10 Quick Tips for Writing a Judicial Opinion from a Third Circuit Clerk

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By: Marissa Higgins

This summer I had the opportunity to virtually intern in the chambers of Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Julio M. Fuentes on the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit .  During the course of the internship, I worked directly under one of four clerks reporting to Judge Fuentes.  My tasks included reviewing appellate and district court records, researching legal theories, drafting memorandums and opinions, observing virtual oral arguments, and participating in a court intern program offering lectures and CLE credit education on various topics such as ethics, juries, clerkships, and judicial opinion writing.

Working in chambers most benefitted my legal writing, research, and issue analysis abilities.  While these skills are introduced and taught in the University at Buffalo School of Law’s first year in the Legal Analysis, Writing, and Research (LAWR) class, as many lawyers attest, these are skills that evolve over a career.  Being thrown into the legal community and writing my first draft brief, memo, and opinion to be read and reviewed was initially intimidating, but the clerk I was working under provided some general tips that primarily apply to opinion writing (that can be translated to any writing), and I would like to share them.

  1. Clearly delineate the “logic path” you plan to go down.
  2. Writing should be very concise.
  3. Cite anything that is sufficiently important.
  4. For portions, such as standard of review and jurisdiction, cite precedent – don’t try to “reinvent the wheel.”
  5. Organize by issue. The “logic path” should be smooth as you walk the reader through the decision.
  6. State the relevant law and what you think to be true. Center around the relevant law to find if there are inconsistencies with the parties’ arguments.
  7. Do not worry about every fact, just those that are critical: write only material facts, but in a way that makes the decision seem inevitable.
  8. Succinctly summarize parties’ arguments with precision.
  9. Focus most on the analysis section.
  10. Double check all cites, the parties’ briefs, arguments made, and the record itself before submission!

While all judges have different stylistic choices, these rules of the road govern much of legal writing – especially points like the emphasis on brevity!  For me, the most helpful, new advice was to focus on a “logic path” or a “logic train” as the clerk called it.  While writing, I was told to think about the narrative of the case and write as if I was telling a story.  This way,  my writing, and the legal issues being analyzed, may be best understood by any reader, especially those unfamiliar with the particulars of the case.

In summary, working in chambers was a formative experience as I was exposed to various areas of law from financial issues, to criminal issues, to intellectual property issues.  Being able to read the briefs of high-level attorneys better informed me on how briefs are best written and organized, and I picked up many tips that I will be able to use going forward. I hope the writing tips provided above benefit law students entering into a judicial internship, or just with legal writing generally.

Thank you to the Buffalo Public Interest Law Program, UB Alumni U.S.C.J. Julio M. Fuentes, Stephen, the clerk I worked under, and the Koehler’s, who sponsored my fellowship!

Name: Marissa Higgins, ’22

Name of Fellowship: Graham Koehler Judicial Fellowship Award

Placement: United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, The Honorable Julio M. Fuentes

Location: Newark, NJ (Remotely from Buffalo, NY)

One important lesson that I learned from this fellowship: “One important lesson I learned from this fellowship is the value of the UB Law community, how committed alumni are to helping students and giving back.”