Sunday, July 24, 2022
Subject-matter specialists might seem to have an advantage over a generalist on appeal. They would seem to have unmatched familiarity with the underlying statutes and caselaw. In specialty courts, such as the Federal Circuit, focused advocates may stand on a firmer footing than a newcomer in the field.
In most courts, however, the judges are generalists. They hear appeals on a wide range of subjects and cannot keep up with developments in every area of law. For them, the complexities and nuances that a specialist brings to the table may be less important than an experienced lawyer’s ability to boil the complicated down to familiar principles. Seventh Circuit Judge Diane Wood has noted that the “need to explain even the most complex area to a generalist judge . . . forces the bar to demystify legal doctrine and to make the law comprehensible.”[i] Make the unfamiliar familiar by utilizing language a judge will understand.
Moreover, the specialist may rely on memory of a frequently cited case that, over time, becomes little more than code words that only the cognoscenti appreciate. The generalist, however, is certain to find the case, read it freshly, and expose the imprecision while finding legal analogies that point in a different direction than the specialist argued.
A specialist’s command of policy arguments often relies upon the gloss of repetitive usage, twists to conform to his clients’ preferred results, and the dullness of repeated use, a generalist can look at legislative history and intent with fresh eyes that can be revelatory to a judge. Moreover, a generalist will draw from other areas of law enabling the judge to appreciate analogies that the specialist would never consider.
In some ways, the difference is comparable to the difference between an appellate lawyer and a trial lawyer. Trial counsel knows the record from having lived though the case and having pursued key objectives that yielded the desired result. The appellate lawyer looks at the case more dispassionately and often finds that the formula for victory is either an issue quite different from the one that may have dominated trial or a route that may even have been unavailable at an earlier stage.
The bottom line is that tackling a new area of law should not generate fear that the specialist opponent holds all the cards. The well-prepared appellate lawyer should appreciate the advantages that a generalist can bring to the table.
[i] Diane Wood, Generalist Judges in a Specialist World, 50 SMU L. Rev 1755, 1767 (1997).