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December 10, 2019 Practice Points

Drafting in the Age of Screens

Three tips for drafting more effective briefs (and other filings) in our tech-driven era.

By Sara Ann Brown

In 1995, the federal courts introduced electronic court filing. But 25 years later, lawyers have yet to harness e-filing’s potential for more functional, useful, and persuasive filings. With the state of technology today, continued apathy is unsustainable.  

More than half of federal judges use iPads to do court work. Lawyers must take this into account.

More than half of federal judges use iPads to do court work. Lawyers must take this into account.

Each year, an increasing number of judges review filings on a screen (both computers and tablets). In 2012, a study suggested that more than 50 percent of federal judges used iPads to do court work. To be effective advocates, lawyers must take this into account. With a handful of small and easy-to-implement changes, lawyers can make their filings more persuasive and useful for the courts, regardless of the medium in which they are read. Here are four tips to get you started and resources to check out, if you want to learn more.

1. Create PDFs Electronically.

One of the simplest steps to improve the usability of documents filed with the court is to make sure that they are electronically converted from a word processing file to PDF. Creating a PDF by printing and then scanning the document degrades the readability of the text, hampers electronic searches, and renders bookmarks and hyperlinks (discussed below) useless. The print-and-scan method also takes longer, increases file size, and wastes paper!

2. Use Hyperlinks.

Hyperlinks are likely the most helpful addition to e-filed documents, allowing access to cited cases and evidence, with one click (or tap). Hyperlinks ensure as few barriers as possible stand between the court and the evidence or authorities cited, and they are very easy to add to your document. In Microsoft Word, you simply select the text you want to hyperlink, press “Ctrl + K” on your keyboard, and then paste in the desired web address.

When including a hyperlink to a case, the best practice is to select only a portion of the citation to hyperlink. For example:

Marshall v. Marshall, 547 U.S. 293 (2006).

If you’re filing a document in federal court, the United States District Court for Nebraska has created a plug-in for Microsoft Word that automatically adds hyperlinks to CM/ECF citations. For additional information, check out the Attorney Guide to Hyperlinking in Federal Courts and LinkBuilder (the plug-in that automates hyperlinking to documents on Pacer), both created by the District of Nebraska.

3. Bookmark Everything.

PDF bookmarks allow readers to quickly and easily jump from place-to-place in a brief and provide a roadmap for electronic readers. Bookmarks function in electronic documents like tables of contents and tabs in hard-copy documents, allowing an electronic reader to instantly move to different sections of the document and orienting the reader in the brief.

Many PDF creation tools will create bookmarks based on the headings in the word processing file but bookmarks can also be quickly added in a PDF editing program like Adobe Acrobat Pro or Nuance by pressing “Ctrl + B.” To make sure that a reader can take advantage of the bookmarks, e-filers should set the default view of PDFs to include the “bookmark panel.” For more information, read the Texas Supreme Court’s Guide to Creating Electronic Appellate Briefs.

Sara Ann Brown is a trial lawyer at Foley & Lardner, LLP, in Dallas, Texas.

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