Don’t Underestimate the Table of Contents

Many brief writers mistakenly think of the table of contents as a nuisance that their secretaries must complete before briefs are finished. This fundamental error can profoundly affect the quality of their documents.

Once a significant part of a document has been prepared, and often when a discrete segment is completed, the author should pull the table of contents that then exists to study. That table may reveal a missing argument to be added, an editorial adjustment to be made in the ordering of existing arguments, a problem in the logical flow of the document, and other issues to be addressed. For a long document, this process may need to be repeated multiple times.

Pulling the table is not difficult.  The headings can be cut and pasted into a separate document.  The page numbering is of little importance and will change, so it’s only the wording that is needed.

When the document nears completion, the table of contents should be pulled again and closely examined.

  • Are the headings that form the table in parallel format, typically all affirmative sentences? The table is disjointed when some headings are sentences, others phrases or single words.  A rare exception may arise if all subheadings are a single word or short phrase.
  • Is there something missing? Even if the point is in the brief, some courts will deem an argument waived if it is not captured in a heading. Moreover, this review may be your chance to realize that an entire argument has accidentally been omitted.
  • Is there a logical flow from one part of the document to the next?  Do the headings carry the reader forward?
  • Does the table constitute a stand-alone short statement of all the arguments? A judge may read the briefs a week or more before oral arguments. If your table provides a stand-alone statement of your arguments, it can refresh the judge’s recollection easily on the day of arguments.

A compelling table of contents may be the best selling point possible for your arguments. Don’t pass up the chance to use it to make your arguments clearer and more accessible.