Friday, May 16, 2014
Last week I posted about Savannah High School’s moot court reenactment of the Brown v. Board case. After participating in that event as a judge, I became curious about whether other high schools participated in appellate advocacy training. Of course, high school debate and mock trial are pretty common, but I had not yet seen any high school programs that focused on appellate advocacy.
In my research, I came to discover that American University Washington College of Law hosts an annual high school moot court competition. In preparation for competition, high school students study a problem comprised of judicial opinions, the party briefs, case law, and articles. Over the course of two days in the Spring, students present oral arguments on the issues presented by the moot court problem. The competition is open to all students, even those who are home schooled, and there is no requirement of prior experience with moot court or mock trial.
This type of program is positioned to impart a number of skills upon the students. Aside from the obvious ones like poise and public speaking, the studying of cases and defending a position through oral expository argument engages the brain in sophisticated problem-solving thought processes. Furthermore, asking young students to contemplate social justice issues and policy concerns in the context of legal precedent creates opportunities to ignite passion for the law and respect for its power.
I know many attorneys and academics seek opportunities to give back to their communities. Partnering with a high school to train students for appellate advocacy is an excellent way to give back by passing along attorney-specific knowledge to a younger generation.
Tuesday, May 6, 2014
I was recently asked to participate as a judge in a high school “moot trial” competition amongst three of our local high schools. I was intrigued by the notion of a high school “moot trial,” so I of course began asking questions about the event.
It turns out the students had been studying Brown v. Board of Education, and our local Board of Education wanted to host a capstone event to celebrate that study. What they really wanted was to host a debate on the issues in Brown, and I think they really meant moot court, not moot trial. While it was a good idea, the implementation became problematic as the organizers, who were not lawyers, could not understand the full vision or magnitude of the task assigned to the students. After some conversation with me and other professors, however, the vision narrowed to a more manageable scope for the students. In the end, the students basically reconstructed the oral arguments from Brown and delivered them in a moot court style.
I have to admit, I was skeptical going in about the ability of the students to grasp the issues without having had any formal guidance or legal training. The students, however, were nothing short of amazing. Don’t get me wrong—they aren’t ready to argue at the Supreme Court, but these students showed great potential as blossoming appellate advocates. They were poised, confident, thoughtful, and prepared. Until hearing them, I would have thought it unproductive to use Supreme Court precedent in this fashion at the high school level. Surely high schoolers are not open to learning about important historical developments in our law through the reading of the actual cases and briefs, right? Now, though, I see a number of opportunities for awakening social justice issues by engaging in brief studies of major Supreme Court decisions, and I think the context of the cases and briefs is exactly what the students need to stimulate a desire to learn and understand the issues of the day.
Sunday, April 6, 2014
Congratulations to the following teams for doing well in recent 2014 competitions. The students deserve a lot of praise for taking extra time to hone their oral and written advocacy skills. Their coaches also deserve a lot of kudos for taking the time to work with the students, often simply for the love of it and without any compensation or praise.
Elon University Billings, Exum & Frye National Constitutional Law Competitions
Champion: Southwestern Law School
Runner-up: Florida Coastal School of Law
Best Briefs: Petitioner - Regent University, Respondent - Southwestern
Best Oral Advocate: Kathy Spurlock, Florida Coastal
Albany Law School Gabrielli National Family Law Competition
Champion: University of Mississippi School of Law
Runner-up: Seton Hall School of Law
Best Brief: Seton Hall
Best Oral Advocate: Shannon Daugherty - Brooklyn Law School
National Native American Law Student Association Moot Court Competition
Champion: William & Mitchell
Runner-up: University of Hawaii
Best Brief: William & Mitchell
Best Oral Advocate: Andy Casey - University of Oklahoma
Capital University National Child Welare & Adoption Moot Court Competition
Champion: Florida Coastal School of Law
Runner-up: Loyola University Chicago School of Law
Best Brief: Loyola University Chicago
Best Oral Advocate: Jordan Griffin - Charlotte School of Law
St John's University Duberstein Bankruptcy Moot Court Competition
Champion: Georgia State University College of Law
Runner-up: Mississippi College School of Law
Best Brief: University of Memphis School of Law
Best Oral Advocate: Jennifer D'Augustinis - Florida Coastal School of Law
Tuesday, March 25, 2014
Perhaps NYLS should rename their competition the NKU Labor and Employment Law Moot Court Competition. After all, their law school has been nothing short of dominant. 2014 proved no exception as the team once again outperformed 45 other teams to claim the Wagner national championship on Sunday March 23, 2014. You can hear the final round argument here. This year the teams tackled a very challenging and timely problem dealing with whether unpaid interns should really be deemed employees pursuant to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and thus paid wages, and also whether the interns should be allowed to band together as both a class action under state law and a collective action under the FLSA.
Obviously, NKU advocates are coached well to astutely answer the challenging questions from this year and past years. How dominant is NKU at the Wagner competition? Check out this list of accomplishments:
- 2014 National Champions, Best Preliminary Round Team
- 2013 Best Brief
- 2012 Best Brief
- 2010 National Champions, Best Final-Round Oralist, 3rd Best Petitioner Brief
- 2009 National Finalists
- 2008 National Champion, Best Final-Round Oralist, Best Brief, Best Preliminary Round Team
- 2007 National Finalists, Best Brief
- 2006 National Quarter-Finalists, Best Brief, Best Preliminary Round Team
- 2005 National Finalists, Best Final-Round Oralist
- 2004 National Quarter-Finalists
This year, NKU defeated South Texas College of Law, a team that has also been successful lately. South Texas is the National Runner-Up for two consecutive years, and also won the best final round oral advocate award for 2014 and a best brief and best preliminary round team award for 2013.
Now for a bit of shameless self-promotion: the Appalachian School of Law team that I coach also performed very well, advancing to the quarter-finals and winning an award for best octo-finalist team.
Friday, March 14, 2014
Uncertainty. Second-guessing. This week I have (once again) watched it unfold. While this situation involves a team preparing for a moot court competition next week, the scenario is certainly apropos to anyone in this preparation situation.
Best practices dictate that it is important to "vet" your argument in front of valued sources. By letting them hear your argument, it is surmised that you will get good feedback on what to include and remove from it - thus coming away with a pristine presentation worthy of Supreme Court Justice admiration. But sometimes I cannot help but wonder if this process does just as much harm as it does good.
Let's take my moot court team for example.
The team has just completed its 15th oral argument practice session. The first 8 or 9 sessions involved just the team working with me as coach. Together, we analyzed the issues and talked ad nauseam about appropriate responses to anticipated complex questions. This process seemed to have formulated what we thought was a solid argument with few, if any, holes. But then we invited in guest judges (a mixture of law professors, practitioners, and law students who have taken course(s) in the subject matter) to observe the practices, ask questions, and offer feedback.
Let the uncertainty begin.
I was told once that opinions are like a$$holes, everyone has one. This is true. It is especially true in the legal profession where we are paid to have, and share, our opinions. What happened was inevitable. The first group of judges didn't like the introductory remarks and thought that the argument on behalf of the plaintiffs was too over the top. It was too much to paint the corporation as a greedy overlord bent on destruction of the weak. Ok, this made some sense, so the advocates tweaked the argument.
In came the next set of judges. "Where is the passion?" They wanted to know. Their opinion was that the corporation's motive was suspect and the plaintiff needs to exploit this issue before the Court. "You mean paint them as the evil greedy corporation determined to screw the masses?" "Yes."
Now it is time to re-work the argument again. Or is it?
Last night, a few more practices in and only 5 days away from travelling to the competition, yet another guest judge offered suggests to "tweak" the argument. Of course, these suggestions ran counter to what prior judges mentioned. The problem at this point becomes whether it is wise to once again re-work the argument so close to "game time." The goal right now should be perfecting the current road-map, not mapping out a new path.
What are you supposed to do with advice?
It is time for me to share with the team another bit of wisdom shared with me long ago. If you are walking down the street and someone tells you that you have a tail, ignore the person. If a second person also says you have a tail, you should start to wonder. If a third person tells you that you have a tell, you should turn around and look because you probably do have a tail!
The moral to that story is to take advice with a grain of salt until it merits serious consideration. I do believe in getting feedback on oral argument before going "live." However, if one person disagrees with the chosen path, it might be best to chalk it up as a difference of opinion not warranting a change in the argument. But if more than one person doesn't like the approach, the advocate should be much more inclined to change it. After all, two or three brains are smarter than one, and the advocate should not let ego get in the way of excellent advocacy.
I hope the students preparing for oral argument hear and receive this message loud and clear.
Tuesday, March 4, 2014
Over at our sister blog Legal Skills Prof Blog, they have a post about prepping for oral argument. This is especially timely for the countless teams preparing for spring semester moot court competitions. Check it out here.
Sunday, February 23, 2014
Sunday, January 26, 2014
This is when it gets fun...and intense. As soon as the brief has been submitted to the competition chair, most teams immediately begin practicing their oral argument. The practices are usually conducted daily (sometimes even twice a day) for the entire 2-3 week period leading up to the competition travel date. This process usually begins with committing key portions of the brief submitted to memory, and then repeatedly tweaking it through Q&A sessions with the coach(es) until the argument is as close to perfect as it is going to get, and also far enough away from the initial draft that it will not be delivered in a robotic and memorized fashion.
The process is repeated as the advocates also have to learn the off-brief (or opposite) argument as well, due to the fact that competitions require the advocates to argue on both sides of the issue during the preliminary rounds. While some students cringe at the thought of this because they have usually grown to appreciate the side of the argument that corresponds with the brief they submitted, I see this as one of the most invaluable parts of the moot court experience. After all, once they leave the "moot" world and enter into practice, a lawyer should not have tunnel vision and only analyze and dissect the argument in a light favorable to his/her client. A good lawyer spends almost the equivalent amount of time assessing the opposing argument. This exercise helps the good lawyer deal with the holes in his/her case more effectively when dealing with motion practice and oral advocacy before the court.
Focusing back on the issue presented in this blog post, many schools prepare students for oral argument by using a faculty coach who leads the students through the entire practice process, perhaps bringing in other faculty, students, alums and other practitioners to periodically play the role of guest judge. While conventional wisdom suggests that the students should practice before as many practitioners and professors versed in the relevant area of law as much as possible, it is equally important to have the students practice a few times before novice judges unfamiliar with the law.
Don't Forget the Simple Concepts
For example, one year I spent a lot of time getting my students up-to-speed on the law in preparation for the Wagner labor and employment law competition. While I had them prepared to deal with virtually any question asked, I had not stopped to think about the simple questions. During the competition, one of the judges asked one of my students what the plaintiff/petitioner wanted. The student recognized this was a remedies question, but since the fact-pattern didn't provide a copy of the complaint or discuss what the terminated employee sought for relief, I neglected to go over such a simple premise with the students. Of course, the student's lack of experience working for corporations also meant it was not possible to easily to come up with an answer off-the-cuff. But the student tried, responding that the client sought reinstatement. The client "might" have wanted this, but what the student did not think about and the judge further inquired about (with a less than adequate response), was that important pot of gold called back wages and perhaps front pay. The money didn't cross the student's mind, only the loss of the job - because the job loss - and legal issues surrounding it - was all we focused on in practice. It was my fault. I was thinking too high-level in practices and didn't bring in the novice judges to ask the simple yet important questions that a novice judge at the competition might want to know.
On a final note, one thing that I have been seeing more of is students totally committing their arguments to memory. Indeed, at the competition they approach the podium with no folder containing the road map and a cheat-sheet to help them if they get caught with a question they were not 100% prepared to answer. In a competition format, this is very impressive to the judges when the student successfully responds to all the questions without looking down once. While this certainly is better than the student that takes too much material to the podium and mostly reads to the judges between questions, I wonder if this is preparing them for the realities of practice. While I see this memorization technique yearly at competitions, I have not seen this the non-moot court world. Even skilled advocates who know the argument inside and out still approach the podium with their folder of materials and are unafraid to periodically look down to find a key point that needs stressed before the court. I have not required this level of memorization of my students, thinking it is better to make sure they know 90+% of it (and certainly have the introduction and conclusion committed to memory, because it can be fatal when an advocate does not start or finish strong), and they can save the other 10% of their brain focusing on other law school courses during the moot court practice daily grind. However, sometimes I wonder if I should join the world of rote memorization. After all, while I do not think real judges expect this (but check out this post from Prof. Cleveland on reading to the court) , it seems to really impress moot court judges.
Sunday, January 19, 2014
Last week I pondered the best way to select advocates for moot court teams. Today I would like to look at dealing with the research and writing component of the process.
Most moot court teams consist of two advocates, although a few competitions allow for three advocates per team and even fewer allow for a separate brief writer to be assigned to each respective team. Assuming that a separate brief writer is not allowed by the competition rules (because with a brief writer, I assume this person would be charged with the entire brief writing process and would share the researching duties with the oral advocates), what is the best way to divide the responsibilities between the team members? I must admit that I have bounced between methods with no real idea which is preferable.
The first method that I have used when having a two-person team is to assign each team member one of the issues (most moot court competitions have two distinct issues in the problem). Each team member is responsible for researching his/her own issue and writing the portion of the brief on that issue. Once both advocates have written their sections, they would then collaborate to infuse the two parts into one succinct and cohesive brief that hopefully will read as if it written by only one person. Admittedly, this blending of two parts to make it sound like one voice can be difficult to accomplish, especially when the students have vastly different writing styles, grammatical effectiveness, and timeliness in having their respective sections done and ready to undergo the infusion process. For example, if one person is done with his/her draft with a week remaining before the brief is due to the competition but the other student is not done until two days before the deadline, it is almost impossible to properly proofread and join the parts so that they read as if written by one person.
Realizing this problem, I have also explored having one person solely responsible for writing the brief with the other person being responsible for assisting with the research, formatting of the brief (such as the table of contents and authorities), and proofreading the brief. This tends to create two problems, with one bleeding into the other. The first problem is that the brief writer tends to complain that the other student is not adequately assisting (such as not providing substantive research assistance) with the writing process. If this is indeed true, the second problem usually ends up being that the non-brief writer ends up having to play catch-up when it is time to prepare for oral argument. The person writing the brief is usually much more intimately familiar with the facts and the law while the other is much less comfortable with the material due to taking a back seat during the brief writing process. So while this method ensures that the brief reads with one voice, it can cause team friction and impair the oral argument practice sessions due to having to spend extra time getting the non-brief writer up-to-speed on the case.
How have you attacked this problem? Might there be a third or fourth alternative approach?
In the next post, we will explore oral argument practice protocol.
Friday, January 17, 2014
Earlier this week, Lyle Denniston reported and Josh Blackman commented on Tuesday's Supreme Court oral argument in Marvin Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States. Apparently, there was a "are you talkin' reading to me?" moment between Justice Scalia and one of the advocates. Steven J. Lechner, the lawyer for the trust, had barely begun his argument when Justice Scalia interrupted him to brusquely ask: "Counsel, you are not reading this, are you?" Lechner didn't immediately answer, and Justice Breyer intervened, commenting, "It's all right." Lechner continued his argument and no further mention was made of the issue, though Denniston suggests Lechner was understandably somewhat faltering in the rest of his argument, likely on account of this rough start.
Blackman regards this comment by Scalia as a "dick move," and others proposed we give Mr. Lechner a break. Inversecondemnation suggested:
You know, we've all been there in some venue, haven't we? We're all not übermensch Supreme Court litigators who can do this without a net and who have the stones to go to the lectern sans notes. Heck, we won't even go down to muni court naked (so to speak). Especially when what's at stake is the language in an otherwise obscure 1875 federal statute, where it's important to get the language just so.
The blogosphere and twitterverse were awash in comments, some facepalming at Lechner's reading, some Scalia-blaming, and some genuine sympathy for Mr. Lechner. These all seem appropriate reactions. It's widely known and probably universally taught that judges, at any level, do not appreciate being read to by counsel. Advocates in every legal writing program and moot court organization across the country are taught not to read from a prepared text except when necessary to quote some legally relevant text. The Supreme Court actually has a rule, Rule 28, stating: "Oral argument read from a prepared text is not favored." Similarly, Federal Rule of Appellate Procudure 34(c) states: "Counsel must not read at length from briefs, records, or authorities."
And yet, Scalia could have acheived the goal of taking the advocate off his notes with a substantive question or at least allowed the advocate a bit more time to move to extemporaneous commentary. The man was still giving his introduction, after all. Finally, I, for one, sympathize with Mr. Lechner, not just for the discomfort caused by Justice Scalia's comment but also because of the extensive media commentary that followed, dubbing it, at best, an embarrassing moment.
What can advocates learn from this experience? Well, obviously, that the Supreme Court, or at least some members, have no tolerance for reading prepared statements. And, appellate rules forbid, or at least discourage, reading from prepared texts at the lectern. But more generally, that the instruction to avoid reading to the court is not just something your legal writing or trial ad professor tells you to make your life more difficult. Reading at length to the court is ineffective in building a rapport with the bench, but it also violates a very deeply-rooted tradition about how oral arguments are conducted.
Sunday, January 12, 2014
In the next couple of weeks, hundreds of moot court teams around the world will be receiving fact patterns and engaging in the painstaking task of deciphering the case, researching relevant law, and drafting briefs for submission to the competition. As I await the release of the Wagner fact pattern in order to go over it with my team, I have been contemplating the best way to select moot court teams, the best way to divide the research and brief writing responsibilities for the team, and the best way to attack oral argument preparation. Over the course of the next week I would like to explore each of these steps in the preparation process.
As it relates to picking teams, I am only very familiar with the processes utilized at the school where I graduated and the school where I currently teach. When I was at Capital Law, students competed against each other in order to be selected for a team. More specifically, each competition had a tryout period for students to submit a brief and perform an oral argument before the selection committee (members of the moot court board and the faculty advisor(s)). The best competitors were then selected to compete on the respective teams. Since I have graduated, I hear they now have created a succession-planning process of sorts, where a moot court "fellow" will work with and travel with the team the first year and then has the opportunity to compete on the team or some other team in the subsequent year.
At ASL, we do not have fellows, but we do have student assistant coaches. These are students that perform admirably in oral and/or written advocacy and, with a little extra tutoring and observation of the process, will likely get a chance to actually compete the next year. While this process is similar to the fellows program, what we do that is different is that we mandate that students take AppAd before they can be considered for a team (the same is true for the assistant coaches). At the end of the semester, the students present their oral arguments, and moot court coaches usually observe these arguments in order to see the best advocates and decide, in consultation with the other coaches and the AppAd professors (to ascertain their brief writing skills), which students will receive moot court team invitations. The moot court board plays no role in the selection of advocates.
While our process has created some very competitive teams, there are some schools out there that seem to excel every year in moot court. Stetson Law immediately comes to mind. My understanding is that they have a faculty member who's sole job is to oversee the selection and coaching of the moot court teams. If this is accurate, that is dedication! Some schools let their moot court boards do the team selection and coaching. Some use adjuncts or law firm partners to select and coach the teams instead of full-time faculty, and some even pay their faculty for their time commitment with the selection and coaching process.
There are a lot of different ways to go about selecting competitive teams. I am curious to find out what some other schools are doing. I hope to get feedback from some of the readers.