Tuesday, August 20, 2019
There have been numerous articles and speeches about the benefits of moot court for law students. Success in advocacy competitions in general is an overall indicator of success on the bar. It teaches the student to examine both sides of an issue, be thorough in their research and writing, develop professionalism in the courtroom, and to refine arguments through multiple iterations. Some students say that the exercise is one of their most educational experiences in law school.
But what about the coaches and advisors who work with the students? This year marks my 21st year coaching moot court teams. Over those 21 years I have been repeatedly questioned as to why I put so much effort into a work that has never generated a single appellate case referral. My answer is that while coaching moot court may never build your business, it can build you up in many other ways.
First, lawyers never stop learning the law. I coach three competitions a year, and they are difficult ones. While only one permits me to work with the students on the writing, they all permit working together in collaboration on the oral argument. Because they also all do a good job of developing problems that deal with perplexing and important issue of the day in the law, I am able to keep abreast of the law in ways that simply would not be possible if I were to focus exclusively on my practice. This is particularly true in the area of Constitutional law, in which I have developed a broad and deep knowledge that I find invaluable at odd moments in my practice.
Second, lawyers never stop honing their skills. As I work with students in each competition, I am reminded of the importance of certain skills and the impact of bad habits. That helps me keep my own skills sharpened. And I refine those skills through lessons I learn from those interactions.
Third, lawyers always benefit from a larger network. Whether you teach full time or practice law and have recently been asked to volunteer, you will likely benefit from expanding your network. You might get referrals later in your career, you might develop a peer group of other coaches and advisors that you can bounce ideas off over time, or you might develop a stronger reputation in your given area. Networking works differently for everyone, but there are always benefits.
And finally, lawyers need community. Practicing lawyers who work as mentors experience greater job satisfaction than those who do not. Our work, whether teaching or practicing law, can become painfully isolating. Coaching or advising a moot court team draws us out of our shells and into the lives of the students we work with.
Over the weekend I had the great honor of officiating at the wedding of two of my former moot court students. I was deeply honored and humbled by their request. While I may never receive an appeal to work on as the direct result of my work with students, no amount of legal fees could ever match the satisfaction and affirmation of that experience, or any of the personal interactions I have on an almost weekly basis with my former students.
Moot court is good for law students. It is good for their coaches and advisors, too. So if you are asked, say yes. And if you haven’t been asked, consider this an invitation to volunteer.
(Image credit: Honore Daumier, The High Tribunal of Judges, 1843)
Monday, August 19, 2019
Today is the first day of school at many law schools around the country, including the one where I teach. Those schools that haven’t started are likely to begin in the next few weeks. This time of year has me thinking about new beginnings and the rhythm of the academic year. While culturally there is a lot of talk of New Year’s resolutions, those of us on an academic calendar start our new year in August or September, with all the plans and hopes that accompany a fresh start--new students, new courses, new approaches to material.
As summer has wound down, I’ve been reading First, Evan Thomas’s fascinating biography of Sandra Day O’Connor. In the same way that schools operate on their calendar, the Supreme Court operates on the rhythm of its Terms, which begin every year on the first Monday in October. The Court recesses at the end of June, then works on the petitions and other business to prepare for the next October Term.
Justice O’Connor was sworn in just a couple of weeks before the Term began in 1981, and it seems as that first Monday in October approached, she was anticipating what the new Term would hold. For example, Thomas reports that in 1986 upon the appointment of Justice Scalia that “O’Connor had welcomed his high intelligence and verve. . . Scalia, she believed, would be a tonic. ‘Nino Scalia will have a dramatic impact here,’ she wrote in her journal.”
As I start a new school year this August, Justice O’Connor’s example is on my mind. Her strength, will, and energy enabled her to be a trail-blazer, as highlighted in First. And she continued to start each October Term strongly for 25 years, even when dealing with challenges including breast cancer, diagnosed shortly before the 1988 October Term.
For those of you not on an academic or appellate term, do you have a way of creating fresh starts for yourself? Do you still look to the calendar to demarcate your own “terms”?
Any advice you’d like to share for starting strong, whether in academics or practice?
I like to make sure my office and inbox is organized at the start of a new semester, as piles tend to grow during the hectic pace of classes.
I hope everyone who is starting a new term soon has a great start!
Thursday, August 8, 2019
Thursday’s Rhaw Bar: A Little Bite of All Things Rhetoric and Law—exploring ideas, theories, strategies, techniques, and critiques at the intersection of rhetoric and legal communication.
Today’s Rhaw Bar returns to the rhetorical strategy of setting-off text as a way focus a reader’s attention and create meaning. In my post from a month ago, I described how using lists in legal writing employs visual rhetoric strategies to both stack-up and set-off important information. In this post, I return to the concept of setting off information, this time through a punctuation mark: the em-dash.
In his 2006 book, The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information, Richard Lanham argues that “attention is the commodity in short supply” in an information economy. Legal writers know this all too well; they have an ethical duty to keep a reader’s attention focused on the content of complex legal documents. But busy legal readers are inundated with more information than they can possibly digest, have access to that information at speeds faster than ever, and are likely subjected to more distractions from reading on screens that are animated with competing demands on the reader’s attention. In a digital world, the legal writer’s need to point the reader toward important information is more critical than ever.
A punctuation mark can be an efficient and effective way to visually call a reader’s attention to an important point and to shape the meaning of the text it punctuates. An underused punctuation mark with visual rhetorical impact for attention-getting is the em-dash. When used appropriately—and sparingly—the em-dash is an easily implemented, powerful visual rhetoric technique for legal writing.
Em-dashes typically are made by typing two hyphens between two words with no spaces between any of the characters. Remember that a hyphen (-), which connects compound words and modifiers (among others) like em-dash, absent-minded, or mother-in-law, is not an em-dash. An em-dash—appearing on either side of this text—is at least twice as long.
An em-dash visually separates (1) a phrase or clause within a sentence or (2) information at the end of a sentence from the rest of the sentence. When a pair of em-dashes are used within a sentence, they typically take the place of commas or parentheses; when a single em-dash is used toward the end of a sentence, it typically takes the place of a colon or semi-colon.
Em-dashes take advantage of both novelty and white space to draw the reader’s eye to text that either follows a single em-dash or lies between em-dashes. Used sparingly, em-dashes have novelty; readers will notice them and ask, “I wonder what this is about?” In addition, an em-dash creates more white space around text than that created by a comma, semi-colon, or colon, visually highlighting the selected information and causing the reader to notice it. While commas, parentheses, semi-colons, and colons also set-off information, they do so in a less forceful and attention-grabbing way. The em-dash, on the other hand, is more assertive and commanding—hey! this text is important!
An em-dash, however, does more than just call attention to text; the em-dash also provides a clue for the reader about how to give meaning to the sentence as a whole. The em-dash is a visually persuasive framing device; the em-dash helps the writer select a dominant meaning for the sentence while deflecting other meanings that are available.
Take for example this sentence from a legal argument in a case where Jones is arguing that Jones’s marriage to Smith should be annulled because the marriage took place while Jones was under duress:
Smith sent Jones an email the day before the wedding threatening to expose Jones’s drug problem to his parents.
This sentence has essentially three pieces of information:
- Smith sent Jones an email.
- The email threatened to expose Jones’s drug problem to his parents.
- This email was sent the day before the wedding.
In the sentence above, all three pieces are expressed in a way that makes the ideas contained in them roughly equal in importance. That is, the frame of the sentence is balanced evenly, all of the ideas in the sentence share the same importance, and the reader is free to decide which parts of the sentence to give more or less attention.
But notice what happens to the sentence’s meaning when one of the pieces of information is set off with em-dashes:
Smith sent Jones an email—the day before the wedding—threatening to expose Jones’s drug problem to his parents.
Now, by using em-dashes, the writer causes imbalance in the sentence’s frame, visually setting off what the writer wants the reader to notice: the timing of the threatening email. The em-dashes guide the reader about how the sentence is meant to be read; the timing of the email is the most important information. The em-dashes help prime the reader to expect that Jones’s duress argument will be stronger because of the e’mail’s timing. By using em-dashes, the writer deploys dramatic interruption to call attention to important information and to shape the meaning of the sentence. And this is accomplished with only punctuation.
Notice what happens to the sentence if the writer wants to emphasize the content, not the timing, of the email:
The day before the wedding, Smith sent Jones an email—a threat to expose Jones’s drug problem to his parents.
Here, the em-dash sets off the text at the end of the sentence. Visually, the single em-dash acts almost like an arrow, pointing the reader toward what the writer wants to be the most important information. Structuring the sentence this way places the reader’s attention on the threatening email’s content. Instead of being primed to focus on a timing argument, the reader is primed to focus more on the threatening language. By moving the em-dash to call attention to a different part of the sentence, the writer changes the meaning of the sentence for the reader.
While legal writers should use em-dashes to draw attention and to help create meaning, writers should be careful not to overuse them. Overuse causes em-dashes to lose their dramatic visual impact. Think of em-dashes like the salt on the top of a salted caramel. A little bit of salt enhances the sweet flavor, making the candy more satisfying; too much salt ruins the whole thing.
Kirsten Davis teaches at Stetson University College of Law and in the Tampa Bay region of Florida. She is the Director of the Institute for the Advancement of Legal Communication. The Institute’s mission is to study legal communication issues and provide programming and training that improves legal communication skills. The views she expresses here are solely her own and not intended to be legal advice. You can reach Dr. Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tuesday, August 6, 2019
I am a big proponent of oral argument. It can, and should, make a difference in complicated cases. No matter how tight our writing is, there is something about the give-and-take of oral argument with a well-prepared panel that refines arguments in a way that is difficult to match. But we also have to be very careful, or the words we say can live on in ways we did not expect.
While I was catching up on my reading following summer vacation with my family (a big thank you to my friend, John Browning, for covering with his excellent guest post while I was gone), I dove into the recent analysis of the Plain Error Doctrine in Justice Oldham's concurring opinion in U.S. v. Del Carpio Frescas, No. 17-50245 (5th Cir. July 29, 2019). While I found his analysis of the origins and misadventures of the doctrine since the 1800s to be fascinating and recommended reading for anyone who deals with the doctrine or the topic of waiver versus forfeiture of error, what caught my attention most was his reference to a comment by the Federal Public Defender's Office made during oral argument in a different matter. Without going into detail, Justice Oldham used that comment to raise what he considers to be an anomaly in the law.
We already know that some Supreme Court Justices are prone to quoting oral argument in the opinions that they write in the same matter. According to a 2008 analysis, Justice Ginsberg cites the transcript in almost every opinion she writes, with Chief Justice Roberts following a bit behind at one citation to the transcript every other authored opinion. See Frederick Liu, Citing the Transcript of Oral Argument: Which Justices Do It and Why, 118 Yale L.J. Pocket Part 32 (2008). The Justices use the transcript for three primary reasons: (1) to describe an advocate's affirmative position; (2) to record an advocate's concession; and (3) to note an advocate's representation of the record or facts. Being quoted is not necessarily a good thing -- Justices were almost twice as likely to cite statements made by an advocate whose side they opposed than one they supported.
We already know, then, that what we say at oral argument in a given case may be used in the opinion that follows. The oral argument does seem to make a difference, at least to justices on the margins, and the right argument can still sometimes win the day. Of course, the converse is true. Loose lips can sink ships. The impact of the statements made at oral argument is the primary reason I urge advocates to "moot" their appeals.
But what struck me about Justice Oldham's use of the transcript was that he was drawing from other cases. As more courts record oral argument and transcripts become more widely available and searchable, the idea of having my words used in an opinion months or years later is a bit sobering. And it drives home the idea that these transcripts are another important research tool that is easy to overlook.
Don't forget that even our spoken words live longer now than ever. We need to tap into that as a source of research, and be careful with what we say for both the cases we are currently handling and the ones we may handle in the future.
(Image information: WWII era poster from the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration).
Monday, August 5, 2019
Over the summer, I have been going through moot court brief section by section, giving moot court drafting and scoring advice. In this final installment I will discuss the overall editing of the brief. There is nothing that sours a reader faster than finding multiple editing errors. As I’ve mentioned before, typos in the Questions Presented do not give me much hope of finding an excellent brief as I turn past the first section. Over the years, students have been most frustrated when they realize that their brief did not score well because they violated the word count or lost points for some other avoidable editing issue.
Often, moot court briefs are scored separately for content and form, with a set of scorers specifically tasked with going through and looking for editing and citation issues. I always suggest doing separate editing passes to make sure that your brief is as close to perfect as possible before you turn it in.
These two blog posts by Joe Regalia go into more depth on editing word choice and using technology to uncover your writing blind spots and are worthwhile reads:
Scoring-wise, style often plays a significant role in total points. In the sample score sheet I reviewed, the Overall Presentation was worth 15 of 100 points.
Is the writing style clear, concise, and persuasive?
Does the brief effectively present the case for the client?
Does the brief look polished and professional?
(15 points possible) _________________
In another competition with separate technical scoring, every error, whether grammatical or citation, resulted in a point subtracted. That adds up quickly when every point matters. Often brief scores tend to cluster, and even a couple of stray errors can take a brief out of the running for a high score.
Here are my top tips for editing a moot court brief:
* Set an internal deadline for the team that is 48 hours before the actual deadline to leave time for additional read-throughs. Have accountability with a coach or director that the internal deadline is met.
* Every team member should read the brief in hard copy at least once. The more eyes on the brief, the better the chances of catching everything.
* Use editing technology, but don’t mindlessly rely on it. Grammarly is what I typically recommend.
* Try to edit after a good night’s rest and when it’s been a few days since you looked at the brief to give yourself better perspective and clarity on your writing.
* Double check all of the little things. Have you complied with all of the competition rules? Are the cites perfect? Are the tables organized and cited properly? Does the cover look polished and professional?
Ensuring that your brief is well-edited will not guarantee that you have the winning brief for a competition, but a poorly-edited brief will not even be in the running.
Wednesday, July 31, 2019
I often talk to my writing and appellate advocacy students about their audience, the members of the court from which they are seeking relief. I have spent most of my career working for appellate courts and, so, having been the audience, I like to educate my students about the reader’s perspective. It is hard sometimes to grasp who your audience is, or how much attention the reader pays to legal motions, memoranda, and briefs. I confess that when I was a student I used to romanticize about my reader sitting in an overstuffed, leather chair in a dimly lit room slowly perusing briefs while sipping cognac. It never occurred to me that the sheer volume of work makes that picture a ridiculous fantasy.
Let’s talk about numbers. The United States Supreme Court website tells us that over 7,000 cases are filed in the Court each term, and that, of that number, about 80 receive plenary review, with another 100 disposed of without plenary review. The Court writes thousands of pages a term, if you count all the opinions and orders. See https://www.supremecourt.gov/about/courtatwork.aspx (last visited 7/23/2019). Imagine that! Even shared amongst all of the Justices, law clerks, clerks, and staff attorneys, the volume of written work in a term far exceed what most people will produce in a lifetime.
These numbers are just staggering. Imagine having to read just a fraction of the briefs and other legal documents filed in these cases. There is nothing romantic about it. But it is awe-inspiring to consider the dedication and sacrifice involved in devoting so much of time into the cares of the litigants and the future course of this country. The same can be said about every appellate court, where incoming cases can range from a few hundred in smaller states to more than 10,000 in the largest states each year.
Keeping the sheer volume of cases in mind, over the next few weeks I will explore what we can do as appellate advocates to ease the burden.
Tuesday, July 23, 2019
Today begins the Fourteenth Annual NAACA (National Association of Appellate Court Attorneys) Conference, where staff attorneys from state and federal appellate courts will gather together to celebrate their unique positions in the appellate system, to relax, to fellowship, and to educate themselves. When I was working as a staff attorney, I looked forward to the conference and served on the education committee, planning sessions and finding speakers. The conference is one of the best conferences I have attended in terms of legal education, resulting in several hours of available CLE credit each year.
What I enjoyed most was being able to talk to colleagues from around the country, and learn from their experiences. After Katrina, I had the opportunity to go to New Orleans and learn how the floods had impacted the administration of justice, and how the courts were learning from that experience and were adjusting their methods of storing documents. From my colleagues around this country, I learned about management, and efficiency, and devotion to one’s calling.
This week, I tip my hat to you. I hope your conference is filled with excellent sessions, good food, and heartwarming fellowship.
This is a guest post by John Browning. John is a partner in a Dallas law firm, where he handles civil litigation and appeals in state and federal courts. He is the author of multiple books and many articles on social media and the law.
In our increasingly wired world in which over 82% of adult Americans maintain at least one social networking profile—and in which Facebook boasts over 2.2 billion users and Twitter processes a billion tweets every 48 hours—the potential for using social media in ways that violate attorneys’ ethical restrictions looms large. Lawyers across all practice areas have tweeted, Instagrammed, posted, and Snapchatted their way into disciplinary proceedings, judicially-imposed sanctions, and other forms of ethical hot water. But in the comparatively staid, even monastic confines of the appellate world, can appellate lawyers fall prey to the siren song of social media?
The answer is a resounding, if somewhat surprising, “yes.” Appellate lawyers, clerks and other court staffers, and even judges have seen their online activities result in public embarrassment, job loss, and disciplinary action. And while reviewing the record in an underlying case and engaging in legal research may not be typical paths to social media misuse, breaching confidentiality by discussing certain aspects of a case on social media platforms is a very real danger.
Let’s begin with a cautionary tale. Sarah Peterson Herr was a newly-minted graduate of Washburn University School of Law in Kansas in 2010 when she started her first job at the Kansas Court of Appeals as a judicial assistant to Judge Christel Marquardt. About a year later, she was promoted to research attorney, the position she held on November 15, 2012. When she reported for work that day, Herr noticed that there was an unusual amount of security. She soon learned the reason why: that day, the Kansas Supreme Court would host an attorney disciplinary proceeding against former Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline. While serving as attorney general, Kline attracted controversy over the use of his office to investigate and prosecute abortion providers such as Planned Parenthood.
Herr decided to view the oral arguments using the computer in her office, where she also proceeded to “live Tweet” the proceedings, sending out a series of tweets that included the following:
- “You can watch that naughty naughty boy, Mr. Kilein [sic], live! live.kscourts.org/live.php”
- “Why is Phil Klein [sic] smiling? There is nothing to smile about douchebag.”
- “ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME. WHERE ARE THE VICTIMS? ALL THE PEOPLE WITH THE RECORDS WHO WERE STOLEN.”
- “You don’t think a sealed document is meant to be confidential. BURN.”
- “I predict that he will be disbarred for a period not less than 7 years.”
- “I might be a little feisty today.”
With that last note, about whether or not she might be too “feisty,” Herr may have made her most salient observation. While she did not associate her tweets with her job, at least some of Herr’s Twitter followers were aware of her position with the Court of Appeals, and now everyone also knew her opinion of Phill Kline—including her accusation that Kline’s “witch hunt” helped lead to a doctor’s murder. A journalist with the Associated Press learned of Herr’s tweets and contacted the Kansas Judicial Center’s public information officer the next day for comment, and shortly thereafter Herr was placed on leave and, falling on her sword and issuing an apology:
I didn’t stop to think that in addition to communicating with a few of my friends on Twitter I was also communicating with the public at large, which was not appropriate for someone who works for the court system . . . I apologize that because the comments were made on Twitter—and thus public—that they were perceived as a reflection on the Kansas courts.
The following Monday, Herr was terminated. Within days, she was referred to the Kansas bar’s disciplinary body by the clerk of the appellate courts, and in January 2014, Herr was found to have violated Kansas Rules of Professional Conduct 8.4(c) (about engaging in deceit or misrepresentation) and 8.4(e) (about implying on ability to influence a government agency). She received an informal admonition and became a cautionary tale for the Digital Age.
Even appellate judges can misstep or overshare on social media platforms. In November 2017, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Bill O’Neill was also a Democratic candidate for governor of Ohio. On the national landscape, U.S. Senator Al Franken of Minnesota was embroiled in a highly publicized scandal involving his alleged sexual misconduct with radio host Leeann Tweeden during a 2006 USO tour. Inexplicably, Justice O’Neill felt compelled to weigh in on what he described as the “national feeding frenzy about sexual indiscretions” with a “too much information” Facebook post about his own sexual history. Saying it was “time to speak up on behalf of all heterosexual males” and expressing that he would “save my opponents some research time,” Justice O’Neill posted the following:
In the last fifty years I was sexually intimate with approximately 50 very attractive females. It ranged from a gorgeous personal secretary to Senator Bob Taft (senior) who was my first true love and we made passionate love in the hayloft at her parents barn in Gallipolis and ended with a drop dead gorgeous red head who was a senior advisor to Peter Lewis at Progressive Insurance in Cleveland.
O’Neill’s Facebook post led to an immediate backlash, including from his own party. O’Neill had already been widely criticized for his refusal to resign from the Supreme Court while openly proclaiming his candidacy for governor. Ohio Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor stated “No words can convey my shock. This gross disrespect for women shakes the public’s confidence in the integrity of the judiciary.” Justice O’Neill deleted his post but posted new comments on Facebook, at first lambasting his critics. O’Neill eventually posted an apology, but the damage was already done.
Appellate lawyers and judges should not only be aware of the ethical risks presented by their own misuse of social media, they also have to be mindful of what their lawyer and non-lawyer staff might be posting. Appellate courts, including the Supreme Court of Texas, have begun implementing social media policies for that reason. Courts’ internal handling of matters before them are confidential, and courts must balance the First Amendment freedoms of current and prospective court employees with the courts’ legitimate interest in protecting the integrity and efficiency of their work. The online activities of court employees can implicate or even threaten multiple ethical obligations, including the duty to maintain confidentiality, the duty to avoid conduct that would jeopardize the integrity and independence of the judiciary, and the duty to avoid any conduct that would cause a reasonable person to question the impartiality of the court.
One current lawsuit illustrates the dangers of court staffers’ social media activity when they communicate in such as way as to make their affiliation with an appellate court known. In May 2018, Olga Zuniga—a former secretary to Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Kevin Yeary—filed a federal lawsuit complaining that she had been fired from her job because of Facebook posts in which she criticized President Trump and other Republican politicians while praising Democratic politicians. According to the lawsuit, Zuniga had worked as a career legal secretary in state government, including at the Texas Attorney General’s Office, and had been an executive assistant at the Court of Criminal Appeals since 2003. In November 2016, Zuniga alleges Judge Yeary “counseled” her about her Facebook posts critical of Republican figures. Zuniga maintains that Judge Yeary’s periodic reviews of her Facebook activity continued throughout 2017, with Judge Yeary expressing “disapproval” of her politically-charged posts. Ultimately, according to Zuniga’s lawsuit, after again disapproving of posts Zuniga made in September 2017 critical of stances taken by both Governor Greg Abbott and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick on immigration-related issues, Judge Yeary terminated her on October 11, 2017.
Judge Yeary and the Court of Criminal Appeals responded with two motions to dismiss, filed on July 30, 2018 and March 28, 2019 respectively. In both motions, among other arguments, the defense pointed out numerous examples of Zuniga’s Facebook posts associating herself with the Court, its activities, and its personnel, as well as posts containing lewd content, to demonstrate her use of Facebook while at work on her official state computer. The motions also argued that dismissal was warranted based on the fact that, as someone employed in a judge’s chambers, Ms. Zuniga was an employee with access to confidential information, and one whose job functions required trust and loyalty. Moreover, Ms. Zuniga’s online comments suggesting that partisan elected judges could not be trusted if they belonged to a certain political party undermined the Court’s interest in maintaining authority and credibility. In addition, the motions to dismiss also argued that, as Zuniga herself had admitted, there were other factors leading to her termination, such as attendance problems, inaccurate leave reporting, the failure to complete assignments, and other job performance issues unrelated to any dispute over plaintiff’s political views. The court has not yet ruled on either of these dismissal motions.
In today’s digital environment, social media allows commentators incredible reach with the blinding speed of a search engine. Consequently, appellate attorneys—like their counterparts in other practice areas—need to be mindful of that when they express opinions online or on social media platforms, even when they think they are acting in a purely personal capacity. Lawyers face heightened public and ethical scrutiny when they make statements on social media, so if you wouldn’t put it in a letter or pleading, you probably shouldn’t post it on Facebook or tweet about it.
Monday, July 22, 2019
Today, Justice John Paul Stevens lays in repose at the Supreme Court. Later, he will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Justice Stevens died last Tuesday at ninety-nine years old, after retiring from the Supreme Court in 2010 at ninety. When he retired, he was the third longest serving Justice in Supreme Court history.
President Ford, a Republican, nominated Justice Stevens, who became a leader of the liberal voices on the Supreme Court. According to Jan Crawford Greenburg in her 2007 book, Supreme Conflict: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Control of the United States, Justice Stevens “was a Maverick who didn’t ascribe to a particular theory. He was fiercely independent in his writings and actions. When the justices donned their robes before taking the bench, Stevens was the only one who refused assistance from the aides in the robing room. He always insisted on putting on his own robe. He took his own path in his opinions, too.”
Live coverage at the Supreme Court today on C-SPAN:
A biography of Justice Stevens at Oyez.org:
Paul Clement’s Tribute on SCOTUSblog:
Tuesday, July 16, 2019
Many arguments consist of two main parts—an articulation of the law and an application of that law to the client’s facts. I thought the second part, arguing how the law applies to the facts, is where I persuaded the court to rule in my favor. However, I’ve learned that how I describe the law, before I ever apply it to the case, is equally important for effective advocacy.
When explaining the law in a brief, attorneys draw from authority. Sources of law are often written objectively. In a brief, simply paraphrasing or quoting court opinions or statues in their objective form neglects an opportunity to tell the client’s story using the law.
In their book Just Briefs, Laurel Oates, Anne Enquist, and Connie Krontz describe several techniques for telling the client’s story with the law. These techniques focus on presenting the law from the client’s perspective.
It can be challenging to draft the law from the client’s point of view while pulling from objectively written sources. I recommend writing a clear description of the law and then editing it for persuasion.
Let’s look at an example of how to edit a statement of the law to punch up its persuasiveness.
Objective Statement of the Law (First Draft)
[I’ve omitted citations for ease of reading, though citations can also be used to persuade the court.]
Covenants not to compete within employment contracts are matters of law for a court to decide. Typically, covenants not to compete are disfavored under the law. The party seeking to enforce the covenant bears the burden of proving its reasonableness. Courts will find a covenant not to compete is reasonable, and therefore enforceable, when the covenant is “narrowly tailored” to protect the employer’s legitimate interest, the covenant does not impose an “undue hardship on the employee,” and the covenant is not “injurious to the public interest.”
Persuasive Statement of the Law (Revised Version of First Draft)
[Assume we represent an employee challenging the enforceability of her covenant not to compete with her employer. By editing the objective statement above, we present the law from the client’s perspective, which is that the covenant not to compete is unreasonable and unenforceable.]
The New Hampshire Supreme Court has repeatedly held that covenants not to compete are disfavored under the law. The unreasonableness of a covenant not to compete is a matter of law for the court to decide using a three-prong test. First, a covenant is unreasonable if it is not “narrowly tailored” to protect the employer’s legitimate interest. Second, the covenant is unreasonable if it imposes an “undue hardship on the employee.” Third, the covenant is unreasonable if it is “injurious to the public interest.” A covenant not to compete is unreasonable, and therefore unenforceable, unless the employer, as the party bearing the burden of proof, can prove all three prongs.
Checklist of Edits Transforming Objective Into Persuasive
- We reworked a sentence describing law that is favorable to our client to emphasize that this point has been routinely espoused by the highest court in the jurisdiction. While the citation would show this statement came from the New Hampshire Supreme Court, our text stresses that this portion of the law is firmly established by precedent.
- We changed the order of sentences to take advantage of the beginning of the paragraph as a position of emphasis. We start the rule strong.
- We reworded portions of the rule to reflect the outcome our client wants. We changed “enforceable” to “unenforceable” and “reasonable” to “unreasonable.”
- We made the three-prong enforceability test, which the opposing side (employer) must prove, appear more difficult to meet by breaking it into three separate sentences.
- In order to emphasize the conjunctive nature of the rule, we repeat the statement that all three prongs of the test must be met.
- We end strongly with a portion of the rule that is favorable to our client, which is that the employer bears the burden of proof. The end is also a position of emphasis.
Amanda Sholtis teaches legal analysis and writing at Widener University Commonwealth Law School in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. You may contact her at email@example.com.
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.
Thursday, July 11, 2019
Thursday’s Rhaw Bar: A Little Bite of All Things Rhetoric and Law
Welcome to a new theme for posts on the Appellate Advocacy Blog: Thursday’s Rhaw Bar: A Little Bite of All Things Rhetoric and Law. In this series, the Blog will explore ideas, theories, strategies, techniques, and critiques at the intersect of rhetoric and legal communication. Today we take a behind-the-scenes look at the rhetorical power of the “visual list” in brief writing.
In his excellent post a few weeks ago, professor and blogger Joe Regalia identified the myriad ways to use visuals in briefing, and he pointed out the “visual list” as a persuasive way to present information. He noted that the technique is particularly effective for summarizing information.
The list is perhaps the original visual in brief writing—a writer can construct a list on manual typewriter or even with pen and paper; all one needs is the ability to indent, input text, and separate list items, such as with a number or icon (like a bullet point). But why does a list work as a visual as well as a textual persuasion device? In other words, if a reader never actually reads the text of a list, would the list still persuade? Does the list have rhetorical features as a “thing” unto itself, beyond the words that compose it?
As Professor Regalia’s post suggests, a list has a visual rhetorical effect all its own. A list is effective as visual rhetoric because a list sets off and stacks up information.
1. Lists visually set off information that the writer wants to mark as important.
Lists effectively use white space to set-off information, which shows its importance. Readers, even if they don’t consciously recognize it, use white space as a cue about how to respond to text. For example, think about paragraph breaks; the white space between two paragraphs and an indentation at the beginning of the first line of the second paragraph (which itself is a unit of white space) are cues to the reader that something important is happening—the new paragraph leaves behind the original topic and introduces a different topic. And the reader gets this information simply by skimming a page; the set-off is persuasive even before the reader actually reads the text content. (Try this yourself—take a look at the whole of a page of text—what does the white space say to you?)
The message of white space to set-off text is even more pronounced with lists, particularly when a list is indented from the left margin. When the reader encounters an indented list, the reader gets an immediate cue that something is special about the ideas captured in the list; the white space around it conveys that message. This white space says to the reader “Stop! Look here! This text is different from the rest of the information on this page. It is special, so pay extra attention.” And this cue works to persuade even before the reader engages the list’s content.
2. Lists stack up points of information to visually demonstrate weight or volume.
As a visual rhetorical tool, a list can have the effect of stacking up information to convey the weight or volume of the information presented. Think of a tower of kid’s building blocks. The taller the stack, the more impressive and memorable the tower for its sheer size alone. In the context of brief writing, then, a list can visually convey the strength of a point even before the reader reviews the list’s content. For example, take this list of triggers for using a graphic from Professor Regalia’s article:
• You have data—graphs nearly always make data easier to swallow than writing about the results.
• You want to make comparisons, connections, or contrasts between pieces of evidence or information. This is probably the most powerful, and least used tool. A simple table can drive home points like a party failing to submit any rebuttal evidence (one side of the table is your evidence, the other is their lack of it).
• You have a complex process to discuss—like an agency process, or a factual process that a party carried out.
• To show how a statute, regulation, or any other rule operates in steps.
• Any time you can use a chart to plot out a decision tree for your reader with the options laid out.
• Whenever you can come up with a visual that highlights key evidence or authority.
Now compare Professor Regalia’s same list, presented in paragraph form:
Here are some specific triggers when you might consider using a graphic:. You have data—graphs nearly always make data easier to swallow than writing about the results. You want to make comparisons, connections, or contrasts between pieces of evidence or information. This is probably the most powerful, and least used tool. A simple table can drive home points like a party failing to submit any rebuttal evidence (one side of the table is your evidence, the other is their lack of it). You have a complex process to discuss—like an agency process, or a factual process that a party carried out. To show how a statute, regulation, or any other rule operates in steps. Any time you can use a chart to plot out a decision tree for your reader with the options laid out. Whenever you can come up with a visual that highlights key evidence or authority.
Although the traditional paragraph contains the same information as the list, the paragraph makes less of a visual impact in conveying the number of situations where it would be appropriate for a writer to use a graphic in a brief. In the paragraph, the writer loses the visual impact of the “stacked” list, which, by virtue of the height of the stack, effectively conveys the many opportunities for brief writers to use graphics.
In the context of a brief, a list’s visual effectiveness in stacking up its content can prime the reader to understand the list’s content in the way the writer wants. For example, in Professor Regalia’s list above, the reader who encounters this long list is primed to believe that the circumstances for graphic use are many. In the paragraph format, however, this “stacking” strategy is less effective; it is not as easy for the reader to see, before reading the paragraph in detail, that there are many opportunities for graphic use. (This comparison also suggests that if the writer wants to de-emphasize the weight or volume of information, the reader would not choose a list format and instead keep all of the information in a paragraph.)
If we go one more step and number the list items (i.e., 1., 2., 3., 4.), the list becomes even more visually persuasive because the reader is immediately cued to the size of the stack—six uses of graphics in briefs.
So, what do these two effects—set-off and stack-up—suggest for using lists? Consider formatting information into a list to accomplish these goals:
- To give the reader the visual impression that textual information is uniquely important and should be given special attention; or
- To show the reader—through formatting—that the items in your list are weighty, numerous, or otherwise substantial; or
- To accomplish both.
Kirsten Davis teaches at Stetson University College of Law in the Tampa Bay region of Florida. The views she expresses here are solely her own and not intended to be legal advice. You may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tuesday, July 9, 2019
Last month, there was a short article in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled "Why Writing Better Will Make You a Better Person." In the article, two professors of philosophy who teach ethics (Bob Fischer and Nathan Nobis) put forth the idea that good writing leads to more ethical behavior, because it involves several ethical ways of thinking. The article is linked here.
In their article, Fischer and Nobis suggest that writing is an ethical activity, and that becoming a better writer can make you a better person. In so arguing, they suggest several high-level ethical norms that should motivate good writing:
- Try to do good things and avoid causing bad ones. Writing causes feelings in the reader. We should try to cause good feelings and good consequences, and avoid causing bad ones.
- Respect everyone, including your readers, as inherently valuable and rational beings. Don't waste your reader's time. Respect them enough to be clear and concise.
- Follow the Golden Rule. Treat your reader as you would like to be treated yourself. If you like straightforward, well-referenced, well-organized text, provide it to your readers.
In the end, the authors conclude that good character traits should produce good writing. Empathy requires always considering others and their needs and points of view. Compassion means you don't make your writing any more difficult to read than need be. Honesty requires the full truth, including bad facts and opposing arguments. Humility requires acknowledging that those competing arguments might have merit.
Conversely, the authors suggest that practicing these traits to be a good writer will make the writer a better person. Studiously respecting the reader, considering the merit of opposing arguments, and so on will help strengthen the corresponding ethical traits in the life of the writer.
As lawyers, we often divorce ourselves from general rules of ethics and focus on our professional rules of responsibility. But even there, we have the same obligations to fulfill. Our obligations include a duty of competency that requires thoroughness and preparation, See Model Rules of Prof'l Conduct R. 1.1, and a duty of candor, to the court and third parties, that requires us to admit factual and legal weaknesses in our arguments. See Model Rules of Prof'l Conduct R. 3.3, 4.1. And as the preamble notes, while many of the Rules govern our conduct directly, "a lawyer is also guided by personal conscience and the approbation of professional peers."
Numerous studies demonstrate further that ethical writing is more persuasive and effective. Simpler writing is more easily understand and followed by the courts. Admitting weaknesses enhances credibility, which is the coin of persuasion, while sloppiness in research or citations to facts or the law expends that credibility without reason. Our duties of competence and candor, therefore, are best served by being ethical in our writing, which also leads to the best results for clients.
It makes sense that, over time, adherence to these obligations in our writing and other client representations leads to their refinement in our characters. Ethical writing strengthens behavioral muscle that can, and should, work out in our daily lives. Conversely, unethical writing may serve as a warning sign for issues in the personal lives of counsel.
Seen in this light, teaching good legal writing to our students and young lawyers is an exercise in both effectiveness and ethics. The earlier we can convince our young lawyers of this, the healthier the bar will become.
(Image Credit: AndreasPraefcke, Wikipedia U. "Diogenes in Search of an Honest Man." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified August 06, 2014. https://www.ancient.eu/image/2908/.)
Monday, July 8, 2019
The task of writing a statement of facts in a real-world appellate brief generally requires distilling significant amounts of information from the record. In Moot Court, you have typically have the fact section from the court opinion, a shorter and more focused treatment (though there are a few competitions out there that use entire appellate records). When looking at the fact section of an opinion and trying to make a statement of facts out of it, it can be difficult to write a story that has already been written. Some students are tempted to rely heavily on the phrasing and organization that was given in the problem, but that would be a mistake.
The statement of facts is an important part of your Moot Court brief, and there are some key things you can do to maximize your score in this section. As I’ve done in my other posts on sections of the brief for Moot Court, let’s start with scoring criteria from a sample competition:
STATEMENT OF THE CASE/FACTS
Does it engage the reader’s interest?
Are all legally relevant facts included?
Is it accurately, persuasively, and concisely written?
Is the procedural history clear? (15/100 points possible) ______________
To maximize your score on this section and stand out in all of the right ways, here are some tips:
1. Tell a story. The first criteria in this score sheet looks at whether the reader’s interest is engaged. Focusing on telling a story is the best way to grab your reader. People remember stories. Here’s an excellent blog post by Joe Regalia on Storytelling.
One key aspect on storytelling is to start in the right place. Spend time thinking about who your client is and where the story should start to ensure it presents the picture of your client you want.
2. Double check after you have written your argument that you included all of the facts that you used in your statement of facts. While you may write a draft of the statement of facts earlier in the process, until you have finished the heart of your brief, there may be little details that you missed at first.
And when you check your use of facts, make sure that you are giving specifics, not just generalizations. Also, have the record next to you as you draft; don’t just write from your memory. This is how inaccuracies are introduced. If something was said that was important, quote it!
3. Use headings and paragraph breaks to make it more readable. As a scorer, I am instantly annoyed when I confront a wall of text with no breaks. Headings and paragraphs help me see how you arranged and organized the various facts, and I can see how it all fits together before diving in.
4. Avoid arguing, but be persuasive. In the statement of facts, it’s important to be subtle and use focus, organization, and word choice to persuade. Don’t argue or come to legal conclusions, but do frame the facts to your client’s advantage.
Don’t underestimate the power of a strong statement of facts to tell your client’s story, and to help you maximize your brief score.
Friday, July 5, 2019
Each week, the Appellate Advocacy Blog Weekly Roundup presents a few tidbits of news and Twitter posts from the past week concerning appellate advocacy. As always, if you see something during the week that you think we should be sure to include, feel free to send Dan Real a quick email atDReal@Creighton.edu or a message on Twitter (@Daniel_L_Real). You can also send emails to Danny Leavitt at Danny@tsalerno-law.com or a message on twitter @Danny_C_Leavitt.
Supreme Court Opinions and News:
The New Yorker had an article this week addressing how the Court’s recent decision in Gundy v. United States likely foreshadows a shift in the Court’s position with regard to allowing Congress to broadly delegate authority to agencies. Gundy involved a challenge to Congress’ delegation to the Attorney General the decision of whether mandatory registration requirements under the Sex Offender Registration Act apply to individuals who were convicted prior to the Act’s passage. Gundy is such a defendant, did not register, and was charged and convicted as a result. He challenged Congress’ delegation as impermissible. As the article notes, the Court has long allowed Congress broad authority to make such delegations. In Gundy’s case, the Court was divided with the four more liberal Justices voting to continue allowing delegation, three more conservative Justices voting to deviate from prior law, and Justice Alito siding with the more liberal Justices but explicitly indicating that if a majority of the Court was inclined to change the law, he’d be on board. The decision in Gundy strongly suggests that the next case to raise the issue to the Court will likely be decided differently because Justice Kavanaugh had not yet been confirmed when it was argued and did not participate. The article notes that changing this practice of delegation may result in wide sweeping changes to federal government, as a substantial amount of federal law currently depends heavily on such delegations to agencies.
FiveThirtyEight.com had an article this week reviewing the voting habits of the members of the Court (especially the conservative members) since the retirement of “swing vote” Justice Kennedy. The article suggested that the Court could be viewed now as having three swing Justices, depending on the issues presented – Justice Gorsuch joined the more liberal members of the Court in more closely divided cases than any of the other more conservative Justices, while Justice Roberts provided the decisive vote on the recent census case. Additionally, the early voting trends suggest that Justice Kavanaugh is likely the current “middle” of the Court, pushing it more conservative even while he seems to be more ideologically moderate than Justice Gorsuch.
The ABA Journal took a look this week at Justice Thomas' 30 year career on the Court, emphasizing his enigmatic persona -- "supporters and detractors are still debating who he really is." He's now the longest-serving member of the Court and the senior associate Justice. On the bench, he's known for rarely speaking; off the bench, he's known for being quite jovial and chatty.
Federal Appellate Court Opinions and News:
In the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, Amazon was held strictly liable for injuries caused by defective products sold by other vendors on its website. The case was Oberdorf v. Amazon.com. More from the CA3blog.
State Appellate Court Opinions and News:
The Iowa Court of Appeals this week reversed a jury's decision that had awarded an Iowa couple $3.25 million after they claimed their adoption attorney failed to file paperwork on time and lead to them losing the child they planned to adopt. The couple cared for the boy for a few months, but were then required to return him to his biological parents after the couple's attorney did not have the biological parents sign termination of parental rights documents. The child died from severe head injuries a month later, and the biological father was convicted of second-degree murder. In reversing the malpractice damage award, the appellate court concluded that the couple had failed to show that the attorney engaged in illegitimate conduct especially likely to produce serious emotional harm and had not show that he had a duty to exercise care to avoid causing emotional harm. More here.
Practice Tips and Pointers:
Tuesday, June 25, 2019
In my last entry, I gave an overview of how to set up a moot court session for your real appeal, including panelist selection, timing, and preparation. Today, I want to talk in more details about how to set up and conduct the moot court session itself.
1. Plan Ahead and Be Respectful of your Panel's Time.
Making the most of this time is critical. You are either costing your panelists their time (if they have volunteered) or paying them for it, either in the form of a flat or hourly fee. Be respectful of that time. First, give them copies of the briefing and key cases or statutes far enough in advance that they can time-shift the work needed to be prepared for the session. Second, let them know your expectations for their participation at the session and the anticipated time involved.
2. Establish a Format for the Session.
The latter bit of information will depend on whether you are going to have a “typical” session or add on time. The “typical” session that I recommend is in two parts. First there is a true “moot court” session, accurately emulating the anticipated oral argument. Second, the panel takes off the robes (literally or figuratively) and talks through their critique of the argument and the answers given. Give yourself time for your moot court (with or without opposing argument presented) and then, as a rule of thumb, at least double that time for the follow-up discussion. Encourage the panelists to raise issues or questions that might not have been brought up during the round.
You can add to this time if you wish. Some practitioners want to give the argument first without questions as a straight run-through, then have the panel hear the argument again and ask questions. I usually counsel against this, because it means your moot panel will have heard the argument much more clearly than your actual panel will.
If your panel has time, you may want to have an initial roundtable after the argument, then watch the video and see what other questions or comments are brought to mind when doing so. As mentioned in the earlier article, you might even want to have a separate brainstorming session before your response or reply are due, in order to flesh out issues during briefing instead of oral argument.
In my moot court coaching, I alternate between informal roundtable discussions, question and answer sessions, and argument. Over the years I have come to believe that it takes all three types of preparation, much like a sports team might have team meetings to discuss plays, conduct skill drills, and then play in scrimmages in order to prepare for a real game.
Whatever the plan is, make it explicit to the panel and be sure to prepare for each step. Do not underestimate the time for your panel if you want them to work with you again.
3. Accurately Emulate the Oral Argument.
Next, pay attention to the actual setup of the moot court session. I prefer using as realistic a setup as possible. If you have never argued before a particular court before, find out what kind of timing mechanism is used and find one that matches it as closely as possible. If you are not familiar with timing lights, they can be very distracting and a bit confusing. To prepare, you can find timing lights on Amazon or other retailers. Practicing with the light will help you get a better feel for how to time your argument without fearing your first encounter with “the light.”
If possible, try to hold your moot session in a setting that emulates your oral argument environment. Many law schools have practice courtrooms, with some set up for appellate simulation. In a pinch, a conference room will work, but use a podium and have the panel sit together so you can get used to scanning for reaction. Teleconferencing is also an option if time or distance simply do not allow for everyone to be in the same room, but I don’t find it to be as accurate a simulation as other setups.
4. Prepare Yourself and Your Panel.
When the date of the session arrives be sure that you and your panel are prepared. If you have selected former justices, appellate practitioners, or even former clerks for the court you are approaching, and have provided them with materials in time to prepare, they will be ready to serve as a general panel. If you receive a notice of panel change or setting, be sure to share that with them and discuss potentially doing additional research to emulate a particular justice on the panel, if that is the approach you wish to take.
Prior to the session, practice and refine your argument on your own, and work with potential Q&A that you and your colleagues may have developed. If you are a newer or infrequent advocate, and you are nervous about how to handle questions, one practice technique is to write down anticipated questions on note cards, give them a good shuffle, then start your “speech,” grabbing a card at intervals and responding to the questions while working back into the arguments.
Finally, watch oral arguments from your court, your panel members, and your opponent. The proliferation of online videotaped oral argument is a wonderful preparation tool.
5. Enjoy the Conversation
The ultimate goal of all of this work is to make yourself comfortable with the subject matter, the format, and the environment to such an extent that you are able to engage in a meaningful conversation with your real panel. Only by working with a practice panel can you reassure yourself that your weaknesses have been fully probed, and only be simulating the experience accurately can you feel comfortable when you stand to speak. But don’t forget to enjoy the moment – oral argument is increasingly rare on appeal, and each time it is granted you are being given an opportunity to meaningfully collaborate with the court in properly developing the law in a setting that is meant to speak your sometimes dry legal arguments to life.
(Image credit: My furtive photo of an excellent simulation experience for two of my SMU Law School moot court students, Adrian Galvan (speaking) and Sydney Sadler (sitting to his left) at the final round of the TYLA Moot Court Competition earlier this month, where they were able to argue in front of all but one of the judges (that is the proper term for this court) from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.)
Monday, June 24, 2019
Have you ever picked up a book, read the back cover and immediately set it back down, with nothing enticing you to read further? An ineffective summary of the argument can create this effect in your brief.
One of the final parts of the brief to write, the summary of the argument is often the first chance to persuade the judges. But more than that, the summary of argument serves to frame and present the thinking of the brief, and it should do so in a way that draws the judge further into the brief. Some judges read the summary of the argument first, and it’s a mistake to throw something together than is bland and doesn’t get to the heart of your argument.
Judith Fischer’s 2015 article, Summing it up with Panache: Framing a Brief’s Summary of the Argument
takes a deep dive into summaries of the argument and looks at recent Supreme Court briefs’ summaries to gather insights into how appellate practitioners write them. It’s a helpful article in understanding a practitioner approach to the summary of the argument, and it’s rich in examples.
For moot court, I believe scorers are looking for the same thing that a judge would be. Does the summary of the argument give a persuasive overview of the case? Here’s an example of summary of the argument scoring criteria from a competition I have scored before:
SUMMARY OF ARGUMENT:
Is it a succinct, clear, accurate statement of the argument?
Is it persuasively written?
Is it more than a restatement of the point headings?
(10 points possible)
TOP TIPS FOR THE SUMMARY OF ARGUMENT
1. Include your theme in the first sentence or two of the summary. If I get to the end of the first paragraph and I don’t know your position, that’s a problem.
Here is a great example from Judith Fischer’s article mentioned above comparing the first sentences of petitioner and respondent summaries of argument:
Eminent domain was the legal subject in Kelo v. City of New London, where the petitioners opposed a local government’s taking of private property for use by a commercial entity. Their summary of the argument opened with an appeal to Americans’ emotional attachment to their homes: “To Petitioners, like most Americans, their homes are their castles.” The brevity of this sentence intensifies its impact.
The respondents’ summary evoked logic rather than emotion: “At the heart of this case are a series of decisions made by the Connecticut legislature and the elected officials of the City of New London as to what will best serve the economic, social, structural and environmental interests of New London's citizens.”
These sentences primed the Court for two contrasting approaches to the case. The petitioners tapped into deep-seated feelings about homes. By contrast, the respondents relied on legal principles, telling a “‘justice’ story” to argue that the city’s decision was correct despite an outcome displeasing to some.
In Kelo, the justice story prevailed when the Court approved the city’s exercise of eminent domain.
2. Keep it under about 10% of the length of the actual argument. It should be a true summary, not a full recap. Too long, and you risk losing the opportunity to give a good overview to your reader; too short, and it may not be enough to be helpful.
3. Limit citations. It will bog down the summary.
4. Don’t just restate the point headings. It’s lazy and just taking up space.
5. Make sure to leave yourself enough time to give thought to your summary of the argument once you are done with the argument.
Just like authors and editors spend significant time on the back of the book to grab readers’ attention, you should be persuading from the beginning of your brief by having a strong, concise summary of argument.
Tuesday, June 11, 2019
As both a moot-court coach and a real-life appellate specialist, I find myself moving back-and-forth between real appeals and simulations on a regular basis. Each one advises the other, and I think the experience makes me both a better coach and practitioner.
One area of overlap is in "mooting" appeals. In law school, it is an exercise in practical skill building with formative assessment in the form of constant feedback. In real appeals, it is the best preparation there is for oral argument, no matter how skilled the presenter might be.
Don't just take my word for it:
No preparation for oral argument is as valuable as a moot court in which you're interrogated by lawyers as familiar with your case as the court is likely to be. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is so effective in bringing your attention to issues that have not occurred to you and in revealing the flaws in your responses to issues you have been aware of.
Antonin Scalia & Bryan Garner, Making your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges 158 (2008)
Your opponents are probably doing it. The United State's Solicitor General's office, as well as Appellate Staff throughout the government, conduct at least one moot session before oral argument. In larger cases, it is increasingly considered best practices to do so. Larger firms often conduct multiple moot sessions in-house. Even in smaller matters, informal mooting sessions are becoming more common.
Fortunately, if you are familiar with moot court from law school, you can probably put together a moot round for your argument. You just need a panel, a video camera, a plan, and time. Lots of time.
1. Pick your Panel Carefully
In general, you want to pick at least three panelists who will represent the type of judges you anticipate will be on your panel. Legal expertise is less important than appellate experience. For this reason, former appellate judges and appellate specialists are often utilized. Appellate specialists can put together a panel for you if you need the assistance.
Why not pick someone who really knows the substantive law? Because they aren't a good emulation of your court. You want people who will read what the court will read (the briefing, key cases, orders/judgments at issue and record excerpts) and then ask you the type of question that this preparation brings to mind. Someone who knows the law very well outside of this exercise might carry the same blinders you have developed during your time with the case.
If you are appearing before a court en banc or a court with more than three justices, you can use more panelists. Most practitioners do not suggest matching the full number, however, as there is diminished value in adding more seats at the moot.
2. Prepare For Your Session Wisely
You want to have at least one moot round within two weeks of the oral argument so you have time to prepare and adjust based on your session. If possible, discussing the issue even earlier can be of great benefit. Indeed, if you can schedule a time with your panelists to have a roundtable discussion before you finish briefing, that is ideal. Uncovering arguments and answering questions you had not thought of asking in your briefing, rather than in the oral argument alone, is ideal.
Some research into your potential panelists is a good idea. If you are in a jurisdiction that videotapes oral argument, watch recent arguments on related issues to get a feel for how the justices you might get on your panel are approaching your issues. I recently mooted a panel for a public interest group, and noted that one justice in particular on the circuit tended to focus on a particular statutory issue. I flagged that for them during the moot court, and when that issue arose at oral argument, they were able to answer it when others had not and ultimately prevailed.
You may also wish to find someone willing to argue the other side. The moot session can work with just your side if you are experienced. But if you need work on your rebuttal skills or in shaping your appellee or respondent argument to an unexpected approach or to address questions asked to co-counsel, this step can provide you some additional help.
3. Videotape the Proceedings
Time acquires a very subjective and malleable quality when one is being grilled by a panel of intelligent skeptics about a topic that has great importance. Before you know it, your time is up and you are sitting down trying to remember what was just said. Videotaping the round ensures that you will remember the questions asked and answered, and you can see how you look and act during your moments of panic and introspection. If you need to work on your "uhs" and tendency to sway while speaking, now is the time to do so.
4. Take Your Time at Every Stage
Finally, make sure everyone takes the time necessary for the process to work. You need to take your time in preparing your argument and answers for the moot session just like a real argument. Your panel needs to take the time to read the briefing and record. After your session, take the time to round everyone up and discuss what worked and what did not, how answers can be refined, and otherwise discuss the round. Then, if you have time, do it again.
Indeed, you can schedule multiple moots with multiple panelists. There are law schools that have appellate clinics who may be willing to do so for free. If you are arguing in the Supreme Court of the United States, book your time with the Georgetown University Supreme Court Institute as early as possible, as they are "first come first serve" when it comes to sides.
If you pick panelists who will ask you difficult and unexpected questions, if you take the time to prepare your presentation, if you review the videotaped proceeding carefully and refine your arguments, and if you are willing to do it all again if need be, you will go far in refining your argument. There is a reason one of the most commonly-heard comments from real judges who sit on panels for moot court competitions is "I wish the real advocates who appear before me were as prepared and skilled as you are."
In the next installment I will talk in a bit more detail about how to actually conduct the moot session to maximize its usefulness.
(Image credit: Honore Daumier, The High Tribunal of Judges, 1843)
Tuesday, May 28, 2019
In my last post I talked about the importance of tailoring your arguments to your panel. This week, I want to provide some practical advice on how to get to know your justices.
The first step is to know what they have written on in relation to your case. Most likely, you are already doing this as part of your legal research. Taking the time to take notes and reference authoring or dissenting justices will let you know if one of your justices has written on your issue in the past, and the approach they have taken to similar types of analysis.
This step should be a starting place for your analysis, not an end-point. As discussed earlier, judges are people, too, and their prior opinions may give you the “what” of their past reasoning, but not necessarily the “why.” To figure that out, you have to go a bit deeper.
There are a dizzying array of resources available for that task. Be aware that some are put together with particular social agendas in mind, or based on a particular experience with a judge, and are thus likely slanted one way or another. Recourse to several tools or sources is thus necessary to get a complete picture. These resources include:
- Westlaw Profiler
- Ravel Law
- League of Women Voters
- Alliance for Justice (AFJ) Reports on the Judiciary
- The Robing Room
In addition to these online nationwide resources, you can also find background information in court biographies, state and local bar association websites, campaign websites (for those judges who are elected or retained by vote), social media websites, news outlets, and by simply “Googling” the judge. Offline, don’t forget your own network of peers who will have insights based on their personal experiences.
When you have looked over these resources, you will have a better idea of what makes your particular judge or panel of justices “tick.” You can then tailor your argument to their life experiences in a way that will help them better understand your case. Be sure to stay mindful about the proper ways to do so, as discussed earlier.
If you know of a good resource that I did not list, please let me know.
(Image credit: Gene Elderman, Washington Post, January 7, 1937)
Saturday, May 18, 2019
A few weeks back, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Thomas Ward argued before the Fourth Circuit. What followed "May it please the Court," has become a lesson for appellate practitioners everywhere: Always remember your audience.
The case is Sanders v. United States, No. 18-1931. It's a pretty important case in its own right. Sanders is a Federal Tort Claims Act case. The plaintiffs alleged that the Government had failed in its duty to conduct a background check on Dylann Roof, the man who murdered nine African-Americans in Charleston, South Carolina. The plaintiffs contended that the Government's failure had allowed Roof to buy the guns used in the shooting.
The Government contended that the FTCA's discretionary function exemption applied and, thus, that there was no liability. That argument carried the day at the district court, and the Government relied on the same argument on appeal. The panel was relatively conservative, so the Government should have felt pretty good about its odds.
The Fourth Circuit's Chief Judge, Roger L. Gregory, wasn't having it. He asked a particularly charged question, which ended with Judge Gregory calling the Government's argument "absurd." That exhortation drew an eyebrow-raising comment from Mr. Ward, who responded, "Your Honor, I know you're not trying to humiliate me by that tone." What followed was a well-deserved tongue lashing from Judge Gregory, ending with the command to "just answer [the] question."
Mr. Ward's Sanders argument is a great example for us all. It's tough to see another attorney go through something like that. There, but for the grace of God, go I, right? Even so, the exchange offers an important lesson. Always keep your audience in mind. Remember that most judges are warm, friendly people, but that every so often one will find your considered position offensive. You've got to do your best to put these personal differences behind you. Otherwise, your argument will end up as a footnote to the much more juicy exchange you had with the bench. I know I remember very little about the Sanders argument, other than the attention-grabbing bit.