To Block or Not to Block: When to Use Long Quotes and When to Exclude Them

To use a long quotation in your brief, you probably know that you have to “block” it; that is, instead of using quotation marks, you should use indented margins to set off the quote.

Check the style guides. The Bluebook (§ 5.1) says: use block text if the quotation exceeds 50 words. According to ALWD, also block any quote that runs more than four lines (Rule 47).

But before you use that long quotation—no matter how good you think it is—think twice.

As Kendall Gray of The Appellate Record writes, block quotes in your brief almost always waste time and space:

Today we have the ultimate legal writing tip if you want the court (or any other audience) to avoid reading large portions of your writing. This technique is so effective that, if properly used, I daresay you could drop an F-Bomb in the middle of a brief and the court would never notice.

Cuss in the middle of a block quote, and it is quite possible that no one will notice. Block quotes signal that there is no analysis here—so nothing worth reading. They tell the judge, “You don’t need to read this long quote; it will just bore you without helping you.”

Why is reading a block quote usually a waste of time? Consider that from the judge’s perspective, there are two possibilities: the lawyer is either a thoughtful advocate, or is not.

If I am a thoughtful advocate (in any sense), I will later summarize the key points and apply it to the facts of my case. Consequently, there is little point in reading the block quote itself.

If I am a poor advocate, the judge has little reason to read my brief anyway. Why? Because I am demonstrating an inability (or unwillingness) to do the work to help the judge think about the issues.

In either case, it seems I have only accomplished to waste space and test the judge’s patience. Or have I?

There are at least two reasonably good purposes for block quotations: (1) to quote statutory or contractual language, where the interpretation of the language itself is at issue, or (2) to provide important reference material, where (for whatever reason) we don’t want to inconvenience the judge to pull up the primary source. Kendall recognizes the soundness of the second purpose (such as where the brief writer is concerned that the judge won’t have a governing statute immediately at hand). Kendall, I imagine, would also agree with the first purpose.

Bottom line as I see it is this: if you use a block quote, make sure the judge has a reason to read it (e.g., to analyze it or easily refer to it). Otherwise, it is probably best to cut it out.

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