Legal Writing

Three-Page Limit Exceeded by 70

Speaking of things that go on too long (image: Steven Feather via Flickr, CC 2.0)

“The Court is in receipt of the parties’ joint monthly status letter,” it informed the parties in King v. Habib Bank Limited on July 1, and it was not pleased. The problem wasn’t what they said—the court probably didn’t even read it—but that they wouldn’t stop saying it.

“As the parties are aware,” the court continued, “at the last status conference held in this matter, I told the parties “not to have the protracted letter-writing campaigns where you go back and forth arguing with each other.” The parties seem to have just been incorporating their dueling letters aimed at each other into the required joint monthly status letters to the court, apparently without doing much if any editing. I wasn’t able to access the letters themselves because they’re sealed, but I infer the lack of editing from the court’s complaint that “the most recent monthly status letter comes out to a whopping 73 pages.” (Emphasis in original).

Is that a lot? It is when the limit was three.

Whether something is “too long” requires some context, of course. Compared to some other tomes we’ve discussed, 73 seems almost leaflet-size. See, e.g., “Court Criticizes Everybody Involved in Briefing That Totaled 5,415 Pages” (Oct. 30, 2009) (estimating that if printed and stacked this would be more than three feet tall); “Firm Shames Itself With 239-Page Brief” (Sept. 7, 2007) (noting brief was half the length of Huckleberry Finn); cf. Lawmaker Injured by Flying Constitution” (Nov. 20, 2018) (noting that, at 150 pages, Sri Lanka’s constitution is only one-ninth the size of Alabama’s). But by my calculations, 73 is about 70 more than three, making the joint letter more than 24 times the length permitted under the court’s rule. It’s almost like the parties didn’t know there was a rule about this.

And as the court’s order makes very clear, this was not the first example of the parties overdoing it. Apparently not even close:

Discovery in this litigation is at risk of devolving into a modern-day Jarndyce v Jarndyce, as it has “become so complicated, that no man alive knows what it means,” and “no two . . . lawyers can talk about it for five minutes without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises.” Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1852).

If you haven’t read Bleak House, you should—and okay, yes, it’s twice as long as Huckleberry Finn, I realize that. It would take more than 14 of the parties’ 73-page joint status letters to equal the Penguin Classics edition of Bleak House, which comes in at 1,036 pages. But at least read the first chapter, so you can be properly amused by references to Jarndyce, the fictional probate case that has been pending for generations and only ends when the money to pay fees runs out. (Have I mentioned it before? Of course. See Plaintiff Misses Response Deadline by About 21 Years” (July 20, 2016) (noting that the court’s opinion began with the full passage referenced in King)).

Also, you should do whatever’s necessary to keep any reference to Jarndyce from showing up in one of your cases. A Westlaw search for “Jarndyce v. Jarndyce” yielded over 250 opinions mentioning it, beginning before the U.S. Civil War and continuing (obviously) up to the present day. See Knowles v. Inches, 12 Cal. 212 (1859) (complaining that the transcript “exceeds, by a few pages, Sir Walter Scott’s account of Napoleon’s first campaign in Italy.”). I haven’t read all of these, but I feel pretty confident that when this shows up, it’s virtually never a good thing.