The format “In Smith v. Jones” seems logical because our legal system is based on stare decisis — the invocation of precedent. Since precedent is embodied in case law, we figure we are developing a thesis by beginning a unit of thought — a paragraph — with a case name (“ In Smith v. Jones).

Notwithstanding the importance of case law, paragraphs should begin with ideas rather than case names. A revision of the above sentence might read as follows:

Courts find no prejudice from late notice where the insurer had a full opportunity to investigate the claim. For example, in Smith v. Jones

The idea for which you cite Smith v. Jones is that courts do not find prejudice from late notice of a claim if the insurance company had a full opportunity to investigate. Beginning a paragraph with that idea rather than the case name has several virtues.

The idea can echo something in the previous paragraph, thus tying the new paragraph to the old and maintaining the flow of the argument. In contrast, a case name provides no connection. It is inherently meaningless unless the previous paragraph was about Smith v. Jones. The case name thus creates a dead spot, a gap in the flow. If the material is difficult or the reader inattentive, you may lose the reader’s attention.

Second, having to state your point forces you to decide what it is. This is a good self-monitoring device. If you cannot state your point, you may not have one.

Third, stating your point at the beginning of the paragraph shows a willingness to take control of the material, which makes you look confident. If you look confident, the reader is more likely to trust you and your argument.

Finally, stating your point at the beginning of the paragraph sets up a challenge. If the rest of the paragraph supports your point, you have met the challenge, and the reader gains confidence in you and your argument.

In short, beginning paragraphs with ideas rather than case names serves several tactical purposes. It takes more work than “In Smith v. Jones,” but the work, if done well, pays off.

This Week’s Puzzler

How would you tighten and sharpen the following sentence?

In the event that the court orders a remand for an evidentiary hearing in resolving this appeal, appellant will then have the opportunity to cross-examine the expert and use the transcript of his deposition testimony at that time if he wishes.

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