"You better listen to this guy," he whispered. I whispered back, "I am, but why make a point of it?" "Because," he confided, "he won the Pulitzer Prize."
This exchange occurred at my first editorial board meeting for this publication. The person whispering to me was the same person who asked me to start writing for Litigation News. He was speaking about our then editor-in-chief, Michael D.Yablonski, Pittsburgh, PA.
In his life before law, Mike was a reporter. When the skywalk collapsed in 1981 at the Hyatt Regency in Kansas City, he was assigned to the story. He and his fellow writers won the Pulitzer Prize the next year for their coverage.
The reason I mention this? Excluding myself, I wanted you to know that many of Litigation News writers have degrees in, or had jobs in, the field of writing. Many have roots in journalism. It is also kind of neat that Litigation News can boast having a Pulitzer Prize winner as one of our former editors-in-chief.
However, the main reason I retell this story is to share what Mike was sharing with us at that particular moment. He told those assembled that he spent anywhere from a third to half of his time with each story on crafting the first sentence and first paragraph of the story.
Those in the newspaper business call it the lead. He said if he couldn't capture the reader's attention in the first sentence and first paragraph, they likely wouldn't read the rest of the story.
This column is about constructing a good lead. Attorneys have many times where they need to have a good lead. Opening statements, a motion hearing where you have a limited amount of time, a presentation to a client, or a speech to a civic group are just a handful of examples. What follows are examples of tried and true leads.
A picture truly is worth a thousand words. A picture of a mangled wreck, the deceased, or damage to a home may be a compelling way to begin a case, a presentation to a client, or opposing counsel or a civic group.
A picture immediately captures everyone's attention. And for those who are concerned about their oral advocacy skills, all you need are just a few words to frame up your picture: "Ladies and gentlemen, this is a picture of Sue Smith taken three weeks before the accident, and this is what she looked like the day after." This has the added benefit of giving you time to burn off a little adrenaline before delivering the rest of your opening.
I don't know how many times I have been sitting on the bench listening to an officer testify, "I was traveling east in the northernmost lane of the four-lane east-west highway when I spotted the tan car on the southeast corner in the southernmost lane fail to come to a complete stop." My mind is screaming, "My kingdom for a diagram!" Be the advocate that the judge or jury looks to for guidance. Start with a map or diagram and make it clear to them.
A Timeline of Events
All events occur on the continuum of time. A visual timeline is a great lead to give any audience the view from 30,000 feet. Not only do the events come alive, but the gaps between the events, which, in a given case may be just as important, do too.
A Pithy Quote
After digesting the facts of your case, look for quotes. See if there is a pithy quote that might capture the essence of your case. I once began an opinion with a quote commonly attributed to Woody Allen: "Ninety percent of life is just showing up."
Go to any legal search engine and type in the name, "Richard Mills" and "Illinois." Judge Mills is famous for the leads to his opinions. They make you want to read more. In People v. Robinson he began:
This case involves the robbery of a pool "hustler" by his victim, whose defense is that he's merely retaking his own property obtained from him by illegal gambling.
Can he get away with it?
Not in Illinois.
Two wrongs do not make a right.
In Ringstrom, he channeled Hemingway with:
Husband now liable for child support arrearages under first decree?
Unless the case involves the copyright of a song, the actual playing of a song clip probably only works with speeches to civic groups. Singing in court has even greater risk than jokes in court. Both are best left to professionals. Of course, I have heard some stated themes based upon lyrics such as, "Hit the road, Jack" and "Oops, I did it again," which were effective.
A little over a decade ago, I wrote an anti-drug and alcohol program called "The Seven Reasons to Leave the Party."
I started with drivers education classes. Coaches usually teach drivers education classes. Here was my first introduction to a class by the coach: "Hey! Shut up! We've got a judge here. He can put you in jail!"
My response was, "Thank you, c-c-coach Hammer [not his real name] for that wonderful introduction." That lead was not a good introduction to the program.
As the program expanded, we started doing whole schools. I knew that the day before the students were told there would be an assembly. They were told that a judge would be there. They were told that the judge would be talking about drugs and alcohol. They were told that the judge was against drugs and alcohol. Upon hearing that I assume many thought, "So, what fresh hell are they inflicting on us now?"
I needed a good lead. I needed a lead that would capture their attention and make them more receptive to the message. Since the program is now statewide and delivered by many different judges of various levels of speaking experience, I needed a surefire beginning. I needed a song.
The song clip chosen was the anti-drug song, Because I Got High. We start playing it just when the last few students are taking their seats. It has a tremendous bass beat. We play it for about 40 seconds—through the first two refrain lines (it gets dirty after that). They all know the song. They start singing and swaying along with it. It is a great start to the program.
The Written Lead
Whether it is a proposal to a client, an article for publication in your field, or a written submission to a court, your goal is the same. You want to capture the reader's attention.
In this article I began with a quote. Slowly, I revealed who was speaking and in what context. However, my first sentence could have read, "I learned in my first editorial board meeting for this publication that our editor-in-chief had won the Pulitzer Prize."
While true, that lead is just not as good. I think it is better to take you to the room, let you listen in on the whispering, and then reveal the punch line.
Let's look at another example. I'll pick the lead written by my fellow associate editor, Charles S. Fax, in the last issue of Litigation News. His lead was, "The Maryland Court of Appeals' Opinion in Attorney Grievance Commission v. Mixter is not an easy read. The text spans 130 pages and contains 79 footnotes. Seven appendices consume another 20 pages."
Now why does this work? It works on several levels. First, it employs the "rule of three's". Phrases such as, "of the people, by the people, for the people" have a magical quality.
His first sentence has 17 words. It is a simple declarative sentence setting forth his position or, because it fits better with my analogy, his plank. He then nails down this plank with his second and third sentences. The second sentence has nine words and the third has fewer at six. There is a certain rhythm to longer, then shorter, then shortest.
The opposite technique is just as effective. Read Martin Luther King's I Have a Dream speech to see an example of building from shorter to longer sentences.
His first simple declarative sentence is backed up by four key facts, which lead the reader to very quickly conclude exactly what the author wants the reader to conclude—that the opinion "is not an easy read."
The next two sentences nail down [BOOM!] his plank: "The text spans 130 pages [BOOM!] and contains 79 footnotes." [BOOM!] "Seven appendices [BOOM!] consume another 20 pages." [BOOM!]
In addition, his lead mixes both words and numbers. Words and numbers are processed in, and fire up, different parts of our brains. With 3 sentences, 29 words and 4 numbers, his point is both clear and compelling. Now, that's a good lead.
Mark A. Drummond is an associate editor for Litigation News and associate circuit court judge of the Eighth Judicial Circuit of Illinois.
Keywords: writing a good lead, first sentence, first paragraph, opening statement
- Charles S. Fax, "Serial Abuse of Discovery Rules Warrants Disbarment," Litigation News, Vol. 41 No. 1 (Fall 2015).
- People v. Robinson, 68 Ill. App. 3d 687 (1979).
- Ringstrom v. Ringstrom, 101 Ill. App. 3d 677 (1981).
Copyright © 2016, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).