Did the iPad kill the acronym?

By Steve Klepper (Twitter: @MDAppeal)

Over at Above the Law, David Lat is covering the D.C. Circuit’s recent clampdown on “uncommon acronyms” in briefs. (I’m quoted!) The Court’s anti-acronym push began in 2010, with a Notice that “the court strongly urges parties to limit the use of acronyms.” But now the D.C. Circuit has gone one step further—ordering parties to file new briefs, without the offending acronyms. That ruling is going to push at least one party 2,000 words over the 14,000-word limit.

Interestingly, the D.C. Circuit Rules do not forbid uncommon acronyms. Rather, Circuit Rule 28(a)(3) provides: “All briefs containing abbreviations, including acronyms, must provide a ‘Glossary’ defining each such abbreviation on a page immediately following the table of authorities. Abbreviations that are part of common usage need not be defined.”

So why is the glossary no longer good enough? I suspect it’s a product of electronic filing. I’ve argued three cases before the D.C. Circuit, and at least as far back as 2009 the Judges were using their computers to pull up cases and filings during argument. I’m sure that, like many Circuit Judges, they’re now frequently reading briefs on iPads.

When you’re reading a physically bound brief, it’s easy to flip back to a glossary at the beginning of the brief. On a computer screen or iPad? It’s much harder to jump back and forth without losing your place. Readers don’t want to scroll down to the bottom of the page, much less to the beginning of the document.[1]

If the iPad has in fact killed the acronym, then good riddance. Good legal writing generally avoids acronyms. If “the act” or “the agency” isn’t clear in the context of a sentence or paragraph, an acronym isn’t going to be much more helpful to the reader.

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[1] Nerd alert! I’ve read all five books in the Song of Ice and Fire series on my iPad, and I’ve encountered a similar problem making use of the maps and character lists.

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