The Rule of Three
One would do well to channel their inner Thomas Jefferson in legal writing. And while the likelihood that any of our writings will enjoy the warm, enduring shelf-life of his “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” is slim-to-none, we can still garner lessons from Jefferson to improve our prose.
Best-selling author and communication advisor, Carmine Gallo, poses the questions: Why did Jefferson choose three rights instead of twelve? Gallo explains the reason is the “Rule of 3.” Humans only have so much space in our short-term memory. This is the same reason that the TSA and military branches understand that disseminating information in groups of three is more easily processed, and thus, easier to follow. Hence why the TSA provides three simple steps to security: show ID and boarding pass, take out liquids and laptops, and take off shoes and jackets. And why the military teaches the “three rules of surviving captivity”: fellowship with other prisoners, survive, and return with honor (which feels ominously applicable to inner-office comradery)?
Granted, not every set of facts lends itself to a neat distillation of the issues into three categories, especially when there are a medley of litigants hurling counterclaims and crossclaims every which way, but the rule is still useful in drafting. For instance, I don’t think a judge or their clerk will have the time to read a string cite that is more than three cases long, so best not to include a dissertation on any single point lest you lose your audience’s interest. In our line of work making the most of the precious few minutes we have of a judge’s attention is critical. Channel thy Jefferson.
The Four Agreements
It’s been said that lawyers have a thankless job. Therefore, it helps to stay rooted in a philosophy that does not depend on the gratitude of others. The Four Agreements are a code that the ancient Toltec civilization (predecessor of the Aztecs) lived by, one that has application to the practice of law. The agreements are:
- Be impeccable with your word;
- Don’t take things personally;
- Don’t make assumptions; and,
- Always do your best.
If ever there were “four easy steps to success in law,” I think these are them. Regarding the, at times, thanklessness of our profession, “don’t take things personally” comes to mind. This stands for the proposition that anything anyone else says or does reflects themselves and their own reality, and actually has nothing to do with you. By not tying your sense of self-worth to the actions of others, you shall save yourself needless suffering, or so the Toltecs thought.
Being impeccable refers to speaking with integrity and not dragging the power of communication down to gossip or other lower rungs of expression. However, applying it as motivation to write the best brief of your career is not too far a stretch. Whatever works, right?
“Don’t make assumptions” could be the last thing every litigator tells themselves before giving an opening argument or conducting an examination. Be ready for anything and give your audience the facts it needs to find in your favor. Always doing your best is a given. Hard work is paramount in this profession, and that alone is just the first factor of entry into the realm of greatness that we strive to attain day in, day out. It is easy to get hyper focused on the latest deadline or next event in the calendar — and not necessarily a bad thing by any stretch — but keeping a broader perspective in mind keeps stress at bay.
The 30% Rule
In his second stint at Apple, Steve Jobs applied the 30% rule to great effect. That is, he focused the company’s efforts on the 30% of the products that were incredibly good and did away with the other 70%. This rule applies more broadly than to crafting arguments or drafting documents, but is also applicable to those tasks. Broadly, the rule is an acknowledgment that you cannot do everything, and that if you try to, you will fail at many of the things you attempt. In the context of writing a brief, this may be failure by trying to get too much information across to your audience and losing them altogether in the process. In the context of your day, the rule requires that you focus your resources on the 30% of tasks that are making you great and not be muddled by the 70% of distractions seeking your attention. This rule requires individuals to be focused and to make tough choices about what is most important to them. Now let us all go back to being focused and great.
Timothy M. Lupinek is an attorney at Balestriere Fariello who represents companies and individuals in state, appellate, and administrative courts of Maryland. He focuses his practice on complex commercial litigation with thousands of hours of civil, criminal, and regulatory trial experience. You can reach Timothy at timothy.m.lupinek @balestrierefariello.com.
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