“Brevity is the soul of wit.” This maxim comes down to us from Shakespeare’s hand of the king, Polonius, in Act 2, Scene 2 of “Hamlet.” It is also a fitting summary of attorney Mark Bradford’s approach to effective legal writing.
In his article, “Moving Toward Improved Legal Writing,” published in Minnesota Defense in 2012, Mark Bradford urges attorneys to value brevity, get to the what and why of matters quickly, and eliminate words that clutter. He also advocates giving your story real characters and starting sentences with “but.”
Sound unorthodox? You may want to reserve judgment until you’ve had a chance to review his results, which include victories in a number of high-profile appeals.
Bradford is a shareholder and chair of the appellate practice group at Bassford Remele, one of Minnesota’s most esteemed law firms. Founded in 1882, Bassford is devoted exclusively to trial and appellate representation of local, national and international clients in a wide array of practice areas. Bradford joined the firm as an associate in 2007 and has since distinguished himself as a litigator and appellate lawyer, as well as a respected leader in his firm and profession.
Raised in a blue-collar suburb of Chicago, Bradford wasn’t born to the law. But it found him by way of a lucky fax. After earning his undergraduate degree in economics, cum laude, from Beloit College, he took a job in the commercial loan department at a bank. Eight months later, a coupon offering $50.00 off a Kaplan LSAT prep class rolled off the office fax machine. Intrigued, he took the LSAT, scored well, and went on to DePaul University College of Law, where he graduated summa cum laude.
“I never considered being a lawyer,” Bradford said, “but I have no regrets about my decision to go to law school. I attended a small undergraduate school with a strong emphasis on writing. I knew I had a knack for writing, and I wanted to do something that would allow me to utilize that skill. The bank was all numbers, and I soon realized it wasn’t the best fit.”
Bradford began his career at Rider Bennett LLP, and a few years in, he discovered his legal niche. “Eric Magnuson, who eventually became chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court, was looking for an associate to write a response to a petition for review to the Minnesota Supreme Court, and it was due in a couple hours. I happened to be in my office.”
Bradford took the assignment and found he had an aptitude for appellate work. But just as he saw his future in the law taking shape, the firm announced it was closing. As a fourth-year associate, he questioned whether he would find another opportunity to develop an appellate practice, and in a firm he liked as well. Fate intervened yet again. He was sitting in an airport in St. Louis, returning from a deposition, when he received a phone call from a partner, offering him an associate position at Bassford.
“It has been a very good fit for me for so many reasons. For one, I was able to dictate the course of my own career. I wasn’t hamstrung to one practice group, and I was allowed to try different things. I knew I wanted to focus on appeals, and it takes a lot of practice with writing and oral argument skills, making contacts in the legal community, and writing articles to develop the credibility necessary for someone to hand over their appeal. Bassford gave me the opportunity to do that.”
In time, Bradford spearheaded the formation of Bassford’s appellate practice group, and today his own practice is split between complex commercial litigation and appeals. He and his appellate team have successfully argued high-stakes cases before the Minnesota Supreme Court, the Minnesota Court of Appeals, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, and the Iowa Court of Appeals.
Bradford has grown Bassford’s appellate practice group by cultivating relationships with his colleagues both inside and outside the firm. While Bradford advocates brevity in legal writing, others are more expansive about his contributions. David L. Brown, a partner at Hansen, McClintock & Riley, worked closely with Bradford on an important matter put before the Iowa Court of Appeals last year. He stated:
“The issue presented to the court was whether the releases signed by the parties in a major personal injury case precluded our client from seeking contribution.The complaining parties argued the releases were flawed and thus the contribution claim was barred, and they convinced the district court to grant summary judgment.Mark Bradford filed a terrific brief and made a superlative oral argument contending that if the releases were held defective that the parties should be able reform the instruments consistent with the underlying plaintiffs’ intent at the time of the settlement.Despite an impressive lineup of four defense counsel opposing this position, the court of appeals was persuaded that a genuine issue of material fact existed as to the intent of the parties in the underlying release, and reversed the district court.It is fair to say this is the leading case in Iowa on the subject of reformation.It was Mark’s advocacy that was the difference in this positive outcome!”
Jim Carey, president and managing partner at SiebenCarey, noted how Bradford’s legal precision contributed to another courtroom victory:
“I recently worked with Mark Bradford handling a substantial and complicated products liability case involving multiple parties. I asked Mark to provide legal briefing and analysis on a multitude of very complex liability and damages issues.As might be expected in a case like this, there were numerous discovery motions and scheduling motions that needed to be addressed.Summary judgment motions were advanced by all defendants as well as voluminous motions in limine.Mark spearheaded the plaintiff’s response to all of these events.His work was timely, exceptional, and almost universally adopted by the presiding judge. Mark truly is an exceptional lawyer and incredibly competent.”
While Bradford particularly enjoys the nuances of appellate work, he thoroughly evaluates each case and is selective about those he takes. “Sometimes, the best advice I can give a client is not to appeal. Clients need to appreciate that about 75 percent of the time, the appellant loses. I carefully vet cases to make sure I can present a coherent and persuasive argument. But I’m always up for a challenge, and there’s a lot of social benefit to what appellate attorneys do in terms of creating law.” This social benefit is also what calls Bradford to volunteer his time to prepare and argue briefs for the Minnesota Innocence Project.
Bradford prepares each appeal with an eye to the future. “A common question I’ve been asked by judges is, ‘If you were writing the opinion for this case, what would the rule of law be?’ I’ve learned to think about the ramifications of my proposed rule on future cases. The reality is that appellate judges really aren’t that concerned about how your particular case comes out, but how their decision will be interpreted and applied in future cases. If you change one fact in the case, would that change your logic? In advance of oral argument, I think in detail about what my proposed rule of law could mean in other circumstances. I’ve observed that more often than not, very competent lawyers are not prepared to answer that question.”
Bradford emphasized that for briefs to be effective, they should be, well, brief. “The perspective I have is that all lawyers and appellate judges are trying to solve a problem. A brief should give judges a clear, concise roadmap for how that problem should be solved – not only why the law requires a particular result, but why it is a good idea socially and legally to reach that result. I try to write as concisely as possible. The court of appeals gives you 14,000 words, but you don’t need to use all that space. My view is that it shows confidence when you use half as much space as you’re given. Writing persuasively means using short sentences and making every word matter. I’ve found that it actually takes more time to write a short brief than a long one, and I think it separates the good lawyers from the bad. The large majority of the time, courts decide cases on the briefs. I put strong emphasis on the written product.”
Bradford also enjoys teaching appellate advocacy as an adjunct professor at the St. Thomas School of Law, and his curriculum includes instruction in writing short briefs with real characters, rather than a dry recitation of facts. But he says that facing a room full of 20-somethings can be just as intimidating as facing a panel of judges. “I’m always amazed at how each class raises new questions about legal writing I’ve never heard before. It challenges me to think about why I do things a certain way, and to always be prepared when I walk into class.”
In the profession of law, few skills are more important than one’s ability to articulate ideas in a way that persuades others to reason and moves them to action. Bradford demonstrates that a few words, wisely chosen, can leave a lasting imprint on the world.