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Once Upon a Time: Replace Dates with Phrases That Convey a Sense of Time

Few things are duller than a paragraph stuffed with dates.

“Using an exact date signals to the reader that it is important—that the reader should remember it for future reference,” says former Judge Mark Painter. “If that’s not your intention, strike it out. You can convey continuity and order by clues like next and later.”[1]

But even when the actual date matters, replacing it with a time signal like “two years later” or “just three days before” can help turn your fact section into the kind of story that people enjoy reading. Even better, such time signals can make your story more persuasive. Here’s four examples:

1. Larry Tribe, Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action v. Granholm

Here, Larry Tribe notes that Jennifer Gratz, the plaintiff in the undergraduate version of the University of Michigan affirmative action case, won a partial Supreme Court victory on June 23, 2003. So why not include a date for the next event on the timeline?

[Jennifer Gratz] ultimately won a partial success in the Supreme Court of the United States on June 23, 2003. Within days of the Gratz decision, Ms. Gratz approached Ward Connerly (currently Chairman of the American Civil Rights Institute and formerly a leading proponent of California’s Proposition 209), asking him to consider supporting a ballot initiative in Michigan with the purpose of eliminating affirmative action in that state.

That single phrase—“within days of the Gratz decision”—doesn’t just break up the monotony of a series of dates. It also suggests that Gratz was in a rush to make political hay out of her court victory.

2. Eric Holder, Butler v. MBNA

In private practice, then-Attorney General Holder did something similar below with the phrase “one day after.” Sure, he could have just written that the plaintiff allegedly “fell down” on October 13 and that she had an approved leave from August 23 to October 11. Although Holder would probably take the Fifth if we asked him, I bet he was happy to point out that the plaintiff’s alleged injury occurred just “one day after” she returned from a 50-day leave:

Plaintiff’s current claim arises from an incident where she allegedly “fell down” during an October 13, 2004 meeting with MBNA Human Resources Personnel. This incident occurred one day after plaintiff returned to active employment (on October 12) following a 50-day period (from August 23 to October 11) of approved [Short Term Disability] leave for a vision problem.

3. David Boies and Ted Olson, Perry v. Brown

Sometimes, of course, you want to show that the events happened slower, not faster, than the court might expect. Take how long the state waited in the California gay marriage case to argue that the presiding judge should have recused himself:

Not until April 25, 2011—almost two years after initially intervening in this case, more than one year after an adverse ruling at trial, and four months after arguing their appeal before this Court—did Proponents move to vacate the district court’s judgment, raising the argument they had previously (and publicly) foresworn: that Judge Walker should have recused himself because he is “gay and in a committed same-sex relationship.”

4. Morgan Chu, eBay v. IDT

Finally, this technique can also be used not to show that something happened faster or slower than expected, but to complain that it happened at all:

On November 26, 2008, the day before Thanksgiving, Defendants served a subpoena on Irell & Manella, which had at one time represented Mr. Gordon and the previous assignee of the ’350 patent.

[1] Mark P. Painter, The Legal Writer: 40 Rules for the Art of Legal Writing 61–72 (2d ed. Jardyce & Jardyce 2003).