Saturday, March 19, 2022
My first-year students participated in a traditional 1L moot court competition this week, making their first oral arguments. As I helped guide the students through this rite of passage, I answered many anxious questions about content, presentation style, appropriate “court suit” fashion, and more. In answer, I stressed the need to be prepared and flexible, and most of all, to enjoy the process. My overall advice: make a one-sheet, place the sheet in an organized binder to support a professional and successful argument, and don’t buy a new suit just for an argument.
I stress the one-sheet because it worked for me. Also, as a former state and federal appellate law clerk, and then an appellate specialist for years, I saw many oral arguments fail over lack of preparation and complicated podium notes. Instead of fancy folders or notes, I suggest students distill the argument to one piece of paper. The process of making this one-sheet, in law school and practice, requires advocates to know their record and case law very well, and to create argument summaries taking no more than a sentence or two. Plus, even if you drop one piece of paper, you can quickly pick it up and continue, unlike scattered index cards or multi-page notes.
As part of my preparation to teach the one-sheet approach to oral argument this year, I once again read many blogs and articles to see if I could add any new advice. I found a very helpful ABA Journal piece which perfectly summarized my appellate practice life before full-time teaching. In A Working Mother's 32-Step Guide to Preparing for Oral Arguments, author, law professor, and former Dean Sarah Gerwig-Moore provides a humorous and helpful discussion of oral argument, especially the concerns of being an advocate, mother, and woman in an appellate court setting. See ABA Journal, Nov. 18, 2019,
I suggested my students read Gerwig-Moore’s piece, and many told me the humor helped them keep their argument preparation in perspective.
Given how much my students enjoyed Gerwig-Moore’s 32-steps, I am also sharing them here. Gerwig-Moore explained her preparation for a Spring 2019 law clinic oral argument in the Supreme Court of Georgia “that would decide an important question regarding the scope of issues cognizable in habeas corpus proceedings.” See id. As so often happens, her “oral argument coincided with a truly insane week or two of sports and other obligations for [her] sons.” She explained, “[s]ometimes you just have to laugh to keep from crying. And—just as in baseball—there’s no crying in court.” Id.
Here is Gerwig-Moore’s lighthearted summary of her oral argument preparation:
- Reread all briefs and entire case record, making notes and highlighting.
- Reread all laws cited. Realize you might need the full 150-year history of the statute—ask team to track that down. As they’re researching this, realize the milk in your refrigerator might be 150 years old.
- Reread every case cited in all briefs and make notes. Ask your team to create charts of cases and facts so you can see each one at a glance. Make sure to ask very nicely.
- Slice up your brief for the first draft of an outline.
- Slicing up the brief reminds you to slice up food. Your children need to eat. Cook dinner! Leave dishes in the sink.
- Question absolutely everything—even your own name. Stay up too late.
- Wake up too early. Wonder if dark circles under your eyes make you look too shrill. Consider buying undereye concealer.
- Decide on a few key record items you will need to memorize. Make breakfast for children while reciting these. Scowl when sons remark that this isn’t fun. Consider smiling more with record recitations. Scowl again.
- Let at least three people down. (These are likely to be close friends or family members.)
- Anticipate questions from the bench. Arrange mock arguments with colleagues who don’t mind insulting you. Consider inviting archrivals, too. Or your teenage offspring. They’ll definitely insult you.
- Feed pets. Feed children. Eat leftovers. Deposit dishes in the sink.
- Moot the argument. Send follow-up assignments to team. Thank team! Donuts are a good way to thank people! Consider bringing some donuts to work but then forget.
- Consider wardrobe. Pantsuit? Skirt suit? Dress? Clothes should be flattering—but not too flattering. It should be comfortable—but not too comfortable. Assess work shoes to decide which will help you see over the podium but not actually tip you over in court. Don’t even get started on all the ways you can mess up your hairstyle strategy.
- Simultaneously wish you were both much, much taller and much, much smaller (see musing above re: shoes).
- Reread everything.
- Hem your suit—and I am not making this up—while on a conference call, while sitting in your car watching your son play lacrosse.
- As you are sewing, notice your nails haven’t been done in months. Wonder how many people will actually notice your hands. Resolve not to be too demonstrative with hands while in court.
- Do all your other work and errands and at least one ridiculous extra thing (can you say “homemade” cookies for your kid’s class, anyone?) you committed to months ago.
- Try to see the case from opposing counsel’s perspective. Consider adopting this tactic with your children, but then (metaphorically) hit them with the ol’ “Because I said so.”
- Check in with client.
- Buy the best lipstick your credit card can handle. This is unquestionably Pirate by Chanel. Case closed. (See what you did there?)
- Be serious but not too serious. Be confident but not too confident. Be yourself but not too much of that either (e.g., suit sleeves should cover your justice tattoos).
- Eat one vegetable. Make children eat two vegetables. Pat self on back for being health guru.
- Reread everything. Condense argument down to a one-pager.
- Ponder a twist on the Dorothy Parker classic: Justice makes spectacles of women in spectacles (which cause issues with limited peripheral vision). Decide to wear contact lenses.
- Read notes from team. Wax philosophical on the notion that all team members are working with the same richness of the experience of your work.
- Whiten teeth. Sharpen fangs. Consider optics of fangs. Stow them in a tiny pocket right next to your heart.
- Reread everything.
- Decide you hate your suit. Wish that suits of armor were still a thing.
- No—not sigh—breathe.
- Reread everything. Boil down outline to one word and the dancing woman emoji.
- Set four alarm clocks. Or is it alarms clock?
Id. Gerwig-Moore added a fun postscript, and if you want to know how the argument ended, please check out her article.
I wish you all great oral arguments, with one-sheets and humor as your guides.