What NFL “rules guru” Bill Belichick can teach you about legal writing

Posted on 01-29-2016 by
Tags: writinglegally , SuperBowl , LIT , writing , Top Stories


Writing, E. B. White said, is an “act of faith, not a trick of grammar.” The same might be said for football, that playing is an act of faith, not a trick of the rules. Coaches often preach this, that winning depends on heart and ability – what’s “inside.” It’s what Paul “Bear” Bryant meant when he said:

If you believe in yourself and have dedication and pride - and never quit, you'll be a winner.

White (and Bryant by omission) diminished the importance of rules. But rules are actually vital to victory … from winning in the courtroom to winning on the field. Rules, once known, can be leveraged and deployed. Contrary to White, many have stressed the importance of rules:

You have to learn the rules of the game. And then you have to play better than anyone else. - Albert Einstein

The young man knows the rules, but the old man knows the exceptions. - Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

I try not to break the rules but merely to test their elasticity. - Bill Veeck

In football, nobody knows the rules (and how to leverage them) better than Patriot’s coach Bill Belichick.

Dissecting & Exploiting the NFL’s Rule Book

During last year’s AFC title game, Belichick dug into the rule book to defeat the Baltimore Ravens. As explained in Business Insider:

Under NFL rules the offense effectively has to have five players on the line of scrimmage who are ineligible to catch a pass. Normally, these five players are the offensive linemen …. [emphasis added]

In a 35-31 comeback win, Belichick used a four lineman formation to hide eligible receivers and disguise linemen as receivers. A creative (and permissible)  interpretation of the rules, and one that confused the Ravens … confused them so much that Raven’s coach John Harbaugh said, "It was clearly deception."

You can decry the NFL for having too many rules, but rule surplus doesn’t excuse rule stupidity. If anything, it magnifies one’s duty to study the rules, to maximize the exceptions and the loopholes. And this is what Belichick does best. Last October, Belichick addressed his approach to the rules. He said:

[W]e try to look at the rulebook as a useful tool, something that can benefit us if we know what we have to work with, how to make the best of a situation based on the way the rules are written and try to maximize our opportunities there.

Legal Writing and the “Belichick-ian” Lawyer

 In scouring the rules, Belichick is always probing for advantages. The difficulty in discovering these advantages is in braving the minutia. Scrutinizing trivialities (especially in a bulky rulebook) is a grueling, unappetizing task. The big picture – the one everyone sees - is effortless. The minutia – the hidden rules and tiny advantages – they’re a grind. But often, they’re the difference between winners and losers.

For lawyers, the effortless “big picture” is the belief that law school is the end-all education on brief writing. There’s also the belief that because brief writing is a taught art, lawyers, as a whole, follow the same general rules on writing. Writing-wise, there’s safety and security in this thinking … that lawyers are on equal footing and that legal writing adheres to a set of universal directives.

“Belichick-ian” lawyers think otherwise. They consider writing a “useful tool” and continuously try to “maximize [their] opportunities there.” Like their namesake, “Belichick-ian” lawyers understand that legal writing houses a universe of untapped advantages. The “Belichick-ian” lawyer is always digging through the minutia, pouring over writing advice such as: 

· Readers Like Suspense—Just Not in the Introduction to Your Brief

· How-To Avoid The 5 Biggest Legal Writing Gaffes

· Take a Moment to Think about Fonts

· To Be or Not To Be: In Defense of the Passive Voice

· George Orwell’s rules for clear (legal) writing

· Avoid This One Punctuation Habit That Will Destroy Your Credibility (Infographic)

· Adverbs on Trial: Innocent on Two Counts, but Guilty on Three More

· Ax these terms from your legal writing

· Even Judges Appreciate Shorter Briefs

· 9 writing styles personified by the current SCOTUS justices [infographic]

Whatever you might call these - tricks of the trade, tricks of grammar - they’re all advantageous to the legal writer. With my apologies to E. B. White, faith is only half the battle. Grammar and rules have their place in persuasion and in powerful legal writing.

Are they tricks? Possibly.

Are they part of the game? Definitely.

And like Belichick, mastering these tricks earns you a writing advantage over your unschooled opponent. 

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