May 01, 2015

The judicious use of environmental acronyms in briefs

J. Brett Grosko

State and federal judges often lament environmental law practitioners’ proclivity for using acronyms as shorthand for describing the technical issues in their cases. Judges frequently refer to the “alphabet soup” of acronyms that environmental lawyers utilize. They state their preference for ordinary English, reasoning that acronyms obscure meaning and reduce readability. Legal writing expert Bryan Garner has singled out environmental law practitioners as some of the grossest offenders in this regard.

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit issued a public note in 2010 strongly urging parties to limit the use of acronyms. The court observed that “[w]hile acronyms may be used for entities and statutes with widely recognized initials, such as FERC and FOIA, parties should avoid using acronyms that are not widely known.” D.C. Circuit Rule 28 further requires all briefs containing uncommonly used abbreviations—including acronyms—to include a glossary defining each such abbreviation on a page immediately following the table of authorities. The D.C. Circuit has also rejected briefs and ordered the offending parties to resubmit them after removing all uncommon acronyms.

Several guidelines will help practitioners improve their briefs’ readability.

  • First, check the local rules of the court where you are appearing for specific requirements on the use of acronyms. Ask whether the judge before whom you are appearing is familiar with environmental law and then tailor your brief accordingly.
  • Second, prioritize uncommon acronyms for attention. Avoid, when possible, using acronyms that are not widely recognized. Mr. Garner’s book The Winning Brief suggests that practitioners check a good dictionary. For example, Black’s Law Dictionary includes an entry for “EPA.” Finding an acronym in the dictionary suggests that it may be familiar enough to use in a brief.
  • Third, replace acronyms with a single word, for example the “Act” or the “Service” when referring to the Clean Water Act and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in lieu of “CWA” or “FWS.”
  • Fourth, if you use acronyms in a brief, include a glossary at the front. The court may wish to include its own glossary in its decision. If so, the judge may appreciate having one handy.

Overall, the goal should be to describe the law clearly for generalist judges who are sophisticated but may lack specific knowledge of environmental law.

J. Brett Grosko


J. Brett Grosko is a trial attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice Environment and Natural Resources Division. The views expressed herein are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Department of Justice or any other agency.