July 23, 2019 Practice Points

Finish with a Punch: Tips for Writing Effective Conclusions

By Brian J. Williams

Too much legal writing ends not with a bang but with a whimper. Whether this is a matter of tradition, convention, or lack of creativity, it should stop.

Take this hypothetical conclusion. “For all of the foregoing reasons, as more fully set forth herein, defendants respectfully pray to this Honorable Court for an order granting defendants’ motion to dismiss and awarding defendants all other relief this Honorable Court deems proper, just, or equitable.” Endings like this are pervasive. They are mouthfuls—and they are worthless. They persuade not at all. They amount to missed opportunities to drive home the point and finish strong.

The relief sought should be clear from the context of the brief, if not its title. The desired relief can be ribboned into arguments so as not to invade the final, and perhaps best, space to crystalize why the relief is merited. If the arguments are lucid, the requested relief should follow obviously and naturally.

 

Various techniques can be used to create a powerful conclusion. One is to distill and simplify the argument. For example, in a negligence case where duty is an issue: “The lack of a duty means the lack of any viable claim.” Where the argument is a plaintiff failed to prove an essential element of a claim: “A plaintiff must prove four essential elements to establish a cause of action. The failure to prove even one defeats the claim. Plaintiff has proved none of the four.”

Another technique is to call back to a theme set out early in the brief (and ideally carried throughout) to tie it all up. In the example of the case of involving a question of duty, the necessity of a duty would be raised in the introduction and reiterated in the conclusion. In other words, the argument would both literally and figuratively start and end with duty.

Don’t be afraid to use a particularly strong quote from an authoritative source in the conclusion, even if the quote is not used in the body of the brief. In fact, it may be more persuasive to save the strongest quote for the conclusion. Use the quote and then state that the same results or reasoning applies to your case.

The variety of possible techniques is limited only by the creativity of the writer. After a good conclusion, the reader should know what you said, why it was important, and that you are done. It should amount to a written mic drop. Make phrases like “in conclusion,” “to summarize,” or “for the foregoing reasons” unnecessary.

Be aware, however, of local rules placing requirements on the forms of briefs. For example, Illinois rules dictate the form, order, and content of appellate briefs. One requirement is the brief contain “[a] short conclusion stating the precise relief sought.” Ill. S. Ct. R. 341(h)(8). This rule suggests that a “for the foregoing reasons” type of conclusion is necessary. Rules addressing the form of the brief should not be flatly ignored. Dire consequences may result. Recently, an Illinois appellate court dismissed a pro se litigant’s appeal for failure to comply with form rules. Ammar v. Schiller, DuCanto & Fleck, LLP, 2017 IL App (1st) 162931, ¶20. While acknowledging dismissal was a “severe sanction” that it hesitated to impose, the court noted that the “plaintiff’s pro se status does not allow him to claim ignorance of our Supreme Court rules or excuse his noncompliance.” Id. at ¶¶14–15.

Where similar rules govern conclusions, one alternative is to put the substantive, powerful conclusion as a stand-alone paragraph at the end of the argument section. The required conclusion section, itself, should be as short, plain, and direct as possible, such as, “the trial court’s ruling should be affirmed.” There is no need, as a matter of substance or persuasiveness, for the archaic legalese of “for all of the foregoing reasons” or “we respectfully pray that this Honorable Court.” A second alternative is to include the substantive, powerful conclusion in the formal conclusion section and end that section with a similar concise and plain request for relief.

If rules do not allow you to end on your chosen strong note, these alternatives provide potential avenues to keep the momentum built through the brief. While not perfect solutions, they are better than fading out with a largely meaningless prayer that adds nothing and feels like it was drafted in the nineteenth century.
 

Brian J. Williams is a member at Cozen O’Connor in Chicago, Illinois.


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