Monday, July 15, 2019
This is a guest post by Raffi Melkonian, a partner at Wright Close & Barger in Houston, Texas.
The day after I gave my first (and only!) United States Supreme Court argument, I put up a thread on Twitter (where I post as @RMFifthCircuit) about my oral argument preparation. It was well-received, and many people encouraged me to tease it out a little into a blog post or article. This is my first attempt to do exactly that. A caveat: these thoughts are for people like me. That is, lawyers who don’t normally practice in the rarified air of the Supreme Court. It’s advice for the first-time tourist, not the experienced traveler. Maybe it’s even good advice for the new lawyer preparing for their first appellate argument. So if your name is Paul Clement or Neal Katyal, stop reading!
One more thing. This post is not about briefing. Yes, it’s conventional wisdom that the merits brief is the most important part of the Supreme Court presentation. I think that’s true. And yet, it’s a complicated topic that goes far beyond the scope of this post.
Anyway, oral argument is the moment many first-time advocates focus on, and with good reason. It’s the one time you’re alone with the nine justices of the Supreme Court. No one can help you. And, the stakes for your client are high. Not many cases are won at argument, to be sure, but some are lost. In Justice Ginsburg’s words, “I have seen potential winners become losers in whole or in part because of … oral argument.” But the advocate too has some skin in the game. As I know from scrutinizing arguments on #AppellateTwitter, a lawyer’s missteps at oral argument are judged harshly by the commentariat. You don’t ever want to be that guy.
So what then? The answer is intense and unrelenting preparation. Listed below are some of the strategies I used to get ready. But remember, excellent lawyers prepare differently. What may work for me won’t work for you, and the reverse. So, as they say on the Internet, Your Mileage May Vary.
- My grandmother, like many Catholics, would read a small prayer book every morning, a daily devotional. It seemed to me that I needed to know all of the briefs as intimately as she knew her prayers, so I had all the pleadings set out in a binder – our briefs, their briefs, and the various amici – and I read them every morning. I took notes, of course, but mainly the point was to read them again, and again, and again.
- David Frederick, the famous Supreme Court lawyer, recommends in his book on oral argument that you spend much of your time thinking of questions the Court could ask you. That’s part of my normal oral argument preparation, and I took his advice doubly to heart for SCOTUS. I spent hours thinking of as many questions as possible. I scrawled some of these questions on note cards, some I typed. No question was too benign, and none too difficult. The hardest work was writing out extensive answers to each question.
- I wrote a very short outline of what I wanted to say, and practiced in front of a camera at a podium (well, a cardboard box) many times. A picture I posted on twitter of that effort was even turned into a meme by the incredibly creative @AliceLfc4, a court clerk in Florida (here’s proof!). Every 20 seconds or so, I’d pick a question from my pile and ask it to myself, and then answer, and then practice pivoting back to what I was trying to say. This effort required many edits to my note card answers. Some of my answers were bad, others too long. Over time, they became tighter, more focused, pithy. Well, as pithy as I get, anyway.
- Ultimately, I became convinced that there were only six thematic sentences I needed to say, no matter what. I wrote these on a notecard and practiced saying them during my note card answers. The goal was to say each of the six at least once in any practice session. I got five of them out during the actual oral argument.
- I did three moot courts in total, beginning about two weeks before the argument. I spent two days before the moot preparing for the argument, and then the entire day after the moot incorporating the feedback. Needless to say, I am ever grateful to the teams at Stanford, Public Citizen, and the Georgetown University Law Center Supreme Court Institute that mooted me.
- Finally, consider the physical space. I hadn’t been to the Supreme Court since college, and so I picked an oral argument day earlier in the week to observe. This turned out to be a good idea. The space is both overwhelming and tight, and knowing what it feels like helped put me at ease when I went for real. Plus, I had many guests with me, none of whom had been to the Court either. Being able to give them real world advice about the process of getting in and to the courtroom (though really, you can just read Jaime Santos’s go-to thread) was invaluable.
An article I read before the argument helpfully advised that most advocates do not faint at the Supreme Court’s podium. At the time, I felt that was rather macabre. But with the right preparation, a Supreme Court argument can be enjoyed rather than endured. I know I enjoyed mine.