Michael W. Rathsack
Michael W. Rathsack

SPRINGFIELD — Appellate briefs in Illinois will no longer be bound only by pages.

The state’s high court has approved word limits for appellant and appellee briefs to go along with the current 50-page limit.

Under a rule-change approved by the Illinois Supreme Court this week, such briefs are also valid if they’re 15,000 words or less with reply briefs for both sides limited to 20 pages or 7,000 words.

Cross-appellants and cross-appellees still get 30 pages, or 8,400 words, and a cross-appellant’s reply brief is limited to 20 pages or 7,000 words. The changes were announced Wednesday and go into effect on Jan. 1.

Although trivial for some lawyers, the question of whether to use word or page counts had divided two of the biggest legal groups in the state — The Chicago Bar Association and the Illinois State Bar Association.

The initial proposal — which called for a 14,000-word count — was crafted by members of the former group, who wanted a rule that aligned with the federal courts and gave lawyers flexibility on formatting and font choices in an increasingly digital age.

“It’s about white space,” said Michael W. Rathsack, member of the Chicago bar group’s Special Committee on Appellate Practice who proposed the change to the Supreme Court Rules Committee. “You need to have more subheadings and more distance between topics when people read things on screens. That was key.”

Rathsack, for his part, uses Century, a type of serif font which guidelines from the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals endorse as “easier to read and comprehend than long passages of sans–serif type.”

Umberto S. Davi, president of the ISBA and principal of the Law Offices of Umberto S. Davi P.C. in Western Springs, could not be reached for comment.

But earlier this summer the group said in a memo to the court’s rules committee that it opposed changing from a page to a word count because the benefits of it “are not readily apparent.”

“More practically, the ISBA is concerned that not all Illinois appellate courts have the technical ability to verify word count,” states the memo, which is dated July 14.

Rathsack said the court’s decision to keep the 50-page limit as an option was something of a “safe harbor” for lawyers who still preferred paper.

The changes to the state court length limit are enshrined in Supreme Court Rule 341. Lawyers can still ask the court for extra room by filing a motion at least 10 days before their brief is due or at least five days before their reply brief is due.

But they have to state the number of pages they’re going over the limit and the specific reasons why they’re going over the limit, and they may be doing so at their own peril.

“Motions to file a brief in excess of the length limitation of this rule are not favored,” the rule states.

The court also amended a handful of other rules, including one allowing attorneys to serve documents on other parties via e-mail and requires them to put their e-mail addresses “on the appearance and on all pleadings filed in court.” Those changes are made in Supreme Court Rule 11.

“That to me is very practical,” said J. Timothy Eaton, a partner at Taft, Stettinius & Hollister LLP and a past president of The Chicago Bar Association, which was not involved in coming up with the e-mail rule change.

“I think the last time they amended that rule they allowed faxes or overnight carriers in the way you can have service.”

He said all the rule changes, plus a change requiring mandatory electronic filing in DuPage County civil cases beginning Jan. 1, were a product of the legal system trying to catch up to technology.

“We’re gradually getting there,” Eaton said.