CANNOT BE DEEMED UNKNOWN PURSUANT TO 42 PA.C.S.A. § 9545(B)(1)(II) WHERE THE PETITION WAS FILED 60 DAYS BEYOND THE DATE THE INFORMATION WAS MADE PUBLIC, AND IMPROPERLY REALLOCATES THE BURDEN OF PLEADING AND PROOF FROM A PETITIONER TO THE COMMONWEALTH IN A COLLATERAL PROCEEDING. AS A RESULT, SUPERIOR COURTS DECISION SHOULD BE REVERSED AND THE PCRA COURTS ORDER DISMISSING THE PETITION AS TIME BARRED SHOULD BE REINSTATED SINCE APPELLANT CANNOT PROVE THE APPLICABILITY OF THE EXCEPTION AS HIS CLAIM IS BASED ON INFORMATION THAT WAS NOT UNKNOWN.

There is an art to writing strong point headings, and you should go out of your way to analyze and critique the headings in the briefs you read. If you can get in the habit of writing persuasive and informative point headings that advance and structure your argument, your briefs will be much stronger.

Heading design 101

Here is an example of bad heading design:

That heading is unreadable for three reasons:

  • All-caps rather than sentence case.

  • Underlining

  • Insufficient leading (line spacing)

Avoid these design sins in your briefs.

Footnote:

[1]     The following heading types need not be complete sentences: (1) Top-level “Facts,” ”Argument,” and similar headings; (2) “legal standard” headings; and (3) third- or fourth-level subheadings.


Subscribe for free to receive new Elegant Legal Writing posts in your inbox:

Please consider sharing this post with your networks:

Share

Ryan McCarl (LinkedIn | Twitter | Blog) teaches Advanced Legal Writing at the UCLA School of Law and is a partner at the law firm Rushing McCarl.