April 29, 2022
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Do the Math


One of my most important lessons in communication and advocacy came from His Honour Justice Panet. It’s hugely important for lawyers, but it works for everybody.

Back in the day, the local law association ran an annual event called “This Hour Has Twenty-Two Judges”, a spin on a then popular TV show. Each of the (more or less) twenty-two judges was assigned five minutes to present on a burning topic, with His Honour Colin McKinnon on stopwatch. Behind closed doors, the local bench and bar could get pretty frank, and pretty funny. (And yes, I realize that twenty-two times five minutes is considerably more than an hour, but what can I say?) 

When his turn arrived, Judge Panet spoke about motions court, and in particular, motion briefs. 

A quick word of explanation: “motions” are court proceedings which deal with procedural matters, to seek a ruling to allow or prohibit this or that next step in a legal proceeding. Each lawyer must prepare a “motion brief” setting out the facts, the law, and the argument supporting his or her position.

There are strict limits on the length and structure of the briefs. Regardless, some lawyers flaunt the rules and produce bloated, verbose, and confusing documents-- unbrief briefs, I suppose you could say. If the court doesn’t impose enough discipline, these word salads lead to an inordinate waste of valuable time.

Judge Panet was succinct. His delivery was more or less like this: “Listen, you people, here’s how it works, at least for me.”

“If I’m running motions court the next day, when I get home after a hard day of listening to you guys argue, there is a large box waiting for me, already delivered by courier. In the box are all the motion briefs for the next day.”

“Being late in the day, I’ll treat myself to dinner with my wife, and then I go to my study and open the box. I’m going to give that box two hours, and not a minute more. Now, stay with me while I do the math.”

“Let’s suppose there are twelve matters on the docket, which is average. That means I have an applicant’s brief and a respondent’s brief on each matter, for a total of twenty-four. And I have one hundred and twenty minutes.”

Silence settled over the room, because most lawyers are pretty good at mental math, and they could see where this was going.

“So, if you divide a hundred and twenty minutes by twenty-four, you get five minutes per brief,” Judge Panet confirmed. “And that’s all you get.”

“I set the timer, open the brief, and read for five minutes. Then I put it away, and do the same with the next one. And then the next one. Five minutes, not a second more.”

“Now, a well-written brief says everything you need to say, and more, in those five minutes. So if you choose to ramble on, and on, and on, that’s your prerogative, but you’re only getting five minutes of my time. What you say after five minutes remains unread.”

Justice Panet kept within his allotted five minutes, and from that day forward, I timed my motion briefs. And kept them brief.

The lesson is not just for lawyers.


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