Monday, February 27, 2023
Advice for Law Students on Oral Argument
After judging a regional round of the National Appellate Advocacy Competition this weekend in Los Angeles, it was apparent immediately that the law students participating in this competition demonstrated intelligence, talent, and persuasiveness. Indeed, the participants were quite impressive and showed that the future of the legal profession is bright. Having said that, below are a few tips for law students to help improve their already-impressive appellate advocacy skills.
1. Slow down. Once again, slow down. Your goal is to advocate for your client and maximize the persuasive value of your argument. To do so, you need to be authentic and conversational. In so doing, you should change your pace, tone, and inflection to emphasize (and de-emphasize) specific points. When you speak too quickly, you lose credibility and negatively impact the persuasiveness of your argument. And you lose points. So be sure to focus on being yourself, which means being authentic, conversational, and comfortable at the podium.
2. Don’t be scripted. You should never draft every word of your oral argument. Instead, you should draft an outline of the substantive points that you want to make, and trust yourself to articulate those points effectively and persuasively. When you memorize a script, you appear rehearsed and thus inauthentic.
3. Watch your conduct at the counsel table. Being professional and respectful is vital to ensuring your credibility with a court. Thus, be sure never to show emotion at the counsel table, either toward your teammates or in response to your adversary’s arguments. The failure to do so is unprofessional and immature – and will cost you points. When a moot court or mock trial team, for example, displays unprofessional conduct at the counsel table, they signal to the judges that they are not a good team.
4. Be flexible and concede weaknesses in your argument. Every argument has weaknesses, whether on the facts or the law. Denying these weaknesses, particularly in the face of difficult questions from the judges, will affect your credibility and persuasiveness. Thus, be sure to concede weaknesses in your argument, such as by acknowledging unfavorable facts or law, and explain why such weaknesses do not affect the outcome you seek.
5. Answer the judges’ questions directly and persuasively. The key to an outstanding oral argument is how you respond to the judges’ questions. Those questions tell you precisely what the judges are concerned about or focused on when deciding the merits of your case. As such, you should answer the judges’ questions directly and persuasively, and not offer evasive or non-responsive answers, which will compromise your credibility. In other words, do not view the judges’ questions as an attack on your argument. View them as an opportunity to make your case.
6. Be willing to adapt and modify your argument (or desired remedy) based on the judges’ questions. Far too often, oralists propose a categorical rule – or seek a particular remedy – and relentlessly advocate for that rule or remedy regardless of the judges’ concerns. That is a mistake. You must demonstrate flexibility – within reason – to ensure that you obtain the best result, even if it is not the perfect result. For example, if you were arguing that Roe v. Wade should be overturned, and a majority of the justices on the United States Supreme Court suggested through their questions that they were unwilling to do so, yet were willing to impose stricter limits on the time within which a woman could seek an abortion, you need to pivot and explain why, in the absence of overturning Roe, such a limit would be warranted. In other words, you must exercise good judgment in the moment and, based on your perception of how the judges might rule, propose alternative remedies that will persuade the judges even if it means not getting everything you want. Remember that the best is often the enemy of the good.
7. Be prepared. The best advocates are the most prepared. They know the page and line numbers of deposition testimony. They know precedent by heart and can recite the holdings and dicta in relevant cases without notes or hesitation. Simply put, the best advocates are the most prepared advocates.
8. Non-verbal conduct is critical to persuasion. It’s not just what you say, but how you say it. When you are making an oral argument, know that your hand gestures, your tone, your cadence, your volume, and your movement all matter tremendously. If, for example, you speak in a monotone voice, it doesn’t matter how persuasive your argument is or how much the law supports your argument. You will lose points and minimize the persuasive value of your argument if your non-verbal conduct (how you say it) is not as powerful as your verbal conduct (what you say).
February 27, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Current Affairs, Law School, Legal Profession, Moot Court, Oral Argument | Permalink | Comments (1)
Friday, December 16, 2022
How to Prepare Law Students for the Real World
The goal of law school should be to prepare students to practice law competently and advocate persuasively upon graduation. Below are suggestions that will help to maximize students’ success in the legal profession.
1. Use the Socratic Method.
Some legal scholars have, for a variety of reasons, criticized the Socratic method. Such criticism, however, lacks merit.
The Socratic method teaches preparation. It requires students to learn how to read cases. Additionally, it requires them to discuss these cases in class, often before a large audience. In so doing, students are often confronted with difficult legal and policy questions, which tests their preparation, communication skills, and ability to think on their feet – all of which are essential to being a competent lawyer. That’s why doctrinal courses, particularly in the first year, are so important.
Furthermore, the Socratic method helps students cope with anxiety and uncertainty. Indeed, most students do not know if their professor will call on them in class and, of course, have no idea what questions the professor will ask. Although this may engender anxiety and fear among students, that is not necessarily a bad thing. In law practice, attorneys face anxiety and uncertainty when litigating a case or preparing an oral argument before an appellate court. Helping students to cope with these feelings in a healthy manner is essential to preparing them to succeed in law and in life.
Certainly, if used improperly, such as to embarrass students, the Socratic method can be counterproductive. And the Socratic method alone is not sufficient to prepare students for law practice. But when used responsibly, the Socratic method is an essential component of legal education.
2. Expand the legal writing curriculum.
Many law schools do not devote sufficient time to training students to be competent legal writers in the real world. For example, some schools only require two semesters of legal writing, in which students draft only a legal memorandum and an appellate brief.
But in law practice, students will not only draft memorandums and appellate briefs. They will be required to draft, among other things, complaints, contracts, motions to dismiss, motions for summary judgment, interrogatories, document requests, and requests for admissions, trial briefs, mediation statements, and settlement agreements. Given this fact, law schools should train students to draft and re-draft the most common litigation and transactional documents; in so doing, students will be more prepared to practice law when they graduate.
In fact, imagine if, over three years, students were required to represent a hypothetical client in a litigation that contains issues from all of their first-year required courses, and that required them to, among other things, conduct a client interview, draft a complaint and answer, file a motion to dismiss, draft discovery documents, conduct depositions, draft a motion for summary judgment and a trial brief, participate in a trial, and draft an appellate brief. And imagine if they had to do so in the order that it would occur in practice. That would truly prepare students to practice law, and it would teach students to learn by doing.
More broadly, law schools should focus on developing their students’ writing skills, such as in classes devoted to editing, rewriting, and revising, and requiring students to draft legal documents in a variety of contexts. Doing so takes time, and certainly more than two or three semesters.
3. Require students to enroll in at least two clinics.
Law students do not learn how to practice law by memorizing legal principles and regurgitating them on an exam. They learn by, among other things, applying the law to hypothetical and real-world fact patterns, addressing counterarguments effectively, reconciling unfavorable law and facts, and crafting compelling factual and legal narratives. Perhaps most importantly, they learn by practicing like lawyers, namely, representing clients, drafting briefs, performing oral arguments, negotiating with adversaries, and exercising judgment about trial strategy and settlement.
Clinics provide law students with the opportunity to acquire these and other real-world skills, and often in a context that makes a meaningful difference in the lives of individuals who might otherwise lack access to legal representation.
For these and other reasons, law schools (and some already do) should require students to enroll in at least two clinics prior to graduation. After all, the only way to prepare for practice is to actually practice law (under supervised conditions, of course).
4. Require students to take multiple upper-level practical skills courses.
Most law schools give students the freedom to select most of their upper-level courses. This is certainly understandable, as students are interested in different areas of the legal profession and intend to pursue different paths in law practice. Having an elective-heavy curriculum, however, need not dispense with a focus on practical skills instruction, and theory and practice need not be considered mutually exclusive.
The problem with some upper-level electives is that they have no relationship to practice. For example, courses focusing on comparative jurisprudence, the original meaning of the Privileges and Immunities Clause, or the death penalty, are certainly instructive and probably quite enjoyable. But how do they prepare students for law practice? At the very least, such courses should include practical components, such as the drafting of a complaint, motion, or brief, to merge theory with practice.
After all, in medical school, students are not taking courses on the origins of contraception. They are learning how to practice medicine. Law students, too, should learn how to practice law.
5. Use “high-pressure” assignments.
The legal profession is demanding and stressful. Partners and clients have high expectations. And in many instances, lawyers are under intense pressure to produce high-quality work under severe time constraints. Indeed, many lawyers can relate to the unfortunate and all-too-common situations (often on a Friday afternoon or holiday weekend) where a partner says, “I need you to draft a motion for injunctive relief immediately and, at the latest, by Monday morning.”
For that reason, law schools should train students to excel under and cope with pressure and high expectations. For example, in upper-level courses, a professor can present students with a distinct legal question and require them to draft a memorandum or prepare for an oral argument within twenty-four hours or require them to draft a response to a motion to dismiss within forty-eight hours. Sure, this will be stressful for the students, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Training students about the realities of law practice will help them to become better lawyers, and to develop the mindset and mental toughness necessary to excel under pressure.
6. Focus on developing the intangibles, or soft skills.
A high IQ, an excellent LSAT score, a perfect law school GPA, or the best score on the MBE does not mean that a law graduate will be successful in law or in life. Rather, to be a good lawyer, you need the intangibles, or soft skills, that complement raw intelligence.
For example, great lawyers have emotional intelligence. They work harder than almost anyone. They have excellent judgment. They are efficient and organized. They can handle adversity and criticism, and persevere through difficult times. They know how to cooperate and collaborate with other people, including those that they do not like or who have different viewpoints. They know how to communicate with a colleague, a client, and a court. They are humble and honest. They have empathy. And they want to win.
Without the intangibles or soft skills, law graduates will likely not find success in the legal profession – or in life. As such, law schools should focus on developing the intangibles, and this can be accomplished in, for example, clinical courses, where students are required to be part of a team and represent clients in actual cases.
7. Focus on mindset development – and mental toughness.
In the legal profession and in life, students will encounter substantial and unexpected adversity. They will face unfairness and injustice. They may have to deal with the death of a family member or friend, an abusive colleague, the break-up of a relationship, or an unexpected medical emergency. These and other events, although we all hope to avoid them, will happen.
But law students are not victims. They are not oppressed. They are not powerless. Rather, they have the power – and the choice – to overcome whatever adversity they face because their choices, not their circumstances, determine their destiny.
Of course, as with developing intangible or soft skills, teaching mindset and mental toughness does not necessarily require a separate course. Rather, these lessons can be incorporated into any law school course by a professor who devotes a little time in each class to the mental, not merely the intellectual, aspect of law.
8. Have high standards.
It’s important to have empathy and compassion for students, and to support them in every way possible as they navigate the difficulties of law school. But that does not mean coddling students, which is one of the worst things an educator can do, or dispensing with high – even very high – standards. Challenging students to be their very best, offering constructive criticism, and demanding excellent work is the hallmark of a great teacher. And invariably, students will fail to meet these expectations. But failure is good thing. It presents students with an opportunity to learn and grow. Most importantly, high standards prepare students for what they will face in the real world.
9. Teach students to respect diverse viewpoints.
Diversity is a critical component of any educational institution. And among the most important aspects of diversity is teaching students to respect different viewpoints and engage in civil discourse with those with whom they disagree.
For that reason, professors should create a safe and constructive classroom environment in which all viewpoints are welcomed and respected, and where a diversity of perspectives is encouraged. One of the worst things that educators can do is to reveal their political and personal biases in a classroom (and worse, try to ‘indoctrinate’ students) because doing so stifles debate and diversity.
After all, in the real world, students will encounter – and have to work with – people that they disagree with, that they don’t like, and that have backgrounds and experiences entirely different from their own. If they cannot work with and respect such individuals, and realize that their views aren’t necessarily ‘right,’ their path to success – and humility – will be much harder.
Ultimately, traditional legal education is not broken. The Socratic Method has served students very well over the years. But a few adjustments can be made to ensure that theory and practice merge in a cohesive manner that prepares students to think and practice like lawyers, and to be good people.
December 16, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Current Affairs, Law School, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Moot Court | Permalink | Comments (0)
Saturday, June 4, 2022
A Few Commonsense Tips on How to Persuade Judges (and People)
It’s not that difficult to be persuasive. Below are a few tips to increase the persuasive value of your arguments.
1. Keep it simple, talk like a normal human being, and get out of the weeds.
If you want to persuade a court (or anyone), simplify your narrative. Think of it this way: if you had only one sentence to explain why a court should rule in your favor, what would you say? If you had only thirty seconds to explain why the Second Amendment protects an individual right to bear arms, what would you say? Simplifying your narrative, making complex concepts easily understandable, and staying “out of the weeds” is critical to effective advocacy.
After all, judges (and people generally) have short attention spans. They’re busy and often under considerable stress. So, get to the point immediately and do so in a manner that makes your argument clear and persuasive. Use simple words. Don’t state the obvious. Make sure your argument is structured logically and presented concisely. And get to the bottom line – quickly. Tell the court what you want and why it should rule in your favor. Consider the following example of an attorney arguing that there is no hate speech exception to the First Amendment:
Attorney: May it please the Court, the First Amendment is a bedrock, indeed the backbone, of our freedom in this country. As the historical record shows, the First Amendment was designed to create a marketplace of ideas in which the perspectives and political views of individuals from all segments of society must be respected and unregulated. As the federalist papers demonstrate, as John Marshall argued in 1788, and as countless law review articles that nobody reads confirm, the First Amendment is the essential safeguard of, and the impregnable sanctuary protecting, citizens’ right to disseminate commentary on matters apposite to political and social discourse. To be sure, the First Amendment is the catalyst for a democracy that can withstand the threats that tyranny poses and that authoritarianism endorses.
This is utterly ridiculous. If anything, this nonsense supports restricting First Amendment rights, if for no other reason than to spare the court from having to listen to this gibberish. A better approach would be as follows:
Attorney: The First Amendment protects unpopular, offensive, and distasteful speech to ensure that individuals can share diverse perspectives on matters of public concern. A hate speech exception would, by intent and in effect, allow the government to prohibit speech based on disagreement with its viewpoint and content. And the subjectivity inherent in this determination would present a threat to citizens of every political persuasion.
Again, this isn’t perfect, but you get the point. Keep it simple and direct.
2. Address the court’s questions and concerns.
Judges don’t care about what you want to argue. They care about whether you can address their concerns and respond in a way that makes them want to rule in your favor. For that reason, your answers to the court’s questions are critical to your chances of succeeding on the merits. If you evade a court’s questions, both your credibility and the persuasiveness of your argument will diminish substantially.
Imagine, for example, a relationship where a husband is upset because his wife is working long hours and not dedicating sufficient time to the relationship. Consider the following dialogue:
Husband: I feel like you don’t care about our relationship. You work at the law firm seven days a week and talk more about the Fourteenth Amendment than you do about our future. It’s like I don’t matter to you at all.
Wife: Look, I work eighty hours a week and without my salary, we wouldn’t be able to live in this house or send our kids to the best schools. I’m not expecting a medal, but a thank you now and then would be nice.
Yeah, these two are likely headed for a divorce – and for good reason. Why? Because the wife didn’t acknowledge and address the husband’s concern and therefore made no attempt to resolve the conflict. If you do this as an advocate, your argument will likely fail. Consider, for example, the following dialogue between an attorney and a justice on the United States Supreme Court:
Justice on Supreme Court: Counselor, Roe v. Wade is not based on any reasonable interpretation of the Constitution’s text and is based on a theory – substantive due process – that makes no sense. Where in the Constitution can this Court find a right to abort a pregnancy?
Attorney: Your Honor, Roe v. Wade has been the law of the land for fifty years, and overturning Roe now would seem like a brazenly political decision.
That nonsensical response is the equivalent of saying, I don’t care about your question or your concerns. Such an approach will diminish your credibility, reduce the persuasiveness of your argument, and alienate the justices. A better response would be as follows:
The right to abortion is firmly rooted in the liberty protected under the Fourteenth Amendment, which this Court has affirmed numerous times, such as in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and this right reflects the underlying purpose of the text, which is to ensure the liberty, equality, and bodily autonomy of all persons.
This response, although not perfect, responds directly to the justice’s concerns.
3. Acknowledge weaknesses in your argument.
Nobody is perfect, as the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard trial so clearly showed. And no argument is perfect. You will almost always have to address unfavorable facts or law. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though, because it gives you an opportunity to explain why unfavorable facts or law do not affect the outcome you seek.
The worst thing that you can do, however, is to evade, minimize, or offer unpersuasive explanations for unfavorable facts or law. For example, in the Johnny Depp trial, Depp’s attorney, Camille Vasquez, highlighted that while Amber heard had pledged to donate the money from her divorce settlement with Depp to charity, she hadn’t actually donated the money. Heard should have simply acknowledged this point. Instead, she claimed that, in her view, the words pledged and donated are synonymous.
That was bad.
And very damaging to her credibility.
4. Be passionate and emotional (when appropriate).
It’s important, as an advocate, to show that you care. That you are emotionally invested in your client and your case. When you show genuine passion and emotion, it conveys that you believe strongly in your argument and in the remedy that you seek. For example, Camille Vasquez’s cross-examination of Amber Heard demonstrated that Vasquez believed strongly that Heard was lying and that Depp had been defamed. In essence, believing in your argument increases the persuasive value of what you say. After all, imagine if you proposed marriage to your partner in a monotone voice and with no emotion whatsoever? The answer would likely be no.
5. Be likable and relatable.
This doesn’t require much explanation. People hate jerks (and there are many jerks lurking in the legal profession). So, don’t be a jerk. Don’t be arrogant. Don’t gossip. Don’t judge. Be a nice person. Respect people with whom you disagree. Be honest. Be compassionate. Courts and people are more likely to empathize with others that they like.
June 4, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Law School, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Moot Court, Oral Argument | Permalink | Comments (1)
Sunday, May 22, 2022
Camille Vasquez Is a Rockstar
Actor Johnny Depp is currently suing his ex-wife, actress Amber Heard, for defamation, and the trial is both entertaining and educational – particularly for law students and lawyers. The reason for that is Camille Vasquez, who graduated from the University of Southern California and Southwestern Law School, and whose performance at the trial is equivalent to a master class in persuasive advocacy.
Put simply, Camille Vasquez is a rockstar.
Law students (and lawyers) should watch Camille because they will learn more from her in a few hours than they will likely learn in three years of law school. Below are a few reasons why Camille Vasquez is an outstanding attorney, and why she represents the best of the legal profession.
1. She is confident and owns the courtroom.
Whether it is conducting the cross-examination of Amber Heard or objecting to the adversary’s questions on direct examination, Camille Vasquez is incredibly confident and self-assured. Quite frankly, Vasquez has swagger. She knows she is among the best. She owns the courtroom. And if you try to bullshit her, it won’t end well for you.
Such confidence, which Vasquez has exuded in all aspects of the trial, is critical to creating the perception with the court and jury that you know what you’re doing, and that you are a credible advocate. When you create that impression, the judge and jury are more likely to view you and your client more favorably – and rule in your favor.
2. She uses non-verbal techniques effectively.
When arguing before a judge or jury, your non-verbal techniques are equally, if not more, important, than what you say. Non-verbal techniques, such as posture, facial expressions, eye contact, and variance in tone, attitude, and emphasis, convey to the jury, among other things, your confidence, knowledge of the record, and belief in your position.
Camille Vasquez uses non-verbal techniques extremely effectively. When Vasquez was cross-examining Amber Heard, for example, she stood upright, at times leaning into the podium to emphasize a critical point. She varied her facial expressions to convey skepticism, if not disbelief, of some of Heard’s responses. She remained focused and confident at all times. She never laughed or displayed inappropriate emotional responses. She never fidgeted, folded her arms, or paced about the courtroom. She listened to Heard’s responses and retained eye contact. In short, her non-verbal communications showed that she had perfect knowledge of the record and that she was owning the witness and the courtroom.
3. She knows how to adjust and follow up during cross-examination.
During cross-examination, Camille Vasquez adjusted effectively to Amber Heard’s sometimes-evasive responses with follow-up questions that forced Heard to concede unfavorable facts. In so doing, Vasquez didn’t simply recite a list of questions and hope that she would receive a favorable answer. Instead, she knew Heard was going to be evasive at times, and she adjusted in the moment, asking follow-up questions that would not allow Heard to avoid conceding unfavorable facts. For example, during cross-examination, Heard testified that she had pledged/donated seven million dollars to a particular charity. Vasquez refused to allow Heard to conflate the distinction between pledging and donating money, forcing Heard to admit that, although she had pledged seven million dollars to a charity, she never actually donated any money to that charity.
4. She knows how to strategically include comments that undercut a witness’s credibility.
Effective advocacy includes strategically commenting on a witness’s testimony during cross-examination to express skepticism about a witness’s truthfulness or highlight a witness’s non-responsiveness. Simply put, cross-examination is not merely about asking questions. It’s about having a conversation with the witness and, through excellent questions, non-verbal communication, and strategic commentary on the witness’s responses, owning that conversation and eliciting facts that damage the adversary’s credibility. For example, during the cross-examination, Vasquez made comments such as:
“That wasn’t my question, Ms. Heard.” (conveying to the jury that Heard was being evasive)
“You know what a deposition is, right Ms. Heard?” (implying that Heard is ignorant and trying to hide unfavorable facts)
“You understand the difference between pledging money and donating money, right?” (this may not be the exact quote, but it’s similar and conveys that Ms. Heard’s attempt to say that pledging and donating money are synonymous makes no sense)
The inclusion of such comments enables a lawyer to communicate subtly to the jury that the witness’s testimony is not credible. Put another way, when cross-examining a witness, you can still “testify” if you do so strategically and subtly. Camille Vasquez did that very effectively.
5. She is prepared and has outworked Amber Heard’s attorneys.
This point doesn’t need much explanation, except to say that many people have no idea what it means to be truly prepared for a trial (or a midterm or final examination, for that matter). Preparation means, among other things, knowing every inch of the record. It means being able to recite the page and line number of a deposition when conducting a direct or cross-examination. It means knowing the rules of evidence and practicing objections thousands of times, and being able to anticipate responses to those objections. It means knowing the relevant case law so well that you never need notes.
Camille Vasquez was incredibly prepared for this trial and almost certainly as prepared as any human being can be for a trial. She knew the rules of evidence so well that every objectionable question from Heard’s attorney was met with an objection by Vasquez – and sustained nearly every time. The link below shows the preparation – and sheer talent – that Vasquez has displayed during the trial.
Amber Heard's Lawyer SHUT DOWN! 40+ OBJECTIONS Within 19 MINUTES (Camille Vasquez) - YouTube
6. She’s very smart.
Intelligence matters, and great lawyers are highly intelligent. Camille Vasquez is no exception – her analytical abilities, quick thinking, and ability to articulate complex points in a clear and relatable manner, reflect her impressive intellect.
7. She cares for and is a passionate advocate for her client.
This trial has shown that Camille Vasquez is a kind and passionate person who cares deeply for her clients and for the causes that she is advocating. She represents Johnny Depp with compassion and empathy, and through her interactions with Depp, you can obviously see that she cares about him and is doing everything possible to achieve a favorable result.
In short, she is a good person – and good people make the best attorneys.
May 22, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Law School, Legal Profession, Moot Court | Permalink | Comments (3)
Tuesday, March 22, 2022
Why Standards of Review Matter
When the Supreme Court hear oral arguments yesterday in Berger v. North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, the discussion seemingly centered around dry procedural minutiae and one of the banes of legal writing courses—the appropriate standard of review to answer the question. But the case demonstrates both the importance of those standards of review, and the way that procedural nuance can mask surprisingly broad political and policy subtexts.
The case concerns North Carolina’s new voter ID law, which the North Carolina NAACP has challenged as unconstitutional. The North Carolina attorney general, a Democrat, is defending the law, but Republican state legislators in North Carolina seek to join the lawsuit to defend the statute’s constitutionality. The legislators argue that the attorney general was not sufficiently representing their interests because he was primarily seeking clarification on which voting law to enforce—without forcefully defending the constitutionality of the new voter ID law.
Despite the seemingly mundane procedural posture of the case, the political subtext and repercussions are broad. Republicans want to see the voter ID enforced immediately, while Democrats did not support it from the outset. North Carolina’s Democratic governor initially vetoed the voter ID law, and Republican legislators passed it over his veto. Some of those same Republican legislators, now dubious that a Democratic attorney general truly seeks to uphold the voter ID law, believe they must intervene to preserve their interest in asserting that the law is constitutional.
In a twist that should draw the attention of appellate attorneys and law students, the case may turn on the deference owed to the lower court, and thus the standard of review that ought to apply. Because the lower court ruled against the Republican legislator’s effort to intervene, the Supreme Court must decide whether to follow that lower court decision. Republican legislators argue that the Court should apply de novo review, allowing the Supreme Court to consider the legal issue afresh without any deference to the lower court’s ruling. They claim that the Supreme Court should not simply review the lower court’s ruling for an abuse of discretion—meaning that the lower court’s decision was so arbitrary and capricious as to hardly be a legal ruling at all—because their decision refusing to allow intervention was purely legal, not the kind of fact-driven decision best left to lower courts. But opponents respond that the Republican legislatures seek a ruling of whether their interests are adequately represented by the state attorney general—an inherently fact-specific inquiry to be made by lower courts with a closer relationship to the parties and a better view of the facts involved.
A debate over standards of review may appear immaterial. Judges, after all, might reach whatever ruling they prefer irrespective of that standard, either by manipulating the standard they apply or by simply applying the correct standard more or less rigorously. But this case illustrates the ways in which the standard of review, when contested, can have a meaningful impact on the outcome of litigation. In many ways, it drove the direction of oral arguments, where Justices wondered how strong an interest the Republican legislators really had and whether other groups of legislators might also want to join the suit. Those questions, though framed as a legal inquiry, also contain a clear factual subtext; they require close examination of the details of every case where such intervention is a possibility. How the Court frames those questions—as either legal inquiries subject to de novo review of factual ones subject to review for an abuse of discretion—seems likely to control the outcome. The case thus provides a ready example of standards of review playing a crucial role in a case with broad political and policy implications.
March 22, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Moot Court, Oral Argument, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)
Saturday, March 19, 2022
Oral Argument Prep While Managing Life Too: Make a One-Sheet and Keep Your Sense of Humor
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.
March 19, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Humor, Law School, Legal Profession, Moot Court, Oral Argument | Permalink | Comments (0)
Saturday, March 12, 2022
Appellate Oral Argument Tips
Nearly all lawyers and law students are familiar with the conventional advice regarding how to perform and maximize the persuasiveness of an appellate oral argument. For example, law students are taught to develop a persuasive theme, begin with the strongest argument, know the record, the law, and the standard of review, concede (or reconcile) unfavorable facts and precedent, never attack the adversary or lower court, never misrepresent the facts or law, and craft a compelling narrative.
This is good advice that can certainly enhance the persuasive value of an argument, increase the likelihood of success, and ensure that an advocate maintains credibility with the court. But do these techniques always work? No.
Below are several tips that attorneys should consider when preparing for an appellate oral argument.
1. Begin by addressing the weaknesses in your argument.
Conventional wisdom suggests that you should begin with your strongest and most persuasive arguments. But that doesn’t always work.
Appellate judges aren’t stupid.
They know the law.
They know the record.
And they know what your strongest arguments are – and they probably don’t care.
Rather, they are concerned with the weaknesses in your argument and, during questioning, will probe those weaknesses with precision and consistency. So why adopt the predicable and formulaic approach of beginning with your strongest arguments? Indeed, some appellate judges probably aren’t even paying attention to you when you do so.
For example, in Maryland v. King, where the Court considered whether a cheek swab of an arrestee's DNA violated the Fourth Amendment, the oral argument began as follows:
[Petitioner’s attorney]: Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court: 11 Since 2009, when Maryland began to collect 12 DNA samples from arrestees charged with violent crimes 13 and burglary, there have been 225 matches, 75 prosecutions, and 42 convictions, including that of Respondent King.
Justice Scalia: Well, that's really good. I'll bet you, if you conducted a lot of unreasonable searches and seizures, you'd get more convictions, too. (Laughter.)
Justice Scalia: That proves absolutely nothing.
[Petitioner’s attorney]: Well, I think, Justice Scalia, it does, in fact, point out the fact that -- that the statute is working, and, in the State's view, the Act is constitutional.
Justice Scalia: So that's its purpose, to enable you to identify future criminals -- the perpetrators of future crimes? That's the purpose of it? I thought that that wasn't the purpose set forth in the -- in the statute.
The Petitioner’s attorney probably and understandably believed that beginning with an argument about the statute’s efficacy would be persuasive.
The justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, however, are very smart and perceptive. After reading the briefs, they are aware of your strongest arguments. They know the record and the law. They know, in many cases, how they are going to decide a case before an oral argument begins. And they have identified the weaknesses in your argument.
Accordingly, in some instances, begin by immediately addressing the weaknesses in your case. In other words, cut out the bullshit and get straight to the heart of the matter. After all, as an appellate advocate who has prepared extensively for oral argument, you probably know the questions – and concerns – that the judges will raise. Thus, why not begin by addressing those concerns and, in essence, preempting their questions? Doing so will enhance your credibility and your argument’s persuasive value.
2. Appellate courts care about their institutional legitimacy and your argument should reflect that reality.
The justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, along with judges on lower federal and state appellate courts, live in the real world. They understand that their decisions can – and often will – engender substantial criticism from the public, which can undermine the Court’s institutional legitimacy.
That’s why judging is a political, not merely a legal, endeavor. It’s also why the Supreme Court (and lower federal and state appellate courts) will render decisions based in part on perceptions about how the public will react to a particular decision.
Thus, when presenting your argument, be sure to provide the court with a workable, fair, and equitable solution that will produce an opinion that maintains an appellate court’s institutional legitimacy. Think about the opinion that the court will ultimately write. Would your argument result in an opinion that the court would embrace and that the public would find credible? If not, your chances of winning decrease substantially.
3. The law isn’t everything – convince an appellate court that it is doing the right thing by ruling in your favor.
When judging moot court competitions recently, many, if not most, law students based their arguments primarily, if not exclusively, on precedent, emphasizing favorable case law and striving mightily to distinguish or reconcile unfavorable precedent. And to a substantial degree, these arguments were well-presented and persuasive.
But judges aren’t robots. They are human beings. They have emotions and biases. Perhaps most importantly, they want to reach decisions that enable them to sleep at night with a clear conscience.
That’s in part why courts have an on-again, off-again relationship with stare decisis. When judges believe that a prior case was wrongly decided, or will lead to a result that they find unjustifiable, they can – and often will – overturn precedent. And even though they will cloak their analysis in legal jargon, you can be sure that their decision is based on the fact that they believe they are doing the right thing.
To be clear, precedent is important. But it’s the beginning, not the end, of the inquiry.
For that reason, advocates should always consider the equities in a given case and appeal to principles of fairness and justice (and sometimes, emotion).
4. Know who your friends are and target the swing justices.
Before oral argument, many appellate judges, after reviewing the record and reading the briefs, know how they are going to rule. And no matter what you say at oral argument, they aren’t going to change their minds.
Before oral argument at the U.S. Supreme Court, for example, you need to identify the justices that will likely support or oppose your position. Most importantly, you have to identify the swing justices and tailor your argument – and responses to questions – to those justices. For example, in Obergefell v. Hodges, legal scholars almost certainly knew that Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito would not vote to invalidate same-sex marriage bans. They also knew that Justice Kennedy was the swing justice and that the Petitioner’s arguments should focus on getting his vote.
To be sure, in many oral arguments before federal appellate courts, you will not know before the argument which judges will support or oppose your argument. But as the oral argument progresses, you will usually be able to identify the judges that support you, the ones that don’t, and those that are undecided. When you do, tailor your argument to the undecided, or swing, judges.
5. Be conversational and relatable, not confrontational and rigid.
Again, when recently judging moot court competitions recently, it became quickly apparent that many of the competitors’ demeanors were excessively formal and impersonal. The rigidity with which the arguments were delivered – along with the defensive reactions to the judges’ questions – made it difficult, if not impossible, to have a genuine conversation with the advocates.
That approach is a mistake. An oral argument should be a conversation, not a confrontation.
Accordingly, when arguing before an appellate court, relax. Show the judges that you are a human being. Show the judges that you have a personality – and even emotion. Be conversational. Be confident. Be relatable. Be likable. Watch actor Edward Norton’s oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court in The People v. Larry Flynt and you’ll get the point.
Judges – like all people – may be more likely to agree with a litigant that they like.
Of course, you should always be professional and respectful. But if you come across as a robot, you will appear inauthentic and preclude the type of connection with the judges that excellent appellate advocates achieve.
6. Think of the one thing that you want to say – and say it in a way that the judges will not forget.
This needs no explanation.
Watch Matthew McConaughey’s closing argument in A Time to Kill.
 Maryland v. King, 569 U.S. 435 (2013), Transcript of Oral Argument, available at: https://www.supremecourt.gov/oral_arguments/argument_transcripts/2012/12-207-lp23.pdf. (emphasis added).
March 12, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, Law School, Legal Profession, Moot Court, Oral Argument, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (1)
Tuesday, March 8, 2022
Lead with Your Strength
We all know that, with some exceptions, we should lead with our strongest argument. But, it’s not enough to lead with our strongest argument—we should lead with our strongest positive argument. By that, I mean the strongest argument for why we should win, not our strongest argument for why the other side should lose. This can be particularly difficult to do when we represent the appellee because the appellant has set out their arguments and our first instinct might be to show why their arguments are wrong. But that’s not leading with our strength, it’s an attempt to show our opponent’s weakness.
Take this example from the appellees' brief in Welling v. Weinfield. In Welling, the Supreme Court of Ohio was asked to recognize the tort of false-light invasion of privacy. After first arguing a procedural issue, that the case had been improvidently granted, the appellees began the substantive argument like this:
As noted by the Wellings in their opening brief to this Court, a majority of the jurisdictions in the United States have adopted the false-light invasion of privacy cause of action. Brief of Appellants at 8. In The Denver Publishing Co. v. Bueno (Colo. 2002), 54 P.3d 893, the Colorado Supreme Court noted that 30 states had adopted the false-light invasion of privacy theory as part of their tort law. Despite that, the Colorado Supreme Court rejected the tort because it overlaps defamation to such a large degree and because its adoption might have a chilling effect on First Amendment freedoms. This Court should do the same.
See how the appellees referred to and agreed with the appellant’s brief (giving appellant’s argument credibility) and then highlighted the strengths of the appellant’s argument:
- a majority of jurisdictions have adopted the claim;
- the Colorado Supreme Court noted that thirty states had adopted it.
It’s not until the next to last sentence of that opening paragraphing that we learn of the appellees' positive arguments: the tort overlaps with defamation and recognizing the claim could chill free speech.
Here is how I might re-write the opening paragraph to lead with why the appellees should win:
This Court should reject the invitation to expand Ohio law. Defamation and false-light invasion of privacy claims largely overlap. And recognizing a false-light invasion of privacy claim might chill speech protected by the First Amendment. Instead, the Court should follow the reasoning of the Colorado Supreme Court. That court acknowledged the states that had recognized the claim but refused to do so because of the overlap with defamation and the possible chilling effect on free speech. The Denver Publishing Co. v. Bueno, 54 P.3d 893 (2002).
How would you re-write the opening paragraph to lead with the appellees' positive argument?
 An example of when this rule wouldn’t apply is when there is a procedural argument that logic dictates be addressed first.
 866 N.E.2d 1035 (Ohio 2007).
 Id. at 1053.
 Robert E. WELLING, et al., Appellants, v. Lauri WEINFELD, Appellee., 2006 WL 1860670 (Ohio), 16.
 Id. at 17.
March 8, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Moot Court, Rhetoric, State Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (1)
Thursday, September 16, 2021
Appellate Argument: Tips for Success
For law students (and some lawyers) appellate argument can be a mystery. It's definitely not the first thing the average layperson thinks about when someone mentions "legal argument." Even when Law and Order made a half-hearted attempt to show an argument at an appellate court, it didn't get it right (for example, I've never gotten a ruling from the bench as soon as the argument was over). And the misconceptions about appellate argument sometimes lead to strange behavior even from attorneys: advocates objecting during opposing counsel's argument (yes, that really happens); appellant's attorneys requesting to reserve their entire time for rebuttal (I've seen that happen, too); and lawyers calling opposing counsel their "friend" (okay, some U.S. Supreme Court advocates do that and maybe some of you think it is fine, too).
De-mystifying appellate argument means not only understanding the basics but also understanding the nuances. Anyone who has ever argued in an appellate court or taught students how to make oral arguments knows the basics: make the argument conversational; be prepared for questions; smoothly return to your argument after answering a question. And, of course, an advocate should know the substance of an argument inside and out. But what are some of the finer points of appellate argument that often are missed both by advocates and students?
- Exude Confidence: Doing my best Yogi Berra imitation, I often tell students that being successful in an appellate argument is 95% knowing the facts and the law and 95% sounding like you know what you are talking about. In reality, knowing the facts and the law in depth should lead to more confidence. In the end, why should an appellate court agree with your argument if you don't sound like you believe in what you saying? Even if you aren't so sure yourself, you are representing a client expecting zealous representation. And the other side is going to have a zealous advocate, so you should be one as well.
- Control Your Body Language: Even before you say your first word at an appellate argument, your body is already speaking to the court. The body tells the truth. If you are confident in what you are going to say (see above), then approach the lectern with confidence and own the stage you have been given.
- Vary Delivery: An appellate argument should ebb and flow. Much like a singing performance is rarely effective at 100% volume throughout, an argument without variation will either put the court to sleep or, even worse, cause you to lose your case. Vary pitch, vary pace, vary volume. This will hold the court's attention, properly emphasize the points you want to emphasize, and downplay facts and law that are bad for your argument.
- Pause: Oral advocates often feel that any dead time in their argument, even a brief second or two, is bad. On the contrary, oral advocates probably don't pause enough. Some pauses are good for effect; others are good because they allow the advocate more time to reflect upon an answer. The mind works very quickly, so it doesn't have to be (and you don't want it to be) a long pause if you are trying to come up with an answer. I often suggest to students that they begin drinking some water, if available, when a question is being asked. Judges will not be thrown off by an advocate finishing their sip briefly as the question concludes. This buys just a little more time for formulating the perfect (or near-perfect) answer.
- Control Your Zone of Authority: In conjunction with the use of body language, advocates should control their zone of authority--the area immediately around them that they control. Look judges in the eye, don't break the zone by bending over or looking around the courtroom, keep gestures within the zone, and never point. As my students also always hear me say, don't take a pen with you to the lectern! You likely won't have the opportunity to write anything down while you are arguing. And you are more likely to cause a distraction with the pen by waving it around, pointing with it, or tapping it on the lectern.
- Start/Finish Strong: Start the argument with your theme and end with your theme. Grab the court's attention at the beginning. Then remind the court again what the case is really about when you conclude. Listeners (like readers) tend to remember and are more affected by the beginning and the end of an argument than what is in the middle.
The basics of an appellate argument are important without a doubt. But mastering the nuances will make an argument even more polished and persuasive.
September 16, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Moot Court, Oral Argument | Permalink | Comments (0)
Tuesday, September 7, 2021
Professionalism in Legal Writing – Dos & Don’ts, Part V - Point Heading, Summaries, and Transitions
The Supreme Court of Ohio, Commission on Professionalism, has published Professionalism Dos & Don’ts: Legal Writing. Each Do and Don’t has several subpoints. Over the next few months, I plan to take a more in-depth look at some of these Dos and Don’ts and offer examples and suggestions for how appellate advocates can implement the Dos and avoid the Don’ts. This is the fifth post in the series.
Do provide appropriate signposts:
- Do consider using headings and summaries.
- Do use transitions between sections that guide the reader from one argument to the next, especially in longer pieces of writing.
The Commission on Professionalism asks us to consider using headings and summaries, but there’s nothing to consider, we should use headings and summaries. It is always our goal to make our writing clearer and thus to make our reader’s job easier. Headings and summaries help us do that. Transitions do too. They allow our reader to move seamlessly from one topic to the next
1. Point headings make our writing better.
Headings (here we’re talking about point headings) make our writing clearer because they show the structure of our writing, convey key points, and create white space. So let’s talk about how to create useful headings.
A. Point headings are topic sentences.
Point headings serve as the topic sentences of the paragraphs that follow. They tell your reader what you’re going to discuss. Be sure that the paragraphs that follow a point heading, and the sentences within each paragraph, relate directly to the point heading. If they don’t then you need to re-think your point heading or the paragraphs that follow it.
B. Point headings should be full sentences.
Your point headings should be full sentences and they should convey substantive information. Which of these point headings is better
1. Strict Scrutiny.
2. The statute creates a class of disfavored speakers, so it is subject to strict-scrutiny review.
The second heading tells the reader the substance they should be learning in the subsequent paragraphs—how the statute creates a class of disfavored speakers and why strict scrutiny applies.
C. Point heading should look like sentences.
Because point headings are full sentences, they should look like sentences. They should not be written in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS, nor should they be written in Initial Capital Letters. Save those styles for your section headings.
D. Point headings are not just for the argument section.
Point headings are helpful in the fact section of briefs too. Again, they convey substantive information, show the structure of the fact section, and create white space. Here is an example:
1. In 2007 the National Parties negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement that contained a two-tier wage system.
The sentences that follow that point heading explain how and why the National Parties negotiated a two-tier wage structure.
E. Point headings serve as a check on your analysis.
If you’ve created good point headings, you should be able to look at them and understand the structure of your argument. If you can’t, then you need to re-write your point headings or re-organize your analysis.
F. Good point headings start with a good outline.
The simplest way to ensure that you’re creating good point headings and that you’ve created a well-reasoned argument is to spend time outlining your brief. You can then turn the points of your outline into point headings.
G. You should include point headings in your Table of Contents.
Once you’ve written your brief and included good point headings, be sure to include the point headings in your Table of Contents. Doing so allows you to start persuading your reader sooner because they can see the key facts of your case and the key points of your argument just by reading your Table of Contents. Compare these examples:
Good point headings make your writing clearer and allow your reader to follow the structure of your argument. Summaries do too.
2. Summaries make our writing better.
Summaries should provide a brief overview of what you will discuss. Summaries allow you to orient a reader who is unfamiliar with a topic or issue. They give the reader a base of knowledge from which to work and help them better understand the information that you provide. Think of your summary as your elevator pitch.
After you’ve created good point headings and helpful summaries, think about ways you can transition your reader smoothly from one topic to the next.
3. Transitions make your writing easier to follow.
A good transition should remind your reader what they just learned and prime them to receive additional information. Good transitions connect the parts of your writing to avoid sudden shifts between topics or arguments. They allow your reader to move smoothly from one subject to the next and show that there is a logical structure and flow to your writing.
Good point headings, summaries, and transitions work together to create a logical flow to your writing. The effort you put into crafting these parts of your brief will make your reader’s work easier and thus help you be a better advocate.
September 7, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Moot Court, Rhetoric, State Appeals Courts, Tribal Law and Appeals, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (1)
Saturday, August 7, 2021
How To Make a ‘Bad’ Argument Better -- and Persuasive
In law school or in law practice, many students will hear this statement: “if the law isn’t on your side, argue the facts; if the facts aren’t on your side, argue the law.”
Well, guess what?
Sometimes, neither the law nor the facts support your argument.
In your career, you will find yourself in the unenviable position of having to make a ‘bad’ argument before a court. To be sure, a ‘bad’ argument is not a frivolous argument. Rather, a ‘bad’ argument is one where the relevant precedent doesn’t support your position. It is one where the facts and equities are unfavorable to your client. In short, a ‘bad’ argument is one where your chances of winning are about as good as O.J. Simpson admitting that he killed Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman.
So, what should you do to make a ‘bad’ argument better? Consider the following hypothetical:
You are representing a congressman – and former professor at a prestigious college – who is suing a newspaper for allegedly defamatory statements that the newspaper made during the congressman’s unsuccessful reelection campaign, where he lost by less than 500 votes. Specifically, four days before the election, the newspaper published an article titled “Congressman receives a grade of ‘F’ from former students.” In that article, the newspaper quoted several negative reviews from the congressman’s former students that were anonymously posted on www.criticizemyprofessor.com. The reviews included statements that the congressman was a “stupid and awful professor,” a “narcissistic jerk who based grades on whether he liked you,” “an insensitive elitist who routinely made statements in class that offended students and created an uncomfortable learning environment,” and “a man who has caused lasting trauma to his students.” When publishing this article, the newspaper contacted the college to inquire about the congressman’s performance, but the college declined to comment. Additionally, the newspaper failed to include numerous reviews from another website – www.praisemyprofesssor.com – where many former students anonymously and unanimously posted excellent reviews of the congressman.
After the election, the newspaper acknowledged that it “could have done better” by including the statements from www.praisemyprofesssor.com but stated that “we had no reason to believe that the statements posted on www.criticizemyprofessor.com were false” and posted them “with full confidence in their truth.” Indeed, there is no evidence to suggest that the comments made on either website are false.
As the attorney representing the congressman, you obviously have an uphill battle.
Not surprisingly, the trial court recently granted a motion to dismiss in the newspaper’s favor. The court held that under New York Times v. Sullivan, the congressman could only succeed on his defamation claim if he proved that the statements were false and made with actual malice, namely, with knowledge of their [the statements’] falsity or with reckless disregard for the truth or falsity of the statements. Based on the newspaper’s statements, its attempt to contact the congressman’s former employer regarding his performance, and the lack of evidence that the statements were false, the court held that this standard was not met.
The congressman decided to appeal and now you are preparing for oral argument. Given the facts, the actual malice standard, and the lack of evidence of falsity, you have a very ‘bad’ argument.
So, what can you do to make this ‘bad’ argument as persuasive as possible?
1. Create a nuanced argument that renders governing precedent less controlling
When you are presenting a bad argument, the worst approach is to be reactive. Don’t spend your time trying to explain away or distinguish controlling precedent, or trying to depict facts and evidence in an unjustifiably favorable light. Instead, admit that the law does not support your position. Acknowledge the unfavorable facts. After all, when you have to make a ‘bad’ argument, your credibility is the first and essential step to making a ‘bad’ argument persuasive. You don’t want the court to think that you are asking it to ignore precedent or accept implausible justifications to distinguish that precedent. You don’t want the court to think that you are minimizing or ignoring unfavorable facts.
Instead, develop a nuanced and original argument that renders precedent a little less controlling and the unfavorable facts a little less damaging. In so doing, you will enhance the likelihood of convincing the court that the rule or outcome for which you advocate is novel and neither inconsistent with nor contrary to existing law.
Consider the above example. With respect to the actual malice standard, how would you address the argument that the newspaper’s conduct doesn’t even remotely satisfy this standard?
Well, you could argue that the court should clarify its interpretation of “reckless disregard” for the truth or falsity of a statement. In so doing, you could argue that providing an incomplete, inaccurate, and thus distorted view of the facts to the public is a “reckless disregard” for the truth because it portrays an individual in a false and potentially defamatory light. By way of analogy, what the newspaper did is tantamount to a newspaper publishing an article stating that the congressman had previously been convicted of sexual assault while omitting that the conviction was overturned on appeal for lack of sufficient evidence. Furthermore, recklessness can be inferred because the newspaper could have easily discovered and published the statements on www.praisemyprofesssor.com; the newspaper’s choice not to portrayed the congressman in a false and defamatory light.
This is not to say, of course, that the above argument is persuasive and will lead to a successful result. It is to say, however, that it will likely make a ‘bad’ argument better and more palatable to the court.
Put simply, think outside of the box. Take a chance. Be creative. And in so doing, convince the court that the rule or outcome you seek is not a radical departure from existing law.
2. Ask questions that put your opponent on the defensive and expose weaknesses in your opponent’s argument
When you have to make a ‘bad’ argument, you should take an offensive, not defensive approach. Specifically, you should confront directly the weaknesses in your opponent’s argument. One way to do so is by posing simple questions that show how your opponent’s argument would lead to an unjust and unfair result, and constitute bad law and bad policy.
Below are a few examples relating to the above hypothetical:
So, it’s ok for a newspaper to selectively and with impunity publish facts about a public official that portray that official in a false and defamatory light?
So, it’s permissible for a public official’s reputation to be irreparably damaged because a newspaper concocted a false and misleading narrative by omitting student reviews that undermined that narrative – and suppressed the truth?
So, the court’s interpretation of ‘reckless’ means that it is perfectly fine for a newspaper to cherry-pick its sources to propagate a fake narrative that irreparably damages a public official and influences an election?
These questions aren’t perfect, but you get the point. By asking direct questions, you put your opponent on the defensive. You enable the court to view the issue in a different light. And you allow the court to answer the questions in a way that will lead to a favorable outcome.
3. Forget the straw man – attack and undermine your opponent’s best argument
Never, never, never avoid the elephant in the room. And never make a straw man argument.
Instead, attack your opponent’s best argument. Explain how the rule your opponent supports will lead to unfair and unjust consequences in this and future cases. For example, regarding the hypothetical above, explain why your opponent’s argument makes it nearly impossible for public officials to ever obtain remedies for defamatory statements, and why it makes it nearly always possible for newspapers to publish misleading information with impunity.
4. Use quantitative and qualitative data to maximize the persuasive value of your argument
Quantitative and qualitative data enhances the persuasive of any legal argument and can sometimes transform a ‘bad’ argument into a relatively persuasive argument. For example, regarding the above hypothetical, consider the following use of empirical data relating to the actual malice standard:
In the last ten years, relevant empirical data shows that the country’s ten most widely circulated newspapers published over 1,000 articles that contained false and misleading information about public officials. Despite over 100 lawsuits by public officials seeking damages for defamation, only one lawsuit led to a finding in the public official’s favor. This data reveals a disturbing fact: newspapers can publish false and misleading information with impunity because the actual malice standard – particularly the stringent interpretation of “reckless disregard” – serves as an impenetrable shield to any accountability whatsoever.
Although this argument obviously isn’t perfect, it does give the court something to think about, namely, that the actual malice standard over-protects newspapers and under-protects individuals who are damaged by the dissemination of incomplete and misleading information.
5. If the court isn’t likely to agree with anything you say, make sure that you get the court to agree with something you say
When presenting a ‘bad’ argument in a brief or at an oral argument, you will in many instances know with relative confidence whether the court is likely to respond with skepticism and even hostility to your position.
Consider the hypothetical above. An appellate court will almost certainly hold that the newspaper’s conduct does not even remotely support a defamation claim because there is no evidence that the statements were false or, even if they were false, that the newspaper’s conduct satisfies the actual malice standard. Indeed, you may have a nightmare on the eve of oral argument in which a judge on the appellate panel says something like this:
So, um, counselor, how can you honestly and with a straight face argue that the newspaper’s statements, which you don’t contend are false, can miraculously show a ‘reckless disregard for truth’ and satisfy the actual malice standard? What is wrong with you? How could you possibly present such a ridiculous argument to this court?
Uh oh. I wouldn’t want to be that attorney.
So, what should you do?
Well, you can decide to not show up for court, immediately quit the legal profession, and become a comedian. Or you can respond by getting the judge to agree with you on at least one proposition. For example, you could respond as follows:
I’m glad that you asked that question. To begin with, I think we can all agree that disseminating false, incomplete, and misleading information about any individual to the public can cause substantial and irreversible reputation harm. And we can probably also agree that a healthy democracy demands that newspapers have the right – indeed the obligation – to publish statements that criticize and reveal unfavorable facts about public figures. But I respectfully disagree with your contention that the statements aren’t false. When read in isolation, that may be true, but when read in context, the statements are decidedly untrue. Put simply, disseminating incomplete and thus misleading statements about an individual unquestionably portrays that individual in a false and defamatory light, thus making the message conveyed by the statements – that the congressman was a terrible professor – demonstrably false. Consider, for example, what a reasonable person would have thought of the congressman if the newspaper had published the statements on both www.criticizemyprofessor.com and www.praisemyprofesssor.com. The answer should be obvious: a reasonable person would view the congressman in a more favorable – and truthful – light. And that is the problem. Consequently, the dissemination of incomplete and misleading information is itself false and defamatory.
Now, this answer is undoubtedly not perfect and the flaws are obvious. It may not sway the judge and it almost certainly will not convince the court that the newspaper’s statements support a defamation claim. But remember that you are stuck with a ‘bad’ argument and trying to make it good enough to convince the court to reconsider the merits of your position. This response does raise an interesting point that may cause the court to pause for a moment and rethink its opinion concerning whether the statements could be construed as defamatory.
6. Argue with emotion and confidence
Perception matters. Confidence and passion matter. Especially when you are the underdog.
When presenting an oral argument, for example, you should use verbal and non-verbal techniques to show that you believe passionately and confidently in your argument, and in the outcome you seek. It doesn’t matter that you are presenting a ‘bad’ argument. What matters is that you advocate intelligently and forcefully as if your argument is and should be considered meritorious. When you exhibit confidence and passion (and make a well-structured argument), you enhance the likelihood that the court will think twice and question its preconceived notions or assumptions about your argument’s validity.
7. Appeal to the court’s sense of fairness and justice
Judges want to do the right thing. And judges will often engage in legal gymnastics to arrive at the outcome that they believe is just. If you doubt that, read Griswold v. Connecticut and Roe v. Wade, where the United States Supreme Court interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause in a constitutionally indefensible manner to reach results that arguably reflected the majority’s policy predilections.
Regardless, because constitutional provisions, legal rules, and statutes are often broadly phrased, and precedent is often distinguishable, a court can in, many instances, reach a variety of justifiable outcomes. You can bet that the outcome a court reaches will reflect the court’s belief about what constitutes the fairest and most just result. After all, judges are not robots. They don’t just mechanically apply the law. They want to do the right thing -- or simply reach outcomes that reflect their policy preferences.
Ultimately, these strategies may not always be successful, but they will make your ‘bad’ argument better and increase the likelihood of succeeding on the merits.
August 7, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Law School, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Moot Court, Oral Argument | Permalink | Comments (0)
Saturday, July 17, 2021
Power Poses and Oral Argument: Or, Do What Your Mother Said and Stand up Straight
In a recent meeting about teaching Legal Writing, an experienced appellate advocate mentioned practicing “power poses” as part of her prep for an oral argument at the Ninth Circuit. While her comment was a nice way to add humor and humanity to the conversation, the idea of using power poses to add confidence before oral argument stuck with me long after the meeting concluded.
I decided to check out the TED Talk on power poses the advocate mentioned in our meeting: Social Psychologist and Harvard Business Law Professor Amy Cuddy’s TEDGlobal 2012 Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are. https://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_may_shape_who_you_are. The TED Talk website has a disclaimer at the beginning of Prof. Cuddy’s talk, explaining, “Some of the findings presented in this talk have been referenced in an ongoing debate among social scientists about robustness and reproducibility.” Id. Keeping in mind the debate about the science behind some of Prof. Cuddy’s premises, I decided to focus more on her overall points about body language.
Prof. Cuddy’s general theme is that "power posing" by standing or sitting in a posture of confidence--even when we do not feel confident--can boost subjective feelings of confidence and thereby possibly impact success. Id. She initially focused on non-verbal communications, especially posture, among her MBA students. Cuddy noticed her students who made themselves smaller, with hunched shoulders and crossed arms and legs, tended to earn lower grades than the students whose posture took more space. Looking at controlled human subject students and primates with her collaborator, Prof. Dana Carney of Berkeley, Cuddy also saw a connection between testosterone and cortisone levels and use of power poses like the “Wonder Woman” and “Victory” stances with arms outstretched. Thus, Prof. Cuddy hypothesized people who sit hunched over before a job interview, or in our case an oral argument, will have less confidence than those who stand for a few minutes privately in a power pose before an important talk. See id. Prof. Cuddy stressed she does not believe the power poses are for use “with other people” or to have any impact on substance, but instead can help us feel more comfortable with ourselves and thus preform better. Id.
Commentator Kate Torgovnick May summarized Prof. Cuddy’s point as: “[B]efore heading into a job interview, giving a big speech or attempting an athletic feat . . . everyone should spend two minutes power posing [by] adopting the stances associated with confidence, power and achievement — chest lifted, head held high, arms either up or propped on the hips.” Kate Torgovnick May, Some Examples of How Power Posing Can Actually Boost your Confidence (Oct. 1, 2012) https://blog.ted.com/10-examples-of-how-power-posing-can-work-to-boost-your-confidence/. Torgovnick May provides several testimonials from people who successfully used “Wonder Woman” or other power poses before important classes, interviews, and presentations. See, e.g., id. (“It’s nice to see that there’s scientific support for Oscar Hammerstein’s King and I lyrics: ‘Whenever I feel afraid, I hold my head erect and whistle a happy tune, so no one will suspect I’m afraid …The result of this deception is very strange to tell, for when I fool the people I fear, I fool myself as well.’”)
In bringing these ideas back to my own life, and to our Appellate Advocacy blog, the mom in me could not help but remember my own lawyer mother teaching my sister and me to walk with books on our heads. My mom--like so many other parents—wanted her girls to stand up straight and have confidence. I regularly chide my very tall sons for hunching over, admonishing them to “put back” their shoulders and “stand up straight.” While the scientific community debates the precise reliability of Prof. Cuddy’s work, I know standing with confidence can indeed help me feel and look more confident in court and in the classroom.
Therefore, I recommend you check out Prof. Cuddy’s TED Talk, as well as the debate on her research. And the next time you are especially nervous about an oral argument or presentation, spend two minutes in a power pose. Hopefully, you can smile thinking about the parent, auntie, teacher, or other adult who told you to “stand up straight” years ago. And perhaps this technique will give you increased confidence too.
July 17, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Legal Profession, Moot Court, Oral Argument | Permalink | Comments (0)
Friday, July 2, 2021
How to Be Persuasive
Persuading other people to adopt your point of view, whether in a courtroom, a faculty meeting, a debate, or any other context, depends on how you deliver your argument. Below are tips to maximize the persuasive value of an argument.
1. Persuasion is about perception
In many instances, people do not decide whether to accept a particular argument based on facts or science. Rather, their decision is based on their perception of you. And that perception will be influenced substantially by how you deliver your argument. The most important aspect of that delivery is confidence. If you appear confident, the audience will be more likely to agree with you, regardless of contrary facts or evidence.
Simply put, confidence is everything.
Confident advocates take a stand and are bold.
They are unequivocal.
They never get flustered.
They never act surprised.
They never say “um,” or, “I think,” or, “I’m not entirely sure.”
When they receive hostile questions, they react by stating, “I’m really glad that you asked that question.”
In short, if you win the battle of perception, you also likely win the war of persuasion.
2. Make your audience initially agree with you by connecting your argument to commonly accepted values
To win an argument at the end, you have to win at the beginning. And winning at the beginning means connecting your argument to broader values upon which nearly all people can agree. If people agree with the broader values underlying your argument, they will be more likely to accept the specific aspects of that argument. Consider the following examples of two hypothetical lawyers arguing that the First Amendment protects “hate speech”:
The First Amendment protects hate speech because the Founders believed that the right to free speech was essential to liberty and democracy. As a result, offensive, distasteful, and unpopular ideas must be tolerated to ensure that a true marketplace of ideas exists and that people are not threatened by government censorship. Therefore, hate speech, however one might define such speech, must be tolerated.
Ok, whatever. Now consider this example:
Speech that degrades, denigrates, and demeans other people can be terribly hurtful. I’m sure that we can all recall a moment in our lives when another person said something demeaning to us and remember the pain that it caused. And I’m sure we wish that all people realized the harm that words can cause and respected the dignity of every human being. At the same time, most people don’t want the government to become the speech police. They don’t want the government to arbitrarily decide what speech is considered “hate speech,” and what speech is not, thus giving it the power to censor whatever ideas it deems unpopular. If the government had that power, liberty, autonomy, and democracy would be threatened. For these reasons, as much as we may despise those who degrade, denigrate, and demean others, the answer is to fight back by using our free speech rights, not to give the government carte blanche to dictate what we can and cannot say.
The second example appeals to values that most reasonable people accept and view as essential to a free society. And when they agree with these broader values, they are likely to accept the argument that hate speech must receive First Amendment protection.
Simply put, if they agree with you at the beginning, they are more likely to agree with you at the end.
3. It’s ok to be a little unprofessional in the right circumstances
Advocates who are authentic, likable, relatable, and passionate are more likely to sway an audience. And in some instances, authenticity means ‘being real’ and dispensing with formalities when making an argument. In short, sometimes it’s ok to be a little unprofessional. Why? Because it conveys your passion. It shows that you believe in your argument.
Consider the following examples involving two hypothetical appellate advocates who are arguing to the New Jersey Supreme Court the issue of whether defense counsel's performance at trial violated the Sixth Amendment:
In Strickland v. Washington, the United States Supreme Court held that a Sixth Amendment violation occurs where counsel’s performance is negligent and where such negligence results in prejudice, meaning that, but for counsel’s negligence, the outcome of the trial would have been different. This case is a perfect example of ineffective assistance of counsel. Counsel slept during parts of the trial. Counsel admitted to having a cocaine addiction and to being an alcoholic. Yet, the appellate court held that this conduct was harmless error because my client confessed to the crime. Now my client will be incarcerated for twenty-five years for voluntary manslaughter. This decision was erroneous and should be reversed.
Yeah, right. Based on that argument, the appellate court’s decision isn’t going to be reversed. Now consider this example:
My client was represented by counsel who, during the trial, was addicted to and snorting cocaine. He was represented by counsel who smelled of alcohol. And due to the hangovers caused by his frequent cocaine and alcohol binges, counsel fell asleep during the trial, including during the prosecution’s examination of critical witnesses. It should come as no surprise that anyone represented by a drug-addicted, alcoholic, and sleeping lawyer would be convicted. But it should come as a shock that such a conviction would be upheld on appeal. The appellate court didn’t give a shit about this blatant denial of due process. The appellate court didn’t give a shit about the drugs, the booze, and the frequent naps during the trial. To the court, this was harmless error. If that is harmless, it’s difficult to know what would be harmful.
The second example is real. It is raw. It is authentic.
Of course, being a little unprofessional doesn’t give you a license to be a jerk. Never be disrespectful or attack personally your adversary or the lower court. And keep the four-letter words to a minimum. But there are instances in which your passion and authenticity can be best expressed by dispensing with the formalities and being real.
4. Reframe your opponent’s argument
Don’t allow your opponents to frame issues on their terms. Reframe the issues to support your argument and reinforce the commonly accepted values on which they are based. For example, consider the above example regarding ineffective assistance of counsel and how the hypothetical attorney in Example 2 reframes the argument to appeal to basic and commonly accepted values.
The state acknowledges that defense counsel had a drug and alcohol problem and that defense counsel slept during portions of the trial. But that is not the relevant inquiry. The question is whether defense counsel’s performance prejudiced the defendant, such that the outcome of the trial would have been different had counsel performed differently. The answer to that question is no. The conviction should be affirmed.
The state is asking this court to hold that the Sixth Amendment is not violated when defense counsel snorted cocaine during the trial. The state is asking this court to hold that the Sixth Amendment is not violated when defense counsel is an alcoholic. The state is asking this court to hold that the Sixth Amendment is not violated when defense counsel falls asleep during a trial and renders the defendant helpless in the legal process. The state is asking this court to hold that attorneys who are addicted to cocaine and alcohol, and who decide to sleep rather than aggressively advocate for their clients, satisfies the Sixth Amendment’s promise of effective assistance of counsel. To accept the state’s argument is to say that the Sixth Amendment has no meaning whatsoever.
Yikes. I wouldn’t want to be a justice on the New Jersey Supreme Court in such a case.
5. Explain with specificity why your position is good policy and will lead to fair and just results
It’s not sufficient that your proposed rule or policy is workable based on the facts of a specific case. The most persuasive arguments demonstrate that such a rule or policy would be workable, fair, and just in future cases and in a variety of contexts.
To achieve this objective, you should do three things. First, make sure that your position is supported by facts and empirical data. Second, acknowledge weaknesses in your position and explain how your rule or proposal addresses such weaknesses and leads to just results. Third, to demonstrate its efficacy and fairness, give hypothetical examples explaining how your rule or proposal would be applied in other contexts.
After all, facts don’t always win arguments.
The law doesn’t always win arguments.
Be confident. Be authentic.
July 2, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Law School, Legal Profession, Moot Court, Oral Argument, Rhetoric | Permalink | Comments (1)
Saturday, June 26, 2021
Book Review: Daniel P. Selmi & Rebecca A. Delfino, Principles of Appellate Advocacy (2d Ed. 2021)
Often, students and practitioners ask for me book recommendations on appellate advocacy. Like many, I am a fan of Bryan Garner’s works and of anything by Judge Ruggero J. Aldisert. Recently, Professors Daniel P. Selmi and Rebecca A. Delfino, colleagues of mine when I was teaching at Loyola Law School Los Angeles, published the Second Edition of Principles of Appellate Advocacy with Wolters Kluwer (Aspen). The book is aimed at law students, but its straightforward organization and direct examples will help students and newer practitioners alike. I will definitely be recommending Principles of Appellate Advocacy in the future.
Delfino explained she found the first edition of the book when she needed a legal writing and appellate advocacy text that would not “overwhelm students with a disparate mixture of rules, arcane procedural requirements, and multiple writing instructions.” She also: “didn’t want to use a dense case book, a workbook of exercises, or seminar materials full of platitudes or hacks geared to practitioners. Instead, I wanted something practical, concise, and accessible written by someone who knows the law student audience.” Delfino found Selmi’s first edition easily manageable for students, with instructions “laser-focused on appellate brief-writing.”
In the second edition, Selmi and Delfino, now a co-author, have retained the comfortable length and approachability of the book. The second edition is only 166 pages before the samples and problems. While full of excellent concrete examples, the text flows easily and invites students to stay engaged with clear and direct writing. Just like a good brief, the book has a very helpful Table of Contents and keeps the focus on explaining why each proposed writing technique matters.
Delfino explained the main changes to the second edition came from student and colleague feedback. Selmi and Delfino added more information on standards of review, appealable error, and preservation of issues for appeal. They also included new exercises to stress the “rules for writing discussed in the text and [provide] practice revision and editing techniques.” Finally, they added a helpful video on oral argument and a sample syllabus.
I especially liked Chapter 10, “Basic Writing and Other Mechanics.” As the authors aptly explain, good writing “is not a matter of ‘style’” but of following key principles. Principles of Appellate Advocacy provides ten areas of focus for the best legal writing, such as manageable sentence and paragraph length and effective topic sentences. The book also has great examples, some in understandable diagram form, of the dreaded passive voice and nominalizations my students use sometimes.
As the authors note in the Introduction, “Appellate brief writing is a time-intensive exercise” and a “course in appellate advocacy undoubtedly will take more of students’ time than they estimate.” But the new edition of Principles of Appellate Advocacy will help students and newer practitioners get to winning briefs more quickly and easily.
June 26, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Books, Law School, Legal Writing, Moot Court, Oral Argument | Permalink | Comments (1)
Sunday, June 13, 2021
Five Tips for Students in Moot Court and for Appellate Advocates
Moot Court is an important class in law school because it teaches students the skills necessary to be effective appellate advocates. Below are five rules that moot court students – and practicing appellate advocates – should follow when arguing before an appellate court.
1. Start strong
First, begin with a powerful opening sentence that captures the court’s attention. Of course, don’t be too general or overly dramatic. Instead, ask yourself how you would describe in one sentence why you should win. The answer should be your opening sentence.
Second, use the Rule of Three. After your opening sentence, immediately and concisely provide the court with three reasons supporting the outcome you seek. Be sure that they are clearly delineated and supported by the record and relevant law.
Third, tell the court what remedy that you are seeking and the rule you would like the court to adopt. The court needs to know what you want and why giving you what you want would result in a workable rule that can be applied fairly and consistently to future cases. Put simply, the beginning of your argument is a roadmap for the court to follow that will lead to a ruling in your favor.
Consider the following examples by attorneys who are appealing a district court’s decision to dismiss via summary judgment their client’s defamation case on the ground that the alleged defamatory statements were constitutionally protected opinion:
May it please the court. The First Amendment is sacrosanct in our society. Ensuring a robust marketplace of ideas is essential to a democratic society. To that end, unpopular ideas are protected from government censure and even the most distasteful comments warrant First Amendment protection. But sometimes, people cross the line and say things that neither the First Amendment nor common decency should countenance. The founders did not intend for any speech, no matter how harmful, to receive First Amendment protection, as the United States Supreme Court has recognized in cases like Miller v. California and Brandenburg v. Ohio. This is one of those cases. The harm caused to my client by the statements made against him is actionable under federal law.
What nonsense. If I was the client and listened to this opening, I would cringe and possibly run out of the courtroom. Now consider this example:
May it please the court. The appellee’s statement implied underlying false facts, was defamatory as a matter of law, and caused severe reputational harm. First, the statement that my client was “a disgusting person and attorney who would lie to any client to make money,” implied that my client was an incompetent and unethical lawyer. Under United States Supreme Court jurisprudence, these statements are actionable and defamatory. Second, the statement is verifiably false. As demonstrated in the over fifty reviews by former clients, my client's inclusion in the Best Lawyers in America for the past ten years, and his selection as the Lawyer of the Year last year, the statement is untrue. Third, the statement has subjected my client to harm and ridicule in the community. Several clients have fired him. Many have sent him offensive emails. He has been suspended from the State Ethics Committee on which he served. For these reasons, we respectfully request that this court overturn the district court’s grant of summary judgment by applying the well-settled principle that opinions implying underlying facts can – and often are – defamatory.
The difference should be obvious.
2. Answer the judges’ questions.
Perhaps the most important part of an oral argument at the appellate level is the judges’ questions. Those questions provide insight into, for example, concerns the judges may have about one or more of your arguments or the rule that you would like them to adopt. They are also an opportunity – indeed the best opportunity – to make your case to the judges.
To do so, you should follow two basic rules. First, answer the questions directly. Do not try to avoid them or give answers that may sound persuasive but that aren't responsive. You are a lawyer, not a politician. If you give evasive answers, you will lose credibility with the judges. You will show that you lack effective responses to the judges' concerns. And that will undermine the strength of your argument. Thus, be sure to answer the questions directly. Those answers may require you to acknowledge weaknesses in your case, such as unfavorable facts or law. Who cares. The best attorneys concede these points and explain why they do not affect the outcome they seek.
Second, the best attorneys pivot seamlessly from the question back to their argument and thus continue the argument with excellent organization and flow. Consider the following examples:
Judge: Counselor, as bad as this statement may seem, stating that someone is a ‘disgusting person’ is pure opinion. If we accepted your argument, almost any statement could be construed as asserting an underlying fact, thus compromising core First Amendment values. So where would you draw the line or, to put it differently, what criteria would you use to distinguish between pure opinions and those that imply underlying facts?
Attorney: Well, the real issue here is about the harm. My client’s reputation has been severely and, perhaps, irreparably harmed by this statement. And the record amply supports that fact. So, the technical distinction between pure opinions and opinions implying underlying facts is really just an argument about semantics.
Judge: Let me try this one more time. What criteria would you use to distinguish pure opinions from opinions implying underlying facts?
Attorney: With all due respect your honor, that is not the question in this case. The question is whether my client was defamed. The answer is yes.
That is simply terrible. Now consider this example.
Judge: Counselor, as bad as these statements may seem, stating that someone is a ‘disgusting person’ is pure opinion. If we accepted your argument, almost any statement could be construed as asserting an underlying fact, thus compromising core First Amendment values. So where would you draw the line or, to put it differently, what criteria would you use to distinguish between pure opinions and those that imply underlying facts?
Attorney: The distinction is verifiability. Pure opinions cannot be proven to be factually false. For example, if a person says, “the New York Yankees are a bad team,” that would be a pure opinion because what one considers ‘bad’ is subjective. But if a person said, “The New York Yankees are only a good team because of the stuff their players take to enhance their performance,” that would be an opinion that implies underlying facts because it can be proven that the players do not take performance-enhancing substances. In this case, the appellee did not simply say that my client was a ‘disgusting person.’ He said that he was a ‘disgusting person and attorney who would lie to any client to make money.' We can verify, through affidavits and sworn testimony, that he never lied to a single client about any matter pertaining directly or indirectly to their representation. And that is why the rule we ask this court to adopt is neither novel nor unworkable. We simply ask that you apply well-settled precedent stating that opinions implying underlying false facts can be defamatory. Indeed, in this case, they most certainly were defamatory.
Again, the difference should be obvious.
3. Have a conversation with the court
During an oral argument, you should be yourself and have a conversation, not a confrontation, with the court. The judges are not your enemies. They are simply trying to reach the fairest outcome that is consistent with the law and justified by the facts. Thus, you should be friendly and respectful, realizing that, as an advocate and as an officer of the court, your responsibility is to help the judges reach the best result while remaining faithful to your client’s objectives.
The best way to do this is to provide the court with a practical and workable legal rule that can be applied fairly and consistently to future cases. Remember that appellate judges are not focused exclusively or even primarily on your client. They are focused on whether the outcome they reach and the rule they adopt will provide workable and just in future cases, both as a matter of law and policy. For this reason, the best appellate lawyers advocate fiercely on their clients' behalf but also propose legal rules that the court believes will provide clarity, fairness, consistency, and predictability in future cases.
4. Don’t screw up on the basic aspects of appellate practice
Never make the basic mistakes, namely, the ‘red flag’ errors that undermine your credibility and your case. For example:
- Know the record
- Know the law (and please make sure your legal authority remains valid law)
- Know the standard of review
- Write an outstanding – and concise – appellate brief and remember that the brief is more important than the oral argument
- Never be disrespectful to the lower or appellate court, or the adversary
- Follow the federal or state rules, and the local rules
- Don’t make weak arguments
- Cite cases and other authority
- Know the difference between binding and persuasive authority
- Have realistic expectations and communicate those expectations to your client
- Don’t use notes at oral argument
- Be honest
- Don’t be a jerk
This list is certainly not exhaustive. But if you violate one of these rules, your chances of winning will be compromised – as will your reputation.
5. Have a short list of ‘non-negotiable’ legal arguments
It’s difficult to predict what will happen in an oral argument. Some appellate panels ask many questions, which is known as a ‘hot’ bench. Some ask few questions. Sometimes, the judges raise issues that you don't expect or ask questions that you have difficulty answering. Regardless of what happens at an oral argument, you should always have a list in your mind of the arguments that are so essential that you must communicate them to the court, no matter what the direction or focus of the argument.
And remember, there are some things that cannot be taught or that require significant practice. Those are a lawyer's: (1) charisma; (2) personality; and (3) persuasiveness. The best appellate advocates have all three.
June 13, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, Law School, Legal Profession, Moot Court, Oral Argument | Permalink | Comments (0)
Saturday, June 5, 2021
How to Win an Argument
Winning an argument depends in substantial part on effectively using strategies to maximize your argument’s persuasive and logical force, expose weaknesses in your adversary’s argument, and convince the audience to adopt your position. Below are tips that will enhance your chances of winning an argument in many contexts, such as in court, at a debate, or in a negotiation.
1. Require that your adversary define relevant terms with specificity.
You should always require your adversary to define important terms that are essential to proving or disproving an argument. And you should never engage in or respond to arguments that consist of overly general propositions. For example, imagine the following discussion between two scholars who differ about the extent to which systemic racism and white privilege exists in the United States:
Scholar: Both history and current laws demonstrate that the United States is systemically racist, and that white privilege is pervasive throughout this country. Ultimately, until our society is more diverse and inclusive, we will continue to oppress marginalized populations.
Wow. There is a lot to unpack in that statement.
Importantly, the scholar’s adversary should neither react nor respond to the substance of that statement. Instead, the scholar’s adversary should state as follows:
I certainly agree that racism, inequality, and oppression are antithetical to basic human values. But how do you define and quantify systemic, or institutional, racism? Which specific institutions do you allege are racist? And how do you define and quantify white privilege?
This strategy forces your opponent to be specific and places on your opponent the burden to provide a definition upon which most reasonable people can agree. In so doing, the opponent will likely reveal underlying assumptions or biases in an argument and thus allow you to expose the flaws in whatever definition the adversary provides. At the very least, you will prevent your opponent from relying on unproven generalities and enable yourself to avoid a futile discourse involving statements that may lack an empirical foundation.
2. Expose logical fallacies in your opponent’s argument, especially appeals to authority and emotion.
Logical fallacies undermine many arguments. Two of the most common are the appeals to authority and emotion.
First, many advocates strive to enhance the validity and persuasiveness of an argument by relying upon well-respected sources or unnamed “experts.” Consider the following example:
Any athlete should have the right to kneel for the national anthem and thus exercise their right to free speech. As nearly every justice on the United States Supreme Court has stated, freedom of speech is critical to protecting liberty and democratic values.
This statement represents an appeal to authority. Specifically, the fact that nearly every justice on the Supreme Court may have expressed these sentiments utterly fails to support the argument that any athlete should have the right to kneel for the national anthem. In essence, the person making this statement is saying, “If the justices on the Supreme Court agree with me, the argument must be valid.” Wrong. An argument is valid only if it is based on facts and evidence.
Second, many advocates appeal to the audience’s emotion when striving to maximize an argument’s persuasive value. Consider the following example:
We must resist attempts to abolish the death penalty. A few years ago, my teenage son was brutally murdered by a man who had previously murdered four teenagers. The only way justice will be served is if we hold this man accountable for the atrocities he committed.
This is a tremendously sad story. But it is not a logically valid argument. Whether the death penalty should be abolished depends on facts and data regarding, among other things, whether the death penalty is applied fairly and equitably, and whether it deters crime. The above statement addresses none of these points.
3. Begin your argument with a foundational and well-accepted principle.
To maximize the likelihood that the audience will adopt your position, begin your argument with foundational principles that engender widespread agreement. For example, assume that you are debating whether Georgia’s recently-enacted voter identification law will suppress voter turnout, particularly among minority communities. Consider the following two statements:
Georgia’s voter identification law does not and will not impact voter turnout. And the law isn’t targeted at minority communities. It applies to everyone and enhances election integrity.
Racism and discrimination are intolerable, and equality is a basic principle of democracy and essential to liberty. To that end, we must embrace the core principle that every person, regardless of, among other things, race, ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation, has an equal right to vote and must have equal access to the ballot box. Georgia’s law does not violate this important principle.
Which statement is better? The answer should be obvious – as should the reasons why.
4. Know the statistics. Again, know the statistics.
To win an argument, you must know the relevant statistics and empirical studies that impact the argument’s validity. If you don’t, or if you rely only on statistics and studies that are favorable to you, your argument’s persuasive force vanishes along with your credibility. For example, some scholars have posited, in law review articles and other publications, that implicit bias is a major contributor to ongoing discrimination, marginalization, and oppression in society. In support of this argument, they cite studies allegedly illustrating implicit bias’s pernicious effects.
There is only one problem. Several recent studies have debunked or, at the very least, cast serious doubt upon the relationship between implicit bias and biased behavior. Sadly, very few advocates of implicit bias training have addressed this damaging evidence. This failure renders their arguments unpersuasive and calls into question their objectivity as scholars.
To avoid this mistake, be sure to prepare extensively before any argument by knowing the relevant facts and data, both favorable and unfavorable, that impact your argument. Don’t be afraid to concede bad facts. Instead, explain why they do not affect the outcome you seek and highlight how the statistics favor the position for which you advocate.
After all, facts and statistics are the foundations of powerful arguments.
5. Transition from abstract to concrete arguments.
When making an argument, avoid extensive reliance on abstract principles. Instead, provide concrete evidence and examples that support your argument, and offer a solution or rule that demonstrates your position's practicality and workability. Consider the following example:
The Fourth Amendment should not be construed to allow law enforcement officers to conduct warrantless cell phone searches. Privacy is a bedrock principle in the Constitution and citizens have a right to be free from unreasonable, government-sanctioned intrusions on privacy. Furthermore, law enforcement must not be given the power to encroach upon basic civil liberties and thus place the freedoms of all citizens at risk.
Yeah, whatever. That statement is far too abstract. Consider this example:
Warrantless cell phone searches incident to arrest violate the Fourth Amendment. Unlike searches of closed containers or passenger compartments, a cell phone houses a vast amount of the very papers and effects, such as personal photographs, bank statements and other documents, text and email addresses, and online search history, that the Founders would have afforded the highest Fourth Amendment protection. As such, warrantless searches in this context are unreasonable per se. The Court should thus adopt a rule stating that law enforcement officers must have probable cause and warrant before searching a cell phone incident to arrest.
This statement is far more persuasive because it makes specific points, and proposes a workable and practical rule.
6. Use ‘hidden’ premises in your argument.
Including ‘hidden’ premises in your argument helps to reframe the issue(s) effectively in your favor and increases the likelihood that the audience will agree with your stated premises and conclusion. Additionally, it often presents as accepted or proven precisely the issue(s) that the argument or debate involves. Consider the following example:
The death penalty should be abolished immediately for three reasons. First, the death penalty disproportionately impacts African-American defendants. Second, it is almost certain that innocent people have been executed. Third, the death penalty serves none of the purposes of criminal punishment. Thus, because I am against racial discrimination and inequality, because I do not believe in intentionally murdering innocent civilians, and because I do not support criminal justice policies that have no societal value, the death penalty should be abolished.
This statement is effective because of the ‘hidden’ premises, even though some scholars would disagree with one or more of these assertions. But that is not the point. The point is that all reasonable people are against racial discrimination and inequality. No one believes in “intentionally murdering innocent civilians.” And few would support any policy that has no societal value. By including in your argument widely accepted principles, you increase the likelihood that the audience will accept your argument and adopt your position.
7. Never allow your adversary to characterize you or your argument inaccurately.
Make your adversary work diligently to establish any point that impacts negatively your argument. Put simply, always challenge inferences or assumptions that your adversary makes to undermine your position. Consider the following example:
Professor Smith recently drafted an article claiming that the late Justice Antonin Scalia was an “intellectual giant on the Supreme Court and the author of many extraordinary opinions that respected the Constitution’s text and structure.” Professor Smith’s endorsement of conservative values and a conservative judicial philosophy means that he will support judges who turn a blind eye to progressive values and marginalized populations.
Be sure to call out such nonsense. What Professor Smith said does not even remotely support the proposition that he endorses conservative values and will support judges who “turn a blind eye” to progressive values (whatever that means). Never allow your adversary to get away with such a misrepresentation and never concede more than is necessary to maintain your argument’s credibility.
8. Listen more and talk less.
It’s the quality, not the quantity, that matters. In an argument, never talk too much and dominate the discussion. When you do so, it suggests that you are insecure about the merits of your argument, that you believe your adversary has made compelling points that require an immediate response (which gives your adversary credibility), and that you are so rigidly attached to your argument that alternative perspectives are neither necessary nor welcomed. Unfortunately, that approach undermines your credibility.
Remember, less is more. You should listen calmly and carefully to your adversary’s argument. You should recognize good points that your adversary makes and strive to find areas of agreement. And when you do speak, be sure to make a concise, high-quality, and compelling statement. What does that mean? Get to the point immediately. Start with a powerful theme. Use the Rule of Three. Lead with your strongest points. Use statistics to support your assertions. End powerfully and confidently.
Then, shut up.
The best advocates pick their battles effectively.
9. Never show emotion.
Getting emotional is one of the worst things that you can do in an argument. When you show emotion, such as by being angry, irritated, or offended, it typically means that your adversary is winning the argument and that you are not confident in your position. Consider the following two statements from the captain of an airline to passengers who just flew through severe turbulence in bad weather:
Hi everyone, please do not worry. I know that things were really rough for several minutes, but I will never allow this plane to crash! Let me repeat – I will not let this plane crash, no matter what! I am a veteran of the Air Force and I’m going to fight this weather to the death!
If I were a passenger on this plane, I would immediately believe that the plane was going to crash nose-first into a ditch. Now consider this statement:
Hi folks, sorry about the rough air we just encountered. The plane is fine, of course, and the turbulence we just encountered is pretty common in this part of the country. We’re going to change our altitude as soon as possible to make your flight as comfortable as possible and we don’t expect much rough air for the rest of the flight.
If I were a passenger on this plane, I would feel assured and safe. The difference wasn’t simply the words. It was the measured manner with which the latter statement was delivered.
Simply put, in an argument, be confident. Be calm. Never act surprised by a point your adversary makes or a question that your adversary asks. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t show passion and conviction. You should certainly be your authentic self. But you must avoid the negative reactions and emotional outbursts that invariably raise questions about your credibility and the merits of your argument.
10. Don’t be an a******.
People like others who are nice. They like others who are respectful, friendly, and civil. They like others who are mature. They like others who are honest and genuine. And when people like you, they will be more likely to listen to you and find you credible. Most importantly, when people like you, they are more inclined to adopt your position. After all, people associate with those that they like and respect.
Conversely, people hate jerks. And they know them when they see them. Jerks attack people rather than ideas. Jerks insult others. Jerks always think that they are right and that else is always wrong. Jerks interrupt people when they are speaking. Jerks misrepresent others’ positions. The list goes on and on.
You get the point. Don’t be an a******.
Remember, when you make an argument, people are not just listening to what you say. They are evaluating you.
June 5, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Law School, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Moot Court, Oral Argument, Rhetoric | Permalink | Comments (0)
Saturday, February 13, 2021
Tips for Delivering A Persuasive Opening Statement
Opening statements are among the most critical aspects of a trial. Indeed, the opening statement provides attorneys with the opportunity to, among other things, make an excellent first impression with the jury, highlight the most favorable facts supporting an attorney's argument, and establish trust and credibility with the jury. Below are tips to maximize the persuasive value of an opening statement.
Begin with a theme. First impressions are critically important, whether it is at a trial, in an interview, or during an audition. For that reason, it is vital to start strong when delivering your opening statement. A powerful beginning, among other things, gets the jury’s attention and establishes your credibility immediately. To ensure that you deliver a persuasive and powerful opening, begin with a theme. A theme is a concise, one-sentence statement that explains what the case is about and, more importantly, why the jury should rule in your favor.
Tell a story. It is critical to tell a compelling and enjoyable story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The story should include vivid details and powerful language concerning, among other things, the characters in your story (e.g., the plaintiff and defendant), and the atmosphere within which the events in question occurred. A compelling story helps to personalize your client, enables the jury to visualize (and thus relate to) the relevant events, and enhances your statement’s emotional impact.
Use the Rule of Three. The best opening statements are well-organized and cohesive. One of the best ways to ensure that your opening statement is structured effectively is to use the Rule of Three. Simply put, the Rule of Three provides the jury with three distinct reasons that support a verdict in your favor – and maximizes the persuasive value of your statement. As one commentator explains:
We humans tend to think in triplets. Three is a good number to wrap our mind around, and we see it in all kinds of instances. We tend to remember points best when given in groups of three, we scan visual elements best when they come in threes, and we like to have three options to consider. Think how often three comes up in our society: three little pigs, three strikes, three doors on ‘Let’s Make a Deal,’ three competitive quotes. It’s a triordered world out there.
In essence, the Rule of Three “creates simplicity, aids recall and makes your job easier.”
Use demonstrative exhibits. During opening statements, demonstrative exhibits can often be a powerful tool to convey important facts and evidence to the jury in a well-structured, clear, and concise manner. Indeed, such exhibits focus the jury’s attention on the strongest facts and evidence supporting your argument, and can make your opening statement more persuasive and engaging, particularly for jurors that prefer visual images to enhance their understanding of the case.
Keep it simple and understandable. Opening statements should always be delivered using simple and easy-to-understand language. Thus, avoid fancy or esoteric words. Eliminate unnecessary legalese. And be sure to explain complex concepts in a clear and straightforward manner. Otherwise, you will likely lose the jury’s attention and fail to communicate your argument persuasively.
Be likeable, relatable, and credible. Likeability is an integral part of persuasive advocacy. Jurors (and judges) will be more inclined to rule in your favor or give you the benefit of the doubt if they like you. To enhance likeability, do not read your opening statement to the jury. Do not use notes. Instead, speak to the jurors in a conversational tone. Make eye contact and engage the jurors. Smile. Be friendly. Do not talk down to the jurors, attack your adversary, or speak in an overtly hostile manner. If the jurors like you, you will gain trust and credibility, both of which are essential to maximizing the persuasive value of your arguments.
Use non-verbal techniques. Non-verbal techniques are an essential part of effective advocacy. Such tecnhniques include, but are not limited to, avoiding speaking in a monotone and overly formalistic way. Instead, vary your tone and pace to emphasize important facts. Show authentic emotion. Use hand gestures and different facial expressions. Do not stand in one place for the entirety of your opening statement. And do not act in any manner that can be perceived as contrived and disingenuous. Effective non-verbal techniques contribute immeasurably to showing the jury that you are a genuine and relatable person -- and increase your openig statement's persuasive impact.
Confront unfavorable facts. Do not avoid facts that are unfavorable to your case. Instead, confront those facts in your opening statement and explain why such facts do not and should not affect the outcome or remedy you seek. If you fail to confront unfavorable facts, you can be certain that your adversary will, and when that happens, your credibility will be undermined substantially.
Avoid including unnecessary or irrelevant facts and explanations. Your opening statement should capture the jury’s attention from the first sentence and keep the jury’s attention until you conclude. To accomplish this, and to maximize persuasive impact, the opening statement must be interesting, engaging, and, at times, captivating. As such, avoid including unnecessary or irrelevant facts and explanations. Make sure that your statement is not too lengthy, unduly repetitive, ineffectively organized, or plain boring. Otherwise, you risk losing the jury’s attention – and your case.
End strong. The end of your opening statement is equally as important as the beginning. Your goal should be to reinforce the theme, maximize emotional impact, and highlight in a memorable way the strongest facts and evidence supporting your argument. Ask yourself, “what is the last and most important thing that I want the jurors to hear before they deliberate?” After all, a poor and unpersuasive ending can affect negatively the manner in which the jurors assess your arguments and, ultimately, diminish significantly your likelihood of success.
 Paul Luvera, “The Importance of a Trial Theme and the Rule of Three” (Jan. 16, 2011), available at: The immportance [sic] of a trial theme&the rule of three – Plaintiff Trial Lawyer Tips (internal citation omitted).
February 13, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Law School, Legal Profession, Moot Court, Oral Argument | Permalink | Comments (0)
Saturday, December 26, 2020
The Power of The Rule of Three
Law professors, lawyers, and judges have spent countless hours, whether in law review articles, textbooks, at conferences, or in continuing legal education sessions, providing advice regarding legal writing skills, legal analysis, brief-writing, and persuasive advocacy.
Yet, despite this helpful and practical guidance, law students often struggle to develop effective persuasive writing skills. Law graduates – and seasoned lawyers – frequently face criticism of their writing skills, and judges often lament the less-than-persuasive nature of many pleadings, motions, and briefs. And for good reason. Many trial and appellate briefs, for example, lack a cohesive structure, fail to tell a compelling story, lack precision and concision, violate grammatical rules, contain unnecessary repetition and information, and simply fail to convince the reader to rule in favor of the drafter’s argument.
Having said that, for law students and lawyers who seek to immediately and significantly improve the persuasive value of their briefs, there is one strategy that you should adopt from this day forward: The Rule of Three.
The Rule of Three is simple yet incredibly effective. In the Introduction (or Summary of Argument) section of your brief – and throughout your brief -- identify three specific reasons (and only three reasons) supporting the relief or outcome you seek. And state these reasons with specificity, clarity, and conciseness using First…Second…Third…
Here is an example:
Defendant – a well-known tabloid that lacks journalistic integrity – defamed the plaintiff when defendant published an article – to an audience of over one million readers – stating that the plaintiff “was a pathetic attorney who didn’t know the law, preyed on the vulnerabilities of unsuspecting clients, stole their money, engaged in unlawful hiring practices, and repeatedly made inappropriate advances to several clients.”
The defendant’s comments were defamatory for three reasons. First, the defamatory statements are false. Second, the defamatory statements damaged severely the plaintiff’s reputation and standing in the legal community. Third, the defamatory statements caused the plaintiff to suffer substantial, ongoing, and irreversible, harm.
After stating the three reasons supporting the remedy you seek, you should dedicate the next three paragraphs (in the Introduction or Summary of Argument) to relying on the relevant facts or evidence that support each reason. Thus, for example, you should draft one paragraph explaining why the statements were false. Then, you should draft a second paragraph explaining why the statements damaged the plaintiff’s reputation and standing in the legal community. Thereafter, you should draft a paragraph explaining why the plaintiff suffered reputational and economic harm. After that, draft a one-sentence conclusion stating “For these reasons, the defendant’s article was defamatory and thus entitles the plaintiff to damages.” Done.
Also, make sure that your point headings track the three reasons you identify at the outset of your brief. Doing so ensures that your brief will be cohesive, well-organized, and easy to read.
Why is the Rule of Three so effective?
1. The Rule of Three simplifies your arguments
Judges are very busy. They want to know – quickly – what you want and why you should get it. Briefs that confuse judges or make judges struggle to discern your legal arguments damage your credibility and reduce the persuasive value of your brief.
The Rule of Three avoids this problem. It makes it easy for judges to identify your arguments and evaluate the evidence in support of those arguments. As such, the judge will like you for making his or her job easier. The judge will view you as a credible attorney and give you the benefit of the doubt throughout the litigation. And, ultimately, your client will thank you when you win the case.
2. The Rule of Three organizes your arguments
The worst briefs are often those that go on…and on…and on…
The worst briefs read like a rambling manifesto that contains a barrage of loosely related thoughts that are jammed into long paragraphs with no separation of the concepts, arguments, or allegations. In short, it is chaos. It is easier to navigate one’s way out of a forest or maze than it is to navigate the arguments that such briefs present.
The Rule of Three eliminates this problem. It’s quite simple. Say, “First…” and state your argument. Say, “Second…” and state your argument. Say, “Third…” and state your argument. Then, in the next three paragraphs, explain each argument in a separate paragraph – and include each argument as a point heading. Doing so ensures that your arguments will be organized and presented clearly, understandably, and effectively.
3. The Rule of Three appeals to the audience’s cognition and psychology
Let’s face it: listening is hard. Paying attention for a prolonged period is difficult. Remembering what we have heard is often challenging. So how do you draft a brief or make an oral argument that will maintain the audience’s attention and convince the audience to adopt your position?
Studies in social and cognitive psychology demonstrate that people respond positively and attentively to arguments that are delivered in sets of three.
The rule of three is ubiquitous. Humans are both neurologically and culturally adapted to the number three and its combination of brevity and rhythm. We know from studies in neuroscience that our brains seek out patterns and finds the structure of three to be a complete set; it feels whole. Three is the least number of items in a series that make a pattern, and once you start looking for this pattern, you’ll see that it’s everywhere. In mathematics it’s a rule that allows you to solve problems based on proportions. In science there are three states of matter: solid, liquid, and gas. The Latin maxim omne trium perfectum (everything that comes in threes is perfection) echoes Aristotle and his Ars Rhetorica. There Aristotle posits that the most persuasive rhetorical appeals must rely on ethos, pathos, and logos. Extrapolate from that, and even simple storytelling and narratives have a simple structure of a beginning, a middle and an end.
Simply put, the Rule of Three embeds a cohesive structure into your arguments that enhance their readability, appeal, and persuasive value.
Ultimately, the Rule of Three reflects the principle that legal communication (and communication generally) is less complex than you think. It’s about common sense. Use the Rule of Three in your briefs and oral arguments. It’s that simple – and very effective.
Below are a few videos regarding the Rule of Three.
(1) The Rule of Three: a top speechwriter explains... - YouTube
The Rule of Three - A Law of Effective Communication - YouTube
(1) Steve Jobs: 3 Lessons From The Keynote Master - YouTube
 Brad Holst, Want Your Presentation to Be Memorable? Follow the Rule of Three, available at: Want Your Presentation to Be Memorable? Follow the Rule of Three (mandel.com)
December 26, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Law School, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Moot Court, Oral Argument, Rhetoric | Permalink | Comments (0)
Sunday, December 13, 2020
Tips for Zoom Court & Moot Court: Follow In-Person Best Practices Even More Closely
Tired of online court, school, happy hour, family holidays, and more? Me too. However, we also know some form of virtual court is here to stay, and based on the number of great pointers judges from across the county have shared with us this month, we can all still improve.
Moreover, in reflecting on the tips I’ve seen lately, I was struck by how many of these pointers apply to any argument, in-person or virtual, and how they track what we have long told law students in moot court. As we evolve from a largely in-person court system, where we had some telephonic and online conferences, to our future, which could involve many more electronic appearances, we should not lose sight of those moot court pointers from law school. And for those of us teaching oral advocacy, we should remember to share best practices for preparation and professionalism which will serve our students in any argument, online or in-person.
Recently, Judge Pierre Bergeron shared helpful tips on preparing for oral argument. You can see his blog here: Judge Pierre Bergeron's Tips. He advises counsel to practice, with a moot court if possible, know the record and case law, provide a roadmap of argument points at the beginning, and be especially cognizant of the need to pause periodically “in an effort to invite questions.” Id. These tips apply equally to in-person arguments.
Similarly, Madison Alder’s piece for Bloomberg Law, Wear Pants, Sequester Pets: Five Tips From Judges for Zoom Court, has excellent advice from judges for online arguments and court appearances in general. See Madison Alder, Wear Pants, Sequester Pets (Bloomberg Dec. 8, 2020). As Alder notes, the “virtual venues have worked so well,” some “courts plan on using them long after the virus is gone.” Id. Therefore, all lawyers who appear in court need to be as proficient in online argument as they hopefully are for in-person proceedings.
Online court platforms vary (federal courts often do not use Zoom, for example), just like courthouses, and “’Lawyers should prepare themselves for venues they’re not familiar with,’” said Chief Judge William Johnson of the District New Mexico. See id. Thus, “preparing a presentation ahead of time is still crucial.” Id. Just as in traditional courthouses, counsel should practice standing at a podium or sitting and looking directly at a webcam. See id. I advise my students to distill their oral argument notes to just one piece of paper, supported by one binder of organized cases and record pages to take to the podium, and that format works well online, where paper shuffling can be magnified on Zoom.
Somehow, despite myriad reminders to dress professionally, we still hear frequent complaints from the bench about attorney attire. Alder recommends: “Dressing properly means wearing professional attire from head to toe, not just head to waist.” Id. “’You never know when you’ll need to stand up in a pinch, which can make for an embarrassing moment if you’re wearing shorts,’ Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Anne Burke said.” Id. The key: “’Besides the same make-sure-you’re-communicating-well lessons that apply in a courtroom—is remembering that this is a courtroom and a formal proceeding. Zoom can make people less formal,’” Southern District of Texas Chief Judge Lee Rosenthal said. Id.
We teach law school moot court advocates not to read from notes, allowing them to “read the bench” and make eye contact with judges. This lesson matters even more for online arguments, where the format makes true eye contact impossible. To be as present as possible, online lawyers (and students) should “make sure they do things like keeping the dogs in the other room, closing the window if the lawnmower is going, and making sure their children aren’t there,” said Chief Judge Rosenthal. Id.
Finally, we all need to be more attentive to virtual context clues in online arguments. “The virtual platform makes it more important for lawyers to pay attention to the tone of a judge’s voice, Jed Rakoff, a senior judge in the Southern District of New York, said.” Id. Tuning in to a judge’s tone is important for lawyers “’because that’s the main remaining clue as to whether they’re scoring or not,’” Rakoff said. Id. As Eastern District of California Chief Judge Kimberly Mueller explained, “It’s as important as ever to pay attention to the judge’s signals, so if you are talking too long, be ready to wind up.’” Id. And, using Judge Bergeron’s point on pausing to allow questions, online advocates should watch for judges’ body language showing they are about to unmute or ask a question.
In my house, with two adults working full-time online and a high school student taking online classes while managing a Zoom social and extracurricular schedule, we are weary of an online-only world. I know many law students and lawyers feel the same way. But at least we can find a silver lining (in addition to the great commute) from the online court experience, as the skills we must hone for the best online arguments will make us better advocates in-person too.
December 13, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Law School, Legal Profession, Moot Court, Oral Argument, State Appeals Courts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)
Wednesday, July 29, 2020
Developments in the Law School Advocacy Community
This has, out of necessity, been a busy summer for the law school advocacy community. Some exciting and important developments this week:
Guidance for Conducting Moot Court Competitions in 2020–21: Throughout this summer, a group of advocacy professors and coaches coordinated by Rob Galloway, the Associate Director of Appellate Advocacy at South Texas College of Law Houston, has met weekly to discuss issues related to running moot court competitions and programs in the COVID era. This week, the group published a comprehensive set of recommendations for administering moot court competitions in 2020–21. The document is signed by 78 advocacy teachers, many of whom also administer interscholastic and intramural competitions. It offers insights complied by three working groups on handling competitions in These Challenging Times. Like the best-practices guidance for courts published recently by the American Association of Appellate Lawyers, the document stresses that competition organizers should strive to bring as much normal as possible into the new normal: make COVID-era competitions as much like what we're used to as we can. But, as those of us who've administered virtual arguments and competitions have discovered, doing this well requires thoughtful adaptation. The document give soup-to-nuts advice on how to adapt competition rules and procedures without digging unduly deeply into the technological weeds. If you or someone you care about runs a moot court competition, I respectfully urge you to read it and to follow up with our group if there's anything we can do to help.
The National Online Moot Court Competition: The pandemic has prompted a consortium of law schools—inspired in part by pioneering efforts in the trial-advocacy community—to create a new moot court tournament. Registration is open now. The registration form is accessible here; the rules here; the proposed competition timeline here. It is especially cool that this competition is built from the ground up as a virtual competition. Schools that register will receive a technology package designed to make sure that all teams compete on a level virtual playing field. The competition's rules and design thoughtfully incorporate the practices I discuss above. This is not surprising; the representatives of the schools sponsoring the tournament were active in producing the guidance. And, more generally, the tournament looks to incorporate general best practices for moot court: advocates will argue in four preliminary rounds and will be guaranteed a large, well-qualified pool of brief scorers and oral argument judges.
The new leaders of the National Association of Legal Advocacy Educators: I posted three weeks ago about the election of officers for this new organization. It is done. The group's prospective members have voted on an excellent slate of candidates. As was inevitable, they have chosen a great board that brings together advocacy professors and coaches with deep and wide-ranging experience:
- President: Rob Galloway, South Texas College of Law Houston
- Vice President: A.J. Bellido de Luna, St. Mary's University School of Law
- Secretary: Megan Chaney, Shepard Broad School of Law–Nova Southeastern University
- Treasurer: Robert Little, Baylor Law School
- Regional Representatives:
- Tim Wilton, Suffolk University Law School
- Joanne Van Dyke, Syracuse University College of Law
- Jodi Hudson, Seton Hall School of Law
- David Johnson, George Washington University School of Law
- Jennifer Franklin, William & Mary Law School (and the Appellate Advocacy Blog)
- Suparna Malempati, Atlanta's John Marshall Law School
- Jennifer Copland, Michigan State University College of Law
- Judge Jim Roberts, Samford University's Cumberland School of Law
- Ana Montelongo, IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law
- Patricia Wilson, Baylor Law School
- Michaelle Tobin, University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law
- Laura Rose, University of South Dakota Law School
- Judge John Madden IV, University of Denver Sturm College of Law
- Spencer Pahlke, UC Berkeley Law
- Susan Poehls, Loyola Law School
July 29, 2020 in Law School, Moot Court, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)