Sunday, February 23, 2020
One question that most, if not all, attorneys have asked themselves when drafting an appellate brief is: “When should I stop researching?”
This concern is certainly understandable. After all, the last thing that an attorney wants is for a judge to ask “Why didn’t you cite X case, which is directly relevant to the legal issue before the court?” or state “I would agree with your argument counselor, except for the fact that X case was decided by the Supreme Court four years ago and the Court ruled against your position.” If this happens, you will be embarrassed, you will lose credibility with the court, and your client will have little if any chance of succeeding on the merits.
To avoid this problem, attorneys must research a legal issue sufficiently to ensure that they know, among other things, the relevant legal standards, including the standard of review, the governing precedent (particularly cases that are factually similar), and favorable and unfavorable authority. But how do attorneys know when they have done enough research? They rely on several criteria (along with experience) to make this determination and ensure that they are fully prepared to draft an excellent brief or deliver a persuasive oral argument.
1. Identify the appropriate scope of your research
Before you begin researching, you should identify the universe within which you should be researching. Doing so will enable you to identify the sources of binding legal authority and ensure that you confine your research to the most relevant precedent. When making this determination, ask yourself the following questions:
- Is your case in state or federal court?
- Does your case involve a state or federal issue?
- Does the legal issue involve a common law cause of action, statute, constitutional provision, or administrative regulation?
- Are you arguing for a correction in a lower court's decision or an expansion of the law?
- Have the courts in your jurisdiction previously addressed the legal issue or is it an issue of first impression?
For example, if your case is in state court and involves a state law issue, your legal research will focus primarily on prior decisions in your state by the state supreme court and the appellate courts. If your case is in federal court and involves a federal issue, your research will focus primarily on decisions from the circuit in which you are litigating. If your case is in federal court and the legal issue involves a state law claim, your legal research (on the substantive law) will focus on decisions by the state supreme court and appellate courts.
You must also identify whether the legal issue relates to a common law cause of action, statute, or constitutional provision. If, for example, you are appealing a case where a state court found that your client acted negligently, you should only research cases in that state (from the state supreme court and the appellate courts). In such a case, your research should focus primarily on cases decided by courts within your jurisdiction that have applied and interpreted the relevant law, and that involve similar facts, if possible.
Importantly, the above advice applies to cases where you are arguing for a correction in the law.
If, however, you are arguing for an expansion of the law, you will likely expand your research to cases from courts outside of your jurisdiction that have considered this issue and that have expanded the law in the manner that you are advocating. For example, if, in 2015, you were arguing before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals that same-sex marriage bans violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, you should have cited in your brief and at oral argument the Seventh Circuit’s decision in Baskin v. Bogan, which previously held that same-sex marriage bans violate the Equal Protection Clause.
Consequently, in cases where, as in the above example, the law is unsettled in your jurisdiction (or is an issue of first impression) you can and should rely on cases from other jurisdictions that have addressed this issue. Although this precedent is not binding on the court, doing so will help to guide the court in reaching an informed and, hopefully, favorable decision.
Ultimately, determining the scope of your research is critical because it will enable you to identify the sources of binding, as opposed to merely persuasive, authority and it will ensure that you avoid conducting unnecessary or irrelevant research.
2. Look for repetition
You will likely know that you have researched a legal issue sufficiently when you encounter repetition in the relevant case law. For example, if you are researching the negligence standard and you read fifteen cases in which the courts rely upon the same criteria to determine if a party was negligent (i.e., duty, breach of duty, causation, and damages), you can be confident that you’ve identified the relevant legal standard. Likewise, if you are researching how the courts define causation for purposes of determining negligence and you read several cases where the courts recite the same test or standard for causation, you can be confident that you’ve researched causation sufficiently. Additionally, if you continue to find the same legal authority despite using different research methods, you’ve probably located the relevant authority.
You should also strive to identify cases that involve similar facts and you should rely only on cases that reach a favorable result. Never rely on a case that, although supporting your recitation of the relevant law, reaches a conclusion that undermines the argument you are making or the remedy you are seeking.
3. Review the cases in your opponent’s brief
You should review the cases in your adversary’s brief. Doing so will enable you to identify relevant (and likely unfavorable) legal authority that you may have failed to discover in your research. In addition, you should review carefully how your adversary presents relevant case law to ensure that your adversary is not misrepresenting precedent.
4. Read the briefs submitted by the parties in prior cases that involve the same or similar legal issue
To the extent possible, read the briefs submitted by the parties in prior and relevant cases. In so doing, you may discover additional cases that you did not find in your research or you may simply confirm that you have sufficiently researched a particular legal issue.
5. Identify the cases cited by courts in prior decisions
You should identify the cases that courts in your jurisdiction have relied upon when deciding the same or similar legal issue. This will facilitate and expedite your research and it will provide you with the specific cases that courts found influential when deciding the issue.
6. Research the subsequent history of the cases you cite in your brief
Be sure to research the subsequent history, if any, of the cases you rely upon in your brief or at an oral argument. In so doing, you will discover whether there is negative history that impacts the persuasive value of the cases upon which you are relying and whether a case has been overruled.
The above tips are not intended to be exhaustive. However, adhering to these tips will enable you to decide when to stop researching and provide you with the assurance that you’re prepared to draft an excellent brief or deliver a persuasive oral argument.
Wednesday, February 19, 2020
Continue Teaching the New Dogs, Old Tricks: The Value of Teaching Appellate Advocacy to Law Students
A majority of U.S. law schools teach persuasive writing and oral advocacy to 1L and 2L students as part of required courses.1 These courses often focus on appellate advocacy. This model has existed for many years, gaining steam especially in the late 1980s after the ABA criticized law schools for failing to properly train law students in appellate advocacy.2 Some law professors and law students question the value of teaching appellate advocacy when we know that many lawyers will not actually engage in writing formal appellate briefs or participate in formal appellate oral arguments during their careers. Through this post I support the continued teaching of the skills required to write an appellate brief and make an appellate argument because the skills taught and tested when doing this kind of work are essential lawyering skills across a wide range of jobs held by lawyers. Lawyers are professional communicators—writing and speaking are essential skills of the profession.
First, writing an appellate brief requires careful, precise, and accurate work. Students must work with and follow procedural and local rules that dictate how to format a particular document, what information must be included, and when and how the document produced must be filed. Students must learn to carefully read a record and research the law to craft legal arguments within parameters set by the rules, including page limits and section requirements that force writers to write and rewrite their work until it is sharp and concise. All of this must be done while the writer is persuasively and accurately explaining to the court why a particular argument has merit when considering the governing law and the facts. The writer must also properly cite the law and the record. These skills are all skills that are valued in the jobs that lawyers hold, from actually working in a litigation setting as an advocate, to advising and counseling clients in a more transactional practice, to working as a judge or a law clerk, just to name a few settings.
Second, oral communication skills are critical for lawyers. While not all lawyers will choose to engage in a litigation-type practice in which arguing to courts is a part of the work, most lawyers will need to “argue” or explain persuasively in their jobs. Appellate advocacy involves presenting arguments as well as responding to questions; it requires advocates to think on their feet. Lawyers who train in the skills of appellate advocacy will develop skills that will transfer to trial advocacy, negotiation, and other tasks requiring effective oral communication. Transactional lawyers will need to discuss positions with clients, orally communicate terms of a deal or a position, and negotiate terms of contracts. Many of the more formal skills required for oral argument will transfer to this transactional work. Even for those lawyers whose jobs do not include a focus on oral presentations, training to skillfully and thoughtfully respond to questions and clearly present legal and factual analysis is training that is an asset to most everyone in any type of legal job.
Third, developing appellate advocacy skills in law schools introduces students to professional and ethical norms that serve to give these burgeoning lawyers a taste of the legal profession and its traditions. Following rules, extending deference in a professional manner to the court, and showing respect for opposing counsel are all norms that should be learned in law schools and carried into the profession. Participating in the ceremony and discourse required in courses that teach appellate advocacy initiate these soon-to-be lawyers and welcome them into the legal community.
In conclusion, let’s continue to teach the new dogs the old tricks. Let’s strive to improve how we do it. Let’s even consider adding to appellate advocacy instruction, instruction and experiences in a variety of written and oral communication settings, like contract negotiation and drafting, trial advocacy, international advocacy, treaty negotiation and drafting, and other areas where lawyers are called upon to use their communication skills. We can value the foundational skills taught and learned through courses in appellate advocacy and supplement legal education with even more experiences that call on students to learn how to communicate effectively.
1 ALWD/LWI Survey 2018, Q. 6.4, https://www.lwionline.org/resources/surveys; Section on Legal Education & Admission to the Bar, Sourcebook on Legal Writing Programs 28, 46 (2006).
2 Michael Vitiello, Teaching Effective Oral Argument Skills: Forget About the Drama Coach, 75 Miss. L.J. 869, 869 (2006).
February 19, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Law School, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Moot Court, Oral Argument, State Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (0)
Tuesday, February 18, 2020
Many of the legal standards courts apply to appellate issues resolve around the inevitably fuzzy concept of reasonableness. The reasonable person, reasonable expectations of privacy, reasonable observers, reasonably prudent consumers, reasonable suspicion—all of these tests require advocates to conjure some ideal of what reasonable people might do or think in a given factual scenario. And for most advocates, that standard can seem hopelessly inchoate.
One problem is determining the sources of a “reasonable” standard. Consider the determination of when a person has been “seized” for Fourth Amendment purposes, and thus the point at which officers must have a requisite level of suspicion to support that seizure. The touchstone test, established in United States v. Mendenhall, 446 U.S. 544, 554 (1980), suggests that officers have seized an individual when, “in view of all the circumstances surrounding the incident, a reasonable person would have believed that he was not free to leave.” The test leaves unanswered whose opinions count in determining what a reasonable person might believe. Does the test measure what a police officer thinks it reasonable for an average citizen to believe—as it seemingly must if the test is to have any utility guiding day-to-day police activity? Or does the test focus upon what the average citizen believes? If the latter, must the test look to the reasonable beliefs of “average citizens” at the highest level of abstraction, or can it take into account the specific characteristics of the defendant, such as race?
The latter question arose recently in the South Carolina Supreme Court’s decision in State v. Spears, No. 27945 (S.C.), where the Court asked at oral argument whether the black defendant’s race should affect the Court’s evaluation of when a reasonable person no longer felt free to leave and was thus seized by police. The South Carolina Supreme Court noted the Mendenhall court’s view, echoed later by the Seventh Circuit, that although the defendant’s race is “not irrelevant,” it is also not dispositive. The Court also carefully noted the Tenth Circuit’s recent suggestion that race is not a relevant factor in the reasonable person test; that court argued that a racial factor would render the test impossibly complex for officers in the field given the “divergent attitudes towards law enforcement” within racial groups. The South Carolina Supreme Court was able to sidestep the issue by finding it unpreserved due to the defendant’s failure to raise it below. But the issue continues to percolate in other State Supreme Courts.
This argument has echoes in broader theories behind the interpretation of legal texts. Originalist accounts of constitutional interpretation, for instance, set their sights on constraining judicial discretion by assuring that would-be activist judges rule according to the law rather than their policy preferences. But the proper sources for originalist interpretation remain unclear. Are the pre-enactment writings of the text’s authors relevant as part of a narrower effort to find the original intent behind the document? What about dictionaries or legal treatises available before (or after) enactment that might shed light upon the popularly understood meanings of a text? And should the interpretive methods taken today echo the interpretive methods that the lawyers or judges of the time of the enactment might have relied upon?
Neither the narrower question of interpreting a specific issue of reasonable beliefs, nor the broader question of interpreting the relevant sources of original intent or meaning, has a clear answer that makes appellate advocates’ jobs easy. But advocates should not resign themselves to guesswork. Definite answers may be impossible in either project. Yet the effort to use all available methods to guide decision-makers can still lend clarity to an apparently insoluble legal inquiry. Though it is hard to say who has the better of the arguments about the sources and scope of inquiry, it may nonetheless be an argument worth having. Appellate advocates should strive to understand the problems of source in the fuzzy standards they may need to deploy in advocacy, then do their best to resolve the problems by choosing sources in a logical, up-front manner. Those with the most candid and convincing accounts are likely to find success on appeal.
 United States v. Mendenhall, 446 U.S. 544, 558 (1980); United States v. Smith, 794 F.3d 681, 688 (7th Cir. 2015).
 United States v. Easley, 911 F.3d 1074, 1082 (10th Cir. 2018), cert. denied, 2019 WL 1886117 (U.S. Apr. 29, 2019).
 See, e.g., Commonwealth v. Evelyn, No. SJC-12808 (Mass.).
February 18, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, Moot Court, Oral Argument, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)
Sunday, January 12, 2020
Every appellate practitioner and legal skills professor wishes for the time to do one more draft or add one more really creative and engaging exercise. As I like to tell my students, since I am not in charge of the world, I cannot offer more time. However, we can all enhance our written advocacy and teaching by incorporating some aspects of arguing off-brief, a traditional and time-consuming exercise for oral advocacy, into our brief writing and teaching.
In a traditional moot court competition, oral advocates must argue both “sides” of the mock litigation. As Dean Dickerson explains, “[t]his is known as arguing ‘on brief’ and ‘off brief.’ In the first round, the student will represent one side on the issues; in the next, the student will represent the other side on the same issues.” Darby Dickerson, In re Moot Court, 29 Stetson L. Rev. 1217, 1220-21 (2000).
While former Judge Kozinski took issue with off-brief arguments in his oft-cited attack on moot court, In Praise of Moot Court-Not!, 97 Colum. L. Rev. 178, 185 (1997), many scholars praise off-brief arguing for law students in moot court competitions. For example, Professor Vitiello explains: “Students must be able to argue [both] positions because lawyers must be able to anticipate and rebut their opponents’ arguments. A lawyer who lacks that skill cannot adequately represent her clients.” Michael Vitiello, Teaching Effective Oral Argument Skills: Forget About the Drama Coach, 75 Miss. L.J. 869, 898-99 (2006). Similarly, Professor Hernandez reasoned: the “legal profession should encourage any instruction that prepares law students to avoid the temptation to become a mere hired gun in practice. By requiring competitors to argue off-brief and thereby thoroughly analyze all sides of an issue, moot court competitions provide such valuable training.” Michael Hernandez, In Defense Of Moot Court: A Response to “In Praise of Moot Court--Not!”, 17 Rev. Litig. 69, 76-77 (1998).
Moreover, top appellate law firms and appellate departments often hold internal moot courts before particularly important oral arguments, and require attorneys to argue both sides of the case to colleagues serving as mock judges. While “attorneys generally cannot afford to formulate complete arguments for the other side, primarily because of constraints on time and client resources,” this is a wonderful technique when feasible. See id. at 74.
The advantages of off-brief oral argument translate well to written work. Although the scholarly writing in this area focuses on appellate oral advocacy, we all know written briefs carry much more weight than oral argument on appeal. See, e.g., Ruggero J. Aldisert, Winning on Appeal: Better Briefs and Oral Argument 305 (2d ed. 2003). A winning brief, like a good oral argument, must “anticipate points of weakness and . . . take preemptive steps to diffuse the force of opposing arguments” just as an off-brief oral argument teaches. See generally Hernandez, 17 Rev. Litig. at 77.
Thus, as practitioners and teachers, we can do more than simply edit for and generally teach how to incorporate counterarguments into briefs. Instead, we should ask our students, and our brief drafters, to create as much of the argument for the other side, in writing, as budget allows.
For example, in my upper-division legal drafting classes, I often use contract disputes for my final brief projects and ask students, as part of an ungraded assignment, to draft the contract provisions in dispute first to favor their opponent, and then as perfect clauses for their client. Once I added this relatively quick component to the class, I saw the students’ briefs on the contract issues improve dramatically.
In my first-year classes, I similarly ask students to draft arguments for their opponents. I frequently use brief and memo problems from prior years for teaching simulations, to avoid any honor code issues from using a current, graded assignment. Merely asking students to outline or draft bullet points articulating the best arguments for the other side of these past papers can help students see better ways to craft their own graded assignments. Students have shared with me how much they enjoyed being “forced to see the other side” this way. And if you are very short on time, consider holding a quick in-class or law firm lunch-time moot court, with advocates presenting the best arguments for an opposing side, even without much prep time. This exercise can reap large benefits by forcing advocates to acknowledge an opponent’s best points and to draft briefs better refuting those arguments.
Have you used an off-brief technique to enhance your writing or teaching? Feel free to share your ideas in the comments.
Wednesday, December 18, 2019
Persuasion Is in the Eye of the Beholder: The Value of Giving the Audience What It Wants, Not just What You Think It Needs
Being a persuasive advocate depends on many things, including the strength and appeal of the message, the delivery, and the audience. This post focuses on the value of considering audience preferences to increase persuasiveness. People are persuaded the most by what they value or what resonates with them. We know from systems like Emergenetics1 and Myers Briggs2 that people have preferences in what types of information they value in decision making. To generalize, some people focus on data to drive their decisions, so an argument that would most resonate with such a person would be an argument that is grounded in data. Others value the impact that a decision might make on a group of people, so an argument that explains the impact of a decision on that group would be best. Others value process and consistency, and still others focus on the big picture, such as moving the law forward for the most people. While the advocate will not have a psychological profile on each judge or audience member in advance of an argument, the advocate would be wise to learn about and recognize the different personality types and ensure that arguments are given that provide a little bit of everything to appeal to the various preferences identified. Moreover, as the advocate learns what motivates the decision maker, the advocate should adjust arguments accordingly.
When an advocate appears before a judge frequently, the advocate may learn what the judge tends to value. Just as important, if not more, the advocate must use listening skills to learn what a judge or judges value during an argument. Listening to questions coming from a judge or other decision maker, the advocate can identify and then address the judge’s concerns. When a judge asks a question, the judge is identifying to the advocate his or her concerns or the concerns of other audience members. Too many times, advocates prepare and deliver arguments without adjusting to address these concerns, missing the opportunity to provide the information that will most resonate with the judge. Agility by the advocate can pay dividends in persuasiveness.
For example, some of the most agile advocates are teenagers who become expert at reading their parents’ unspoken reactions and adjusting their arguments to address their parents’ concerns. The teenager wants to attend a party on a Friday night and begins the argument to the parent by explaining that the parent should allow the teenager to attend the party because everyone will be there. The parent reacts negatively to this argument. The savvy teenager then pivots to an argument based on how attending the party will give the teenager an opportunity to get to know some of the parent’s friends’ children. If this argument works, the teenager closes. If this argument does not work the teenager shifts to an argument based on how attending the party will put the teenager in a better position to get elected to a school position the teenager knows the parent would like the teenager to hold. This dance continues until either the teenager persuades the parent or the parent ends the conversation. The teenager is not likely trained in advocacy; the teenager instinctively realizes that he must appeal to what the parent values to get his way.
In the same way, the advocate needs to listen and be attentive to judges’ concerns and cues. After all, the advocate wants to provide the information the judge needs to find for the advocate’s position. Research shows that decision makers are most persuaded when “requests are congruent with our values, self-image, and future goals. In other words, people are easily persuaded of that which they wanted to do in the first place.”3
Therefore, to increase persuasiveness, advocates need to speak to the judge in the language that will most resonate with that judge. Advocates can benefit from studying the personality systems referenced herein, which provide information on how best to give each judge or audience member what he needs to make decisions.
1See Emergenetics International, www.emergenetics.com.
2See The Myers & Briggs Foundation, https://www.myersbriggs.org/my-mbti-personality-type/mbti-basics/home.htm?bhcp=1.
3Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Persuasion Depends on the Audience, Harvard Business Review, https://hbr.org/2015/06/persuasion-depends-mostly-on-the-audience (June 2, 2015).
Monday, December 9, 2019
Does generational theory have any relevance in Appellate Advocacy? Yes, particularly in its teaching. Dr. Corey Seemiller, an expert in generational theory, recently gave her insights on Gen Z, the cohort born between 1996 and 2010, and how they approach advocacy at the Reimagining Advocacy Conference at Stetson University College of Law. The oldest members of Gen Z are now 24, so many current law students are in this group. Dr. Seemiller's keynote kicked off a weekend-long discussion of how to harness the strengths of Gen Z and bolster some of the weaknesses. Whether you work at a law school with these students right now or are a practicing attorney who will soon have Gen Z colleagues, it’s helpful to learn about some of their strengths and challenges as a group. Dr. Seemiller’s presentation gave the conferenceattendees a shared vocabulary. As a caveat, anytime one deals with generational theory, one deals in broad categories, but individuals and personalities vary. Still, I see applications for how I teach students to work as a team, read materials, approach an audience, and prepare for an oral argument.
So what characterizes Gen Z? Among other things, they are curious, honest, kind, and fair. They are diverse. They have experienced a significant amount of vicarious trauma and do not remember a world before Columbine and 9/11. They are motivated by relationships and by what they believe in. They are constantly connected and often addicted to technology; according to Dr. Seemiller they have an average of 8.7 social media accounts. Gen Z students say that they prefer face-to-face communication, but smart phones have been a part of their world since childhood or birth. They may need coaching in how to have live conversations.
Now that Gen Z has officially arrived at law school, and as we try to train them in appellate advocacy, there is a gap between the advocacy methods they have used and appellate advocacy. Over the last few years they may have engaged in twitter wars, used hashtag activism, and witnessed cancel culture. Appellate advocacy in some ways is the polar opposite of hashtag activism and slogans. Professor Mary Beth Beasley identified mastery as the key to appellate advocacy. Mastery takes focus. When we overburden our short term memories with a constant stream of information (like from a smartphone), we diminish our long term memory capacity. Both long term memory and the ability to build connections between a mass of materials are necessary to effectively advocate at the appellate level. Of course, these skills are important to all of us, but Gen Z has never known a time with out smart phones constantly pulling their attention. Many of these students have not learned to read deeply and sustain prolonged focus. We need to find ways to help them pursue and recognized mastery.
We can also try to harness Gen Zs strengths. Hashtag activism requires the ability to boil things down and be concise, which are helpful skills when thinking about theme. These students care deeply about the causes that are important to them. While they may not be patient in the skills development process, once they see the value in a project, they will buy in.
Gen Z is not alone in being constantly connected to technology; most of us are. So as we prepare to teach the next generation of students how to advocate, we need to consider the way that the audience is changing, too, even though there are not yet Gen Z appellate judges. Ultimately, the boiled down, concise persuasion styles Gen Z gravitates to may be helpful to any audience with a shortened attention span. Fortunately, it’s also good writing. But we need to teach students to achieve mastery, think deeply, and make meaningful connections before they start condensing.
Wednesday, November 27, 2019
Advocates must be keenly aware of which authorities bind the courts to which they are arguing and which authorities will be persuasive to the courts. When the authorities are prior decisions, advocates should also recognize that courts are often interested in hearing how other courts have interpreted and applied the law in similar circumstances. As Professors MacCormick and Summers have explained, “Applying lessons of the past to solve problems of the present or the future is a basic part of human reason.” In many of our day-to-day decisions, we try to act consistently with our prior behavior—to be predictable. Acting in this manner seems fair to everyone and keeps people we deal with content. When we act differently, we call it a surprise, which can be a good thing or a bad thing.
Courts use prior decisions or precedents in much the same way, as models for later decisions. Courts are motivated to correctly and consistently interpret the law and provide some certainty and stability for those parties operating in a jurisdiction. Courts in the United States, including Louisiana (which is a civil law or mixed jurisdiction), as well as courts in jurisdictions around the world, frequently consider prior decisions when interpreting the law, whether they state that they are relying on these decisions or not. Commentators have characterized this reliance on the work and reasoning of earlier judges as a way for courts to “share power across time,” thus democratizing the judiciary and allowing current judges to be assisted by their predecessors. Reliance on precedent helps to ensure stability in the law so that it will not change based on the whim of one or a handful of judges.
Courts around the world consider precedent in varying degrees. We can characterize their reliance on prior decisions or precedent using three basic points on a spectrum: on one end of the spectrum, strict stare decisis; on the other end of the spectrum, jurisprudence constante; and in the middle, a blended version of these two which seems to describe what goes on “in fact” in the United States federal system, in state courts in the United States, including Louisiana, and in many parts of the world.
Strict stare decisis refers to a system of valuing prior decisions as “the law,” binding later courts that face similar issues. Judicial systems that employ strict stare decisis require subordinate courts to follow the decisions of higher courts within a judicial system; sometimes the requirement is to follow the decisions of the higher courts to which the subordinate courts’ decisions are appealable. In some jurisdictions, courts are expected to follow their own decisions as well, with some latitude given. One decision alone is said to make law that must be followed in subsequent cases.
On the other end of the spectrum is a system in which courts may loosely consider prior decisions, but the decisions do not make law. A doctrine such as jurisprudence constante directs courts to consider a long line of consistent interpretations of the law as persuasive and entitled to great weight. These decisions do not bind the court to a particular interpretation of the law, nor do they make law. In fact, in some jurisdictions employing a version of jurisprudence constante, courts are forbidden from citing to a prior decision as the basis for a current decision.
The middle of the spectrum sees a combination of characteristics from those noted above, and it seems to exemplify the model used “in fact” in many jurisdictions worldwide, including the model used in United States jurisdictions.
Moving from the strict stare decisis side of the spectrum, we see examples of courts that render decisions that have the force and effect of law, but that also accept the obligation to review past decisions to ensure that prior interpretations of the law are correct. For example, the United States Supreme Court and other federal and state courts in the United States have valued precedent but have often employed a flexible model of stare decisis. The doctrine of stare decisis, as well as the hierarchical structures of the court systems, typically require the subordinate courts in those jurisdictions to be bound by the decisions of the courts to which the lower courts’ decisions are appealable and require courts to be bound by their own prior decisions. Despite the apparent rigidity of this doctrine, the United States Supreme Court has the express power to overrule its own decisions, as do most of the state supreme courts. Precedent is valued and respected, but American courts recognize that blind adherence to precedent that is not workable, antiquated, or poorly reasoned is a mistake. The United States Supreme Court described this flexibility and the value of precedent in the United States as follows:
Stare decisis is the preferred course, because it promotes the evenhanded, predictable and consistent development of legal principles, fosters reliance on judicial decision, and contributes to the actual and perceived integrity of the judicial process. Adhering to precedent is usually the wise policy, because in most matters it is more important that the applicable rule of law be settled than it be settled right. Nevertheless, when governing decisions are unworkable or are badly reasoned, this Court has never felt constrained to follow precedent. Stare decisis is not an inexorable command; rather it is a principle of policy and not a mechanical formula of adherence to the latest decision.
American courts have a record of following precedent, but they also have a record of revisiting decisions and the reasoning behind those decisions to ensure that the Constitution or other laws are being properly interpreted and applied. United States Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts noted that were it not the Court’s practice to revisit precedent when some special justification warrants further review, certain outdated practices and laws might still exist in the United States, such as segregation and government wiretapping without the need for a warrant. He explained, “[S]tare decisis is not an end in itself. It is instead ‘the means by which we ensure that the law will not merely change erratically, but will develop in a principled and intelligible fashion.’”
Moving from the other end of the spectrum, where courts do not make law and are not bound by prior decisions, we see courts consider prior decisions when interpreting and applying codified law. In France, Italy, and Spain, as is the case in many other traditional civil law and mixed jurisdictions, prior decisions, especially by reviewing courts, often are very influential and persuasive to subordinate courts, even though they cannot alone provide the authority for a court’s decision. Similarly, Louisiana courts value prior decisions, even though the Louisiana legislature does not recognize judicial decisions as a source of law. The Louisiana Supreme Court has on occasion directed other Louisiana courts to follow its decisions, and the majority of those courts indicate that they consider themselves bound by Louisiana Supreme Court decisions. These decisions are not a source of law, yet as has been recognized in many different jurisdictions, courts are interested to know how other courts have interpreted the law in the past. Add to that the court’s awareness that its decisions will be reviewed by certain higher courts, and logic directs courts, and likewise litigants appearing before them, to consider what has been held in the past in similar circumstances.
 The author has published articles on the value of precedent and a book chapter that addresses the topic. This post draws directly from those publications. See Louisiana Legal Research (Carolina Academic Press 2009, 2d ed. 2013, 3d ed. 2017); Mary Garvey Algero, Considering Precedent in Louisiana: Balancing the Value of Predictable and Certain Interpretation with the Tradition of Flexibility and Adaptability, 57 Loy. L. Rev. 113 (2012), also available in The European Journal of Comparative Law & Governance (Feb. 2014); Mary Garvey Algero, The Sources of Law and the Value of Precedent: A Comparative and Empirical Study of a Civil Law State in a Common Law Nation, 65 La. L. Rev. 775 (2005).
. Id. at 2; see also Interpreting Statutes: A Comparative Study 487 (D. Neil MacCormick & Robert S. Summers eds., 1991) (concluding that, together with any applicable statutes, “precedents are the most frequently used materials in judicial opinions,” regardless of whether precedents are considered to have the force of law or not); see also Citizens United v. Fed. Election Comm’n, 130 S. Ct. 876, 911-12 (2010) (explaining that precedents are to be respected); Borel v. Young, 2007-0419 (La. 11/27/07); 989 So. 2d 42, 65 (emphasizing the value of precedent to maintain certainty and stability in the law); Francesco G. Mazzotta, Precedents in Italian Law, 9 Mich. St. U.-DCL J. Int’l L. 121, 153 (noting that precedents are the most important “justificatory material used in judicial opinions”).
http://www.tex-app.org/articles/HankinsonPrecedent2007.pdf, at 1, 4 (2007) (citing Hon. D. Arthur Kelsey, The Architecture of Judicial Power: Appellate Review and Stare Decisis, Judges’ Journal, at 9-10 (Spring 2006)).
. See, e.g., Hohn v. United States, 524 U.S. 236, 251 (1998) (explaining that “[s]tare decisis is the ‘preferred course because it promotes the evenhanded, predictable, and consistent development of legal principles, fosters reliance on judicial decisions, and contributes to the actual and perceived integrity of the judicial process.’”) (quoting Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U.S. 808, 827 (1991)); Mountain View Coach Lines, Inc. v. Storms, 476 N.Y.S.2d 918 (N.Y. App. Di v. 1984) (trial courts in New York are formally bound to follow decisions rendered by New York appellate courts). See also James L. Dennis, Interpretation and Application of the Civil Code and the Evaluation of Judicial Precedent, 54 La. L. Rev. 1, 4-5 (1993); Alvin B. Rubin, Hazards of a Civilian Venturer in Federal Court: Travel and Travail on the Erie Railroad, 48 La. L. Rev. 1369, 1371 (1988).
. See Michel Troper & Christophe Grzegorczyk, Precedent in France, in Interpreting Precedents: A Comparative Study 115 (D. Neil MacCormick & Robert S. Summers, eds., 1997) (“There is no formal bindingness of previous judicial decisions in France. One might even argue that there is an opposite rule: that it is forbidden to follow a precedent only because it is a precedent.”); id. at 111-12 (quoting F. Zenati, La Jurisprudence, Paris: Dalloz 102 (1991)) (“[T]he very idea that a judge could search for the base of his decision in a prior judgment is literally unthinkable in a legal system based on statutory Law.’”); Catherine Valcke, Quebec Civil Law and Canadian Federalism, 21 Yale J. Int’l L. 67, 84 (1996) (“A lower court in France has no formal duty to follow a higher tribunal’s decisions, and the highest court, the Cour de cassation, enjoys full power to renounce its own decisions.”). But see Alain Lacabarats, The State of Case Law in France, 51 Loy. L. Rev. 79, 83 (recognizing that even though the decisions of the courts are not binding on other courts, “in practice, courts have a natural tendency to conform spontaneously to the case law of the Cour de cassation, to guarantee citizens a uniform application of the law.”). See also Michele Taruffo & Massimo La Torre, Precedent in Italy, in Interpreting Precedents: A Comparative Study 141, 154 (D. Neil MacCormick & Robert S. Summers eds., 1997) (discussing Italy), and Alfonso Ruiz Miguel & Francisco J. Laporta, Precedent in Spain, in Interpreting Precedents: A Comparative Study 259, 260, 269 (D. Neil MacCormick & Robert S. Summers eds., 1997).
. See, e.g., Hohn v. United States, 524 U.S. 236, 251 (1998). The Court in Hohn further explained that its decisions “remain binding precedent until we see fit to reconsider them, regardless of whether subsequent cases have raised doubts about their continuing vitality.” Id. at 252-53. See also Gavin v. Chernoff, 546 F.2d 457, 458-59 (1st Cir. 1976) (invoking stare decisis to follow an earlier opinion when “appellants essential arguments remain much the same as those considered and previously rejected, and there were no compelling new reasons and no change in circumstances justifying reconsideration of the previous decision”).
. Lacabarats, supra note 7, at 83-86 (discussing the value in fact of French decisions); Mazzotta, supra note 3, at 137, 141, 153 (discussing the value in fact of Italian decisions); Miguel & Laporta, supra note 7, at 274-75, 288 (discussing the value in fact of Spanish decisions).
 La. Civ. Code Ann. art. 1 (providing that the sources of law are legislation and custom).
 I have referred to this behavior as “systemic respect for jurisprudence.” Algero, The Sources of Law and the Value of Precedent, supra note 1, at 781.
Wednesday, November 6, 2019
Much has been written about how people learn, including studies showing that people move from being novices to masters, passing through various stages along the way. When learning new skills, novices act with a “rigid adherence to taught rules or plans” and use “little discretionary judgment.” As they move toward expert and mastery status, they no longer need to strictly rely on “rules, guidelines or maxims.” They have a “vision of what is possible,” they have an “intuitive grasp of situations based on deep, tacit understanding,” and they can improvise.
Moving from novice to master in any field at any skill typically requires a person to learn fundamentals before learning to manipulate or vary the fundamentals to become more effective at the skill. For example, when students are taught to form letters at an early age, they are taught to draw the lines of the letters in a particular direction and to match model letters exactly. Only after mastering the fundamentals of drawing letters do students begin to vary the precise models by adding personal touches that they think look better or flow better, yet still communicate the letters clearly. Similarly, athletes first learn the fundamental skills of their sports and practice those fundamental skills extensively. As these athletes practice and learn more about their sports and move toward mastery, they begin to improvise to perform the skills in unique ways that elevate the athletes’ performances to expert or master levels. Varying the technique of performing a skill by someone who has mastered the skill is accepted and even admired when the person is performing at a top level. If athletes are not performing effectively, though, coaches often insist that the athletes return to fundamentals to improve their games.
Like students first learning to draw letters and athletes first learning the skills of their sports, law students and new lawyers must begin with fundamentals and work through the stages, from novice to master, when engaged in legal argument and writing. Professors and lawyers working with these novices must exercise patience as they wait for these law students and lawyers to develop. A common refrain from lawyers working with novice legal writers is that these novice writers do not write persuasively enough. Perhaps this is because they are novices who have not mastered legal argument and writing sufficiently to improvise—to vary from the “taught plans or rules” and use their discretion. They do not yet have a deep, tacit understanding of how far they can push their arguments beyond the existing law and how strongly they can tell the court how it should find or hold. They are new to legal discourse; they do not know how bold or creative they can be. They are like the children learning to draw letters who try to precisely follow the models of letters and do not dare to add an unnecessary flourish or variation. They have not yet reached mastery.
Frustrated by the work of novices, professors, lawyers, and judges sometimes criticize these writers for following formulas and not taking more license with their writing. Novices even worry that their “formulaic” writing may be a problem. Legal writers are taught to use formulas, such as IRAC and CREAC, to ensure that they provide the information necessary for a solid legal argument and analysis. These formulas are used because they track a logical way to present information needed for legal arguments. Judges are looking for arguments that are supported by rules, explanations of those rules, and application to the facts involved in a case. As these writers practice and learn more about writing legal arguments persuasively, they will become more adept at varying structures of their arguments. They will learn when to depart from rigid adherence to taught rules when doing so will make their writing more persuasive.
A suggestion for these novices and their professors and mentors is that the novices write a draft using IRAC or CREAC to ensure that they have included the necessary information. Once a draft exists, the writer should then revise and edit the work to turn it from an accurate statement of the law and reasoning to a persuasive piece of advocacy. This may involve deliberately altering the formulas employed. For example, precedent case discussions might follow a rule as part of a rule explanation when the precedent case discussion is necessary to explain and interpret the rule. On another point of law or argument, the precedent case discussion might follow the application of the rule to the case at issue. Deciding to make this move says to the court that this is the rule, this is how the court should apply it to the facts, and the precedent case corroborates the argument being espoused. This way guarantees that the court will not become distracted by a precedent case discussion when it comes before the argument involving the case at issue. It also risks that the court might have wanted a fuller exposition of the law before the argument. As the writer gains expertise and begins to master persuasive legal writing skills, he or she will become better at determining the best way to proceed in writing an argument, confidently moving away from rigidly following taught rules or plans when appropriate.
Instructing the novice on the necessary parts of an argument and how to order the parts of an argument is valuable, as is emphasizing to the novice the importance of revising and editing. Even though the novice will adhere to a formula initially, the novice will only improve as a writer if he or she is willing to experiment with revising to make arguments more compelling. Novice writers tend to underestimate the value and necessity of revising and editing. The best writers know that rarely if ever is the first draft the best draft. Once a writer writes the parts necessary to make an argument, that writer should move the parts around, manipulate the language, and present the arguments in the best format to make the case to the court.
So, to professors and supervising lawyers, expect to instruct students and new lawyers on how to make their writing more persuasive. Expect to revise and edit their writing to show them exactly how to do this effectively. Model the behavior you want to see in these novices. And, with time, the arguments and the writing will be more persuasive as the writers move toward mastery.
 See, e.g., Stuart E. Dreyfus, The Five Stage Model of Adult Skill Acquisition (June 1, 2004), https://www.bumc.bu.edu/facdev-medicine/files/2012/03/Dreyfus-skill-level.pdf.
 Raman K. Attri, 7 Models from Research Demystify Stages in Novice to Expert Transition (Nov. 18, 2017), https://www.speedtoproficiency.com/blog/stages-in-novice-to-expert-transition/.
 Mary Beth Beazley, A Practical Guide to Appellate Advocacy 97 (5th ed. 2019).
 IRAC: Issue, Rule, Analysis, Application, or Argument, and Conclusion. CREAC: Conclusion, Rule, Explanation, Analysis, Application, or Argument, and Conclusion.
 See Beazley, supra note 5.
Tuesday, October 29, 2019
No offense to this blog’s readers, but appellate advocates in general are a narcissistic bunch. We like to think of ourselves as the drivers of legal change in our system. We assume that the arguments we present before appellate courts are the impetus for new opinions that will have far-reaching practical effects in law and society. I feel confident in ascribing this self-important attitude to appellate advocates because I held it dearly when I practiced as an appellate public defender. Nothing could be more meaningful, I assured myself, than a worthy struggle in the arena of ideas that is an appellate courtroom, with the eventual victor illuminating the legal path forward for decades.
When I began wearing an academic hat, I was forced to reexamine my assumptions about the role appellate advocates plays in shaping the law. And that reexamination was sobering. Our judicial system carries a deeply embedded faith in the procedural justice of adversarial litigation—the idea that when parties compete in a fair process for adjudicating disagreements, they will produce the most just results possible. But when I examined both my own experiences as an appellate clerk and the available data on high court adjudication, I was disappointed to realize how often judges themselves, rather than litigants, drive the outcomes in our supposedly adversarial courts. Take the United States Supreme Court, for example. Supreme Court litigants and their attorneys play a diminishing role in actually shaping the direction of the law, while the “umpire” Justices themselves take greater control over the direction of jurisprudence. The Justices have lowered the demands of their discretionary dockets by consistently granting certiorari in fewer than 100 cases per year, while simultaneously increasing the length and originality of their opinions; their written work is both longer and contains less borrowed language from the parties’ briefs than ever before. In those opinions, Justices themselves often participate in a kind of top-down lawmaking. An opinion in a case decided today often ghost-writes the brief the Justice would like to see presented in future appeals, allowing that Justice to shape the law according to their preferences in future case they have transparently invited litigants to file.
Oral arguments are little different. For several decades preceding this term, oral arguments have left less and less space for the advocates themselves to shape opinions. Attorneys in the Supreme Court instead play the role of straight man in conversations dominated by the Justices, who appear disinterested in the responses from the lectern. In a comparison of oral arguments in the 1958–1960 Terms and the 2010–2012 Terms, Barry Sullivan and Megan Canty noted the myriad ways in which Justices have come to dominate the direction of oral argument over the last half-century, including an increase in the ratio of Justice-spoken words to advocate-spoken words, a near doubling of the average number of words spoken by the Justices per oral argument, and far shorter opening monologues by counsel.
It was thus tempting to celebrate the Supreme Court’s recently-announced rule permitting the advocates approximately two minutes of uninterrupted monologue at the start of oral arguments. Perhaps this would mark a sea-change for appellate advocacy, revitalizing the role of advocates in Supreme Court litigation. Yet there is reason for hearty skepticism. Justices have long taken a guiding role in the direction of the law through use of the discretionary docket; invitations for specific arguments in future appeals; and techniques to slowly undermine, or even stealthily overrule, the reasoning in precedent cases. The two-minute rule will not cabin any of those techniques that permit the Justices, rather than the litigants, to drive the appellate litigation bus.
One well-worn trope holds that cases are seldom won at oral argument, but can readily be lost if one is insufficiently prepared to defend their brief’s arguments against a barrage of troubling hypotheticals and slippery slopes. If anything, the new rule only erodes that trope at the very extreme margins. Advocates may have slightly greater opportunity, in increments usually measured by a kitchen timer, to shape the direction of the law in their presentation to high courts. But this offers little salve when the hypotheticals come cascading down, with little interruption for actual answers, during the bulk of the argument. For appellate advocacy to meaningfully change, and for advocates to play a more determinative role in shaping the law, the justices themselves must approach their job with greater humility, aspiring to resolve the controversies actually presented rather than those they have hoped to see and invited to come before them. Without that change in attitude and approach, the two-minute rule may be little more than a procedural fig-leaf from a court that has drifted further and further away from the judicial system’s adversarial ideals.
This is all not to say that appellate advocacy has lost its value in today’s world. Preparing for an appeal remains one of the most demanding, rewarding, and fruitful exercises any attorney or law student can undertake. Nothing helps an attorney refine their legal arguments more than planning for the crucible of hypotheticals they might face from a high court. And the history of our nation’s highest courts still suggests that some advocates, through either sheer intellectual brilliance or perfectly-timed moments of inspiration, play a guiding role in shaping the direction of the law. But a clear-eyed evaluation of the appellate advocacy process suggests that Justices are the real drivers of case outcomes. Of course, appellate attorneys must still ensure that their clients receive vociferous representation and a prepared, skilled advocate at the podium. But that podium’s power is limited, and it is not often the driver’s seat for appellate litigation.
 Michael Gentithes, Check The Invitation: The Trouble with Appeals Invited by Supreme Court Justices, 82 Mo. L. Rev. 339 (2017).
 See, e.g., Ryan C. Black & James F. Spriggs II, An Empirical Analysis of the Length of U.S. Supreme Court Opinions, 45 Hous. L. Rev. 621, 630, 634–35 (2008); Adam Feldman, A Brief Assessment of Supreme Court Opinion Language, 1946–2013, 86 Miss. L.J. 105, 137 (2017).
 See Michael Gentithes, Check The Invitation: The Trouble with Appeals Invited by Supreme Court Justices, 82 Mo. L. Rev. 339, 341-43 (2017).
 Barry Sullivan & Megan Canty, Interruptions in Search of a Purpose: Oral Argument in the Supreme Court, October Terms 1958–60 and 2010–12, 2015 UTAH L. REV. 1005, 1042.
 See Barry Friedman, The Wages of Stealth Overruling (with Particular Attention to Miranda v. Arizona), 99 Geo. L.J. 1 (2010).
October 29, 2019 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession, Moot Court, Oral Argument, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)
Monday, October 28, 2019
Arguing before an appellate court, particularly for recent graduates or those with limited oral argument experience, can be daunting. Below are ten tips that will enhance the persuasive force of your argument, strengthen your oral argument skills, and maximize your chances for success.
1. Have an outstanding introduction
When preparing for oral argument, be sure to prepare a concise and persuasive statement (no longer than two minutes in length) in which you set forth the most favorable precedent, facts, and arguments that support the remedy you are seeking. The reason is that the judges will likely begin to ask you questions shortly after you begin your argument. Thus, it is critical to ensure that you begin with a powerful introduction and emphasize the strongest aspects of your argument before the questions begin.
2. Anticipate questions that the court will ask – and prepare effective responses
When arguing before an appellate court, the majority of your time will likely be spent responding to the judges’ questions. And you can be sure that the judges will focus on the weakest aspects of your case. Thus, when practicing for oral argument, it is critical for you to identify and address unfavorable facts and precedent. In so doing, your goal should be to convince the judges that the presence of unfavorable law or facts should not affect the remedy you are seeking.
3. Prepare, Prepare, Prepare
In the weeks (or months) before an oral argument, you should prepare extensively. Specifically, you should be able to discuss the record below, the relevant facts, and the governing precedent, and address relevant counterarguments without referring to any notes. Indeed, your command of the facts and law will enhance your credibility and enable you to deliver a compelling argument.
4. Concede weaknesses in your argument and acknowledge unfavorable facts
In almost any case, there will be weaknesses in your argument. For example, there may be facts or precedents that are not favorable to your position. When arguing before an appellate court, do not be afraid to acknowledge these weaknesses. Doing so will enhance your credibility with the court. For this reason, you should be prepared to explain why unfavorable facts or precedents should not affect the remedy you are seeking. For example, if you are confronted with unfavorable precedent, be prepared to explain why such precedent is distinguishable or would lead to an unjust result.
5. Be respectful to the court and your adversary
This should go without saying, but at all times you must be respectful to the appellate court, the lower court, and your adversary. Thus, be sure not to interrupt the judges when you are asked questions. Do not insult or attack the lower court or your adversary. Always speak in a measured and respectful tone, making sure not to use over-the-top language or express unnecessary emotion. Failing to maintain professionalism will detract from your credibility and reduce the likelihood that you will succeed.
6. Consider the impact of a ruling in your favor on future cases
Understand that, when an appellate court is deciding your case, the court is also considering how a ruling in your favor will affect future cases. For example, if the court adopts your proposed rule, will it lead to an unjustifiable expansion of the law or have unforeseen consequences that the court would not countenance? Thus, when preparing for oral argument, be sure to consider the policy implications of a ruling in your favor and be prepared to address how such a ruling will impact future cases in different contexts.
7. Respond to the judges’ questions directly
Excellent advocates never attempt to evade a judge’s question. If you do so, the court will likely get frustrated and view the strength of your argument less favorably. Accordingly, be sure to answer every question directly by relying on the relevant facts and law. And remember that the judges’ questions are a window into how the judges are considering the merits of your case, and thus an opportunity to convince the judges that their concerns are best addressed by ruling in your favor.
8. Speak slowly and be aware of your non-verbal actions
It is natural and entirely normal to experience anxiety before an oral argument. Knowing this, be particularly mindful of the manner in which you deliver your argument. For example, do not speak too quickly. Instead, gather your thoughts and speak in a conversational, respectful tone. And be sure not to fidget or move unnecessarily at the lectern. Keep your composure and your focus on the facts and law. After all, your non-verbal actions can often be as revealing as your verbal communications.
9. Be aware of the time – and practice under timed conditions
During most oral arguments, you will have up to thirty minutes (and sometimes less) to present your argument. You should practice under timed conditions to ensure that you can provide the court with the strongest and most relevant points supporting a ruling in your favor. In so doing, you should prepare a concise list of your most important arguments and make sure that, no matter how intense the questioning, you communicate these points either at the beginning or end of oral argument.
10. Prepare an excellent closing
Be sure that your closing statement is as powerful as your opening statement. Regardless of the questions that you are asked, make sure that you end your argument by providing the court with the strongest argument(s) that support the remedy you seek. Indeed, just as you want to create an excellent first impression at the beginning of an oral argument, you also want to provide the court with a powerful ending that offers compelling reasons to rule in your favor.
Extra tip: Have fun and do your best. You have a unique opportunity to obtain a favorable ruling on behalf of your client and effectuate a positive change in the law. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Do your best and relish the opportunity to make a meaningful difference in law.
Wednesday, October 16, 2019
Advice about appellate advocacy is abundant. How to begin; how to structure an argument; how to respond to questions; how much deference to show to the judge(s); whether to reserve time for rebuttal—these are all things the advocate should consider when preparing for oral argument. The best advocate should also experience a bit of anxiety. Not crippling anxiety; just enough anxiety to get adrenaline flowing; just enough anxiety to evidence that the advocate appreciates the gravity of the task and the client’s cause. “Situational anxiety, if it’s proportionate to the circumstances in which it arises, can have quite a positive impact.”1
Situational anxiety associated with public speaking is common. In fact, public speaking is ranked highly among things and situations people fear the most, along with snakes and spiders.2 Most law schools require law students to perform some public speaking, from responding in class as part of a Socratic dialogue to delivering a trial level or an appellate level oral argument as part of a moot court exercise. Some law students walk away from these experiences believing that public speaking is not for them because they are anxious about making oral presentations. Others learn to thrive from the rush they feel when under the pressure of public speaking. Law professors and lawyers who mentor students and new lawyers should help students and new lawyers recognize that not only is this situational anxiety good for them, it is also good for their clients. And, it is not unusual. If law students and lawyers could recognize that some level of anxiety is healthy because it shows that the speaker cares about and recognizes the gravity of the task, perhaps some of these students and lawyers would reconsider their perceived aversion to public speaking.
As I prepared for one of my first oral arguments, a mentor advised me that some level of anxiety before an oral argument is healthy. Anxiety borne from a desire to represent your client and your client’s position to the best of your ability, combined with preparation, is good. I would even argue that it is necessary. I have told students that the client who has a lawyer who is not nervous about delivering an argument needs a new lawyer. I think I may have read that somewhere many years ago. Arguably, if the lawyer has no anxiety about delivering the oral argument, then perhaps the lawyer does not care enough and will not be energized enough to deliver a passionate argument. People do not get nervous or worry much about things for which they do not care.
Science supports this theory. Dr. Loren Soeiro explains: “Anxiety helps us detect and attend to potential threats so that we can avoid danger. In the short term, anxiety can keep you at a heightened state of alert, allowing you to react more quickly when urgent dangers arise—like when you’re driving anxiously in the rain, and you find yourself responding immediately to erratic changes in traffic patterns.”3 He explains that if you face no anxiety when facing life-changing events and choices, you may end up missing something important because you will not fully think through what is going on.4 Situational anxiety serves to enhance your motivation to work hard and perform well, and it boosts your performance levels.5 It can also improve memory and lead to “responsible leadership.”6 “At significant moments when performance becomes an issue, the right amount of anxiety will help us do that much better.”7
Thus, for the law student or lawyer called upon to represent a moot or a real client, situational anxiety can provide just what is needed to ensure that the advocate is giving the task and the client his or her all, both in preparation and in execution.
Educators and mentors of law students and lawyers should be sure to share this message. Doing so will help to normalize what these students and lawyers may be feeling and allow them to recognize and accept the positive aspects of what is ordinarily considered negative. Moreover, as first generation law students and lawyers enter law schools and the profession, it is especially important to educate these newcomers on the value and, indeed, the routine occurrence of the situational anxiety lawyers experience. These newcomers to the field may lack the opportunities to hear from seasoned lawyers about the anxiety that is common and can be helpful. Recognizing and embracing the kind of anxiety every client’s lawyer should experience before and during an oral argument or presentation should lead to better lawyering and perhaps more well-adjusted lawyers.
1Loren Soeiro, 3 Reasons Why Anxiety is Good for You, Psychology Today, May 20, 2019, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/i-hear-you/201905/3-reasons-why-anxiety-is-good-you.
2Kendra Cherry, 10 of the Most Common Phobias, Verywell Mind Blog, https://www.verywellmind.com/most-common-phobias-4136563 (last updated October 3, 2019) (explaining that fear of public speaking is the most common form of social phobia).
3Soeiro, supra note 1.
5Id. (noting that “[r]esearch indicates that student-athletes who feel anxiety are able to perform better in their events — and on college exams! — than those who denied feeling worried.”).
Wednesday, October 2, 2019
October is a great month, perhaps the greatest month of all. In October, the oppressive heat of the summer sun begins to wane – this year being an exception, of course. With the waning oppression, we have moments of crisp, cool, clear days where the sky is a deep blue, and every breath we draw has a freshness that cannot compare. The stifling chaos that we saw in August, as we tried to cram in just a few more days of summer fun, and prepare to move our offspring back to college, or go shopping for new school supplies, persisted into September. Do you remember September? That blur of back-to-school, with new routines and bedtime fights, and syllabuses that won’t write themselves, and fresh first year law students eager to grasp the subtle nuances of CREAC. Oh yes, I stepped out of September with barely a glance back and walked, head held high, into October.
But why? Why is it that I greet October with such reverence? October is the beginning of holiday season. Yes, I know that many do not consider Halloween to be a true holiday, but it is the start of a season of festivities that will march us month by month, holiday by holiday, until spring. But even the holidays, and the cooler weather, and the promise of sweaters and bonfires, and apples and pumpkins, are not the reason why October is the most romantic of months. October marks the opening of two things that make me giddy: First, the Supreme Court session year opens with all of its promise and anticipation and, second, October marks the opening of the moot court season with equal amounts of promise and anticipation. I recognize that for many practitioners, news people, and scholars, nothing can compare to the October session of the Supreme Court. And for me, I will be watching, waiting, and pontificating, for sure. As I went to compile a short list, I went from, "oh this case," and "ah that case," to "how can I choose?" Just check out the line-up for yourself: https://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/terms/ot2019/
My muse, however, is moot court, where my students and I get to dabble in mock cases based on the issues that the Court will be tackling. In fact, last year, my students argued many of the issues that will be decided this term. October marks the beginning (if you don’t count all the briefs that were due in the last few weeks).
Just like those of us in the real world have been making adjustments in late August and early September, my students have been re-adjusting to a new school year. In addition, our 2Ls and 3Ls have been busy writing briefs and practicing their oral advocacy skills. And, now, beginning this coming weekend, and over the many weekends to come, they get to see how they have been doing. Certainly, I have been giving the praise and critiques. We’ve been honing their skills, and sharpening their wits. But at this point, my praise is beginning to sound parental. They need to see how their work pans out in the “real” world, or as real as it gets before you are barred (or have your 3rd year practice certificate). Strangers, who haven’t learned to love each of them for who they are, will be assessing their strengths and weaknesses, and the best part is my students will know almost instantaneously how they fared.
I love this for my students. I want the judges to be respectfully honest, and I want my students to see that some things are truly up to the subjective nature of the individual, while other things are almost universally true. When we know what is universally true, we can begin to learn how to adjust and account for the subjective expectations of others. I love that my students have the opportunity to take the feedback they receive and then incorporate that into the next competition, and I treasure the unique opportunity that I have to see them grow and mature. In less than a year, my 3Ls will leave this moot court world behind, but they will never forget. Moot court students are the marching band of law school. They will forever think fondly of their experiences, and will tell cautionary tales that arise from their negative experiences. They will return to the school and share their real world experience with my next crop of students, and when they get picked to argue in one circuit or the other, they will call me. And it all starts in October.
Thursday, August 29, 2019
I recently attended a fantastic gathering of advocacy coaches, directors, and advisers, American's Second Annual Coaches Clinic. What a joy it was to spend time with a group of individuals dedicated to training students to be excellent advocates. And so, refreshed, I return to begin preparing my students to compete in moot court. And I bring insights about the psychology of judging. And while the focus was on competition judges, the psychology applies in daily practice. For instance, we discussed implicit and in some cases, explicit, biases that some competition judges may have regarding race or gender. These same judges practice law in our communities and serve as judges in our courts.
I want to ask how we can combat those biases, but I don't think that is the answer. Confrontation will not necessarily change the way a person thinks or feels, and as advocates, we are merely a representation of our client, so we have to consider the ramifications of taking a stance. But in certain circumstances standing up against indignities is absolutely required.
Unfortunately, we are raised in a civilized society. We don't expect anyone to be blatantly biased, and we are shocked when it happens. If we haven't thought about it beforehand, and planned what our reaction would be, we become paralyzed by that shock. As a coach, I have begun to consider the worst case scenario, and am trying to plan how and when I would step in. I talk to my students about bias and we discuss the how and when.
Where do you draw the line? Have you considered what you would do if a judge, competition or real, were to say something that exhibits explicit bias towards you, your client, or your team? Have you considered what you would do if a judge were to exhibit such bias to your opposing counsel or team, or to another person in the room?
Tuesday, August 20, 2019
There have been numerous articles and speeches about the benefits of moot court for law students. Success in advocacy competitions in general is an overall indicator of success on the bar. It teaches the student to examine both sides of an issue, be thorough in their research and writing, develop professionalism in the courtroom, and to refine arguments through multiple iterations. Some students say that the exercise is one of their most educational experiences in law school.
But what about the coaches and advisors who work with the students? This year marks my 21st year coaching moot court teams. Over those 21 years I have been repeatedly questioned as to why I put so much effort into a work that has never generated a single appellate case referral. My answer is that while coaching moot court may never build your business, it can build you up in many other ways.
First, lawyers never stop learning the law. I coach three competitions a year, and they are difficult ones. While only one permits me to work with the students on the writing, they all permit working together in collaboration on the oral argument. Because they also all do a good job of developing problems that deal with perplexing and important issue of the day in the law, I am able to keep abreast of the law in ways that simply would not be possible if I were to focus exclusively on my practice. This is particularly true in the area of Constitutional law, in which I have developed a broad and deep knowledge that I find invaluable at odd moments in my practice.
Second, lawyers never stop honing their skills. As I work with students in each competition, I am reminded of the importance of certain skills and the impact of bad habits. That helps me keep my own skills sharpened. And I refine those skills through lessons I learn from those interactions.
Third, lawyers always benefit from a larger network. Whether you teach full time or practice law and have recently been asked to volunteer, you will likely benefit from expanding your network. You might get referrals later in your career, you might develop a peer group of other coaches and advisors that you can bounce ideas off over time, or you might develop a stronger reputation in your given area. Networking works differently for everyone, but there are always benefits.
And finally, lawyers need community. Practicing lawyers who work as mentors experience greater job satisfaction than those who do not. Our work, whether teaching or practicing law, can become painfully isolating. Coaching or advising a moot court team draws us out of our shells and into the lives of the students we work with.
Over the weekend I had the great honor of officiating at the wedding of two of my former moot court students. I was deeply honored and humbled by their request. While I may never receive an appeal to work on as the direct result of my work with students, no amount of legal fees could ever match the satisfaction and affirmation of that experience, or any of the personal interactions I have on an almost weekly basis with my former students.
Moot court is good for law students. It is good for their coaches and advisors, too. So if you are asked, say yes. And if you haven’t been asked, consider this an invitation to volunteer.
(Image credit: Honore Daumier, The High Tribunal of Judges, 1843)
Tuesday, August 6, 2019
I am a big proponent of oral argument. It can, and should, make a difference in complicated cases. No matter how tight our writing is, there is something about the give-and-take of oral argument with a well-prepared panel that refines arguments in a way that is difficult to match. But we also have to be very careful, or the words we say can live on in ways we did not expect.
While I was catching up on my reading following summer vacation with my family (a big thank you to my friend, John Browning, for covering with his excellent guest post while I was gone), I dove into the recent analysis of the Plain Error Doctrine in Justice Oldham's concurring opinion in U.S. v. Del Carpio Frescas, No. 17-50245 (5th Cir. July 29, 2019). While I found his analysis of the origins and misadventures of the doctrine since the 1800s to be fascinating and recommended reading for anyone who deals with the doctrine or the topic of waiver versus forfeiture of error, what caught my attention most was his reference to a comment by the Federal Public Defender's Office made during oral argument in a different matter. Without going into detail, Justice Oldham used that comment to raise what he considers to be an anomaly in the law.
We already know that some Supreme Court Justices are prone to quoting oral argument in the opinions that they write in the same matter. According to a 2008 analysis, Justice Ginsberg cites the transcript in almost every opinion she writes, with Chief Justice Roberts following a bit behind at one citation to the transcript every other authored opinion. See Frederick Liu, Citing the Transcript of Oral Argument: Which Justices Do It and Why, 118 Yale L.J. Pocket Part 32 (2008). The Justices use the transcript for three primary reasons: (1) to describe an advocate's affirmative position; (2) to record an advocate's concession; and (3) to note an advocate's representation of the record or facts. Being quoted is not necessarily a good thing -- Justices were almost twice as likely to cite statements made by an advocate whose side they opposed than one they supported.
We already know, then, that what we say at oral argument in a given case may be used in the opinion that follows. The oral argument does seem to make a difference, at least to justices on the margins, and the right argument can still sometimes win the day. Of course, the converse is true. Loose lips can sink ships. The impact of the statements made at oral argument is the primary reason I urge advocates to "moot" their appeals.
But what struck me about Justice Oldham's use of the transcript was that he was drawing from other cases. As more courts record oral argument and transcripts become more widely available and searchable, the idea of having my words used in an opinion months or years later is a bit sobering. And it drives home the idea that these transcripts are another important research tool that is easy to overlook.
Don't forget that even our spoken words live longer now than ever. We need to tap into that as a source of research, and be careful with what we say for both the cases we are currently handling and the ones we may handle in the future.
(Image information: WWII era poster from the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration).
Monday, August 5, 2019
Over the summer, I have been going through moot court brief section by section, giving moot court drafting and scoring advice. In this final installment I will discuss the overall editing of the brief. There is nothing that sours a reader faster than finding multiple editing errors. As I’ve mentioned before, typos in the Questions Presented do not give me much hope of finding an excellent brief as I turn past the first section. Over the years, students have been most frustrated when they realize that their brief did not score well because they violated the word count or lost points for some other avoidable editing issue.
Often, moot court briefs are scored separately for content and form, with a set of scorers specifically tasked with going through and looking for editing and citation issues. I always suggest doing separate editing passes to make sure that your brief is as close to perfect as possible before you turn it in.
These two blog posts by Joe Regalia go into more depth on editing word choice and using technology to uncover your writing blind spots and are worthwhile reads:
Scoring-wise, style often plays a significant role in total points. In the sample score sheet I reviewed, the Overall Presentation was worth 15 of 100 points.
Is the writing style clear, concise, and persuasive?
Does the brief effectively present the case for the client?
Does the brief look polished and professional?
(15 points possible) _________________
In another competition with separate technical scoring, every error, whether grammatical or citation, resulted in a point subtracted. That adds up quickly when every point matters. Often brief scores tend to cluster, and even a couple of stray errors can take a brief out of the running for a high score.
Here are my top tips for editing a moot court brief:
* Set an internal deadline for the team that is 48 hours before the actual deadline to leave time for additional read-throughs. Have accountability with a coach or director that the internal deadline is met.
* Every team member should read the brief in hard copy at least once. The more eyes on the brief, the better the chances of catching everything.
* Use editing technology, but don’t mindlessly rely on it. Grammarly is what I typically recommend.
* Try to edit after a good night’s rest and when it’s been a few days since you looked at the brief to give yourself better perspective and clarity on your writing.
* Double check all of the little things. Have you complied with all of the competition rules? Are the cites perfect? Are the tables organized and cited properly? Does the cover look polished and professional?
Ensuring that your brief is well-edited will not guarantee that you have the winning brief for a competition, but a poorly-edited brief will not even be in the running.
Monday, July 8, 2019
The task of writing a statement of facts in a real-world appellate brief generally requires distilling significant amounts of information from the record. In Moot Court, you have typically have the fact section from the court opinion, a shorter and more focused treatment (though there are a few competitions out there that use entire appellate records). When looking at the fact section of an opinion and trying to make a statement of facts out of it, it can be difficult to write a story that has already been written. Some students are tempted to rely heavily on the phrasing and organization that was given in the problem, but that would be a mistake.
The statement of facts is an important part of your Moot Court brief, and there are some key things you can do to maximize your score in this section. As I’ve done in my other posts on sections of the brief for Moot Court, let’s start with scoring criteria from a sample competition:
STATEMENT OF THE CASE/FACTS
Does it engage the reader’s interest?
Are all legally relevant facts included?
Is it accurately, persuasively, and concisely written?
Is the procedural history clear? (15/100 points possible) ______________
To maximize your score on this section and stand out in all of the right ways, here are some tips:
1. Tell a story. The first criteria in this score sheet looks at whether the reader’s interest is engaged. Focusing on telling a story is the best way to grab your reader. People remember stories. Here’s an excellent blog post by Joe Regalia on Storytelling.
One key aspect on storytelling is to start in the right place. Spend time thinking about who your client is and where the story should start to ensure it presents the picture of your client you want.
2. Double check after you have written your argument that you included all of the facts that you used in your statement of facts. While you may write a draft of the statement of facts earlier in the process, until you have finished the heart of your brief, there may be little details that you missed at first.
And when you check your use of facts, make sure that you are giving specifics, not just generalizations. Also, have the record next to you as you draft; don’t just write from your memory. This is how inaccuracies are introduced. If something was said that was important, quote it!
3. Use headings and paragraph breaks to make it more readable. As a scorer, I am instantly annoyed when I confront a wall of text with no breaks. Headings and paragraphs help me see how you arranged and organized the various facts, and I can see how it all fits together before diving in.
4. Avoid arguing, but be persuasive. In the statement of facts, it’s important to be subtle and use focus, organization, and word choice to persuade. Don’t argue or come to legal conclusions, but do frame the facts to your client’s advantage.
Don’t underestimate the power of a strong statement of facts to tell your client’s story, and to help you maximize your brief score.
Tuesday, June 25, 2019
In my last entry, I gave an overview of how to set up a moot court session for your real appeal, including panelist selection, timing, and preparation. Today, I want to talk in more details about how to set up and conduct the moot court session itself.
1. Plan Ahead and Be Respectful of your Panel's Time.
Making the most of this time is critical. You are either costing your panelists their time (if they have volunteered) or paying them for it, either in the form of a flat or hourly fee. Be respectful of that time. First, give them copies of the briefing and key cases or statutes far enough in advance that they can time-shift the work needed to be prepared for the session. Second, let them know your expectations for their participation at the session and the anticipated time involved.
2. Establish a Format for the Session.
The latter bit of information will depend on whether you are going to have a “typical” session or add on time. The “typical” session that I recommend is in two parts. First there is a true “moot court” session, accurately emulating the anticipated oral argument. Second, the panel takes off the robes (literally or figuratively) and talks through their critique of the argument and the answers given. Give yourself time for your moot court (with or without opposing argument presented) and then, as a rule of thumb, at least double that time for the follow-up discussion. Encourage the panelists to raise issues or questions that might not have been brought up during the round.
You can add to this time if you wish. Some practitioners want to give the argument first without questions as a straight run-through, then have the panel hear the argument again and ask questions. I usually counsel against this, because it means your moot panel will have heard the argument much more clearly than your actual panel will.
If your panel has time, you may want to have an initial roundtable after the argument, then watch the video and see what other questions or comments are brought to mind when doing so. As mentioned in the earlier article, you might even want to have a separate brainstorming session before your response or reply are due, in order to flesh out issues during briefing instead of oral argument.
In my moot court coaching, I alternate between informal roundtable discussions, question and answer sessions, and argument. Over the years I have come to believe that it takes all three types of preparation, much like a sports team might have team meetings to discuss plays, conduct skill drills, and then play in scrimmages in order to prepare for a real game.
Whatever the plan is, make it explicit to the panel and be sure to prepare for each step. Do not underestimate the time for your panel if you want them to work with you again.
3. Accurately Emulate the Oral Argument.
Next, pay attention to the actual setup of the moot court session. I prefer using as realistic a setup as possible. If you have never argued before a particular court before, find out what kind of timing mechanism is used and find one that matches it as closely as possible. If you are not familiar with timing lights, they can be very distracting and a bit confusing. To prepare, you can find timing lights on Amazon or other retailers. Practicing with the light will help you get a better feel for how to time your argument without fearing your first encounter with “the light.”
If possible, try to hold your moot session in a setting that emulates your oral argument environment. Many law schools have practice courtrooms, with some set up for appellate simulation. In a pinch, a conference room will work, but use a podium and have the panel sit together so you can get used to scanning for reaction. Teleconferencing is also an option if time or distance simply do not allow for everyone to be in the same room, but I don’t find it to be as accurate a simulation as other setups.
4. Prepare Yourself and Your Panel.
When the date of the session arrives be sure that you and your panel are prepared. If you have selected former justices, appellate practitioners, or even former clerks for the court you are approaching, and have provided them with materials in time to prepare, they will be ready to serve as a general panel. If you receive a notice of panel change or setting, be sure to share that with them and discuss potentially doing additional research to emulate a particular justice on the panel, if that is the approach you wish to take.
Prior to the session, practice and refine your argument on your own, and work with potential Q&A that you and your colleagues may have developed. If you are a newer or infrequent advocate, and you are nervous about how to handle questions, one practice technique is to write down anticipated questions on note cards, give them a good shuffle, then start your “speech,” grabbing a card at intervals and responding to the questions while working back into the arguments.
Finally, watch oral arguments from your court, your panel members, and your opponent. The proliferation of online videotaped oral argument is a wonderful preparation tool.
5. Enjoy the Conversation
The ultimate goal of all of this work is to make yourself comfortable with the subject matter, the format, and the environment to such an extent that you are able to engage in a meaningful conversation with your real panel. Only by working with a practice panel can you reassure yourself that your weaknesses have been fully probed, and only be simulating the experience accurately can you feel comfortable when you stand to speak. But don’t forget to enjoy the moment – oral argument is increasingly rare on appeal, and each time it is granted you are being given an opportunity to meaningfully collaborate with the court in properly developing the law in a setting that is meant to speak your sometimes dry legal arguments to life.
(Image credit: My furtive photo of an excellent simulation experience for two of my SMU Law School moot court students, Adrian Galvan (speaking) and Sydney Sadler (sitting to his left) at the final round of the TYLA Moot Court Competition earlier this month, where they were able to argue in front of all but one of the judges (that is the proper term for this court) from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.)
Monday, June 24, 2019
Have you ever picked up a book, read the back cover and immediately set it back down, with nothing enticing you to read further? An ineffective summary of the argument can create this effect in your brief.
One of the final parts of the brief to write, the summary of the argument is often the first chance to persuade the judges. But more than that, the summary of argument serves to frame and present the thinking of the brief, and it should do so in a way that draws the judge further into the brief. Some judges read the summary of the argument first, and it’s a mistake to throw something together than is bland and doesn’t get to the heart of your argument.
Judith Fischer’s 2015 article, Summing it up with Panache: Framing a Brief’s Summary of the Argument
takes a deep dive into summaries of the argument and looks at recent Supreme Court briefs’ summaries to gather insights into how appellate practitioners write them. It’s a helpful article in understanding a practitioner approach to the summary of the argument, and it’s rich in examples.
For moot court, I believe scorers are looking for the same thing that a judge would be. Does the summary of the argument give a persuasive overview of the case? Here’s an example of summary of the argument scoring criteria from a competition I have scored before:
SUMMARY OF ARGUMENT:
Is it a succinct, clear, accurate statement of the argument?
Is it persuasively written?
Is it more than a restatement of the point headings?
(10 points possible)
TOP TIPS FOR THE SUMMARY OF ARGUMENT
1. Include your theme in the first sentence or two of the summary. If I get to the end of the first paragraph and I don’t know your position, that’s a problem.
Here is a great example from Judith Fischer’s article mentioned above comparing the first sentences of petitioner and respondent summaries of argument:
Eminent domain was the legal subject in Kelo v. City of New London, where the petitioners opposed a local government’s taking of private property for use by a commercial entity. Their summary of the argument opened with an appeal to Americans’ emotional attachment to their homes: “To Petitioners, like most Americans, their homes are their castles.” The brevity of this sentence intensifies its impact.
The respondents’ summary evoked logic rather than emotion: “At the heart of this case are a series of decisions made by the Connecticut legislature and the elected officials of the City of New London as to what will best serve the economic, social, structural and environmental interests of New London's citizens.”
These sentences primed the Court for two contrasting approaches to the case. The petitioners tapped into deep-seated feelings about homes. By contrast, the respondents relied on legal principles, telling a “‘justice’ story” to argue that the city’s decision was correct despite an outcome displeasing to some.
In Kelo, the justice story prevailed when the Court approved the city’s exercise of eminent domain.
2. Keep it under about 10% of the length of the actual argument. It should be a true summary, not a full recap. Too long, and you risk losing the opportunity to give a good overview to your reader; too short, and it may not be enough to be helpful.
3. Limit citations. It will bog down the summary.
4. Don’t just restate the point headings. It’s lazy and just taking up space.
5. Make sure to leave yourself enough time to give thought to your summary of the argument once you are done with the argument.
Just like authors and editors spend significant time on the back of the book to grab readers’ attention, you should be persuading from the beginning of your brief by having a strong, concise summary of argument.
Tuesday, June 11, 2019
As both a moot-court coach and a real-life appellate specialist, I find myself moving back-and-forth between real appeals and simulations on a regular basis. Each one advises the other, and I think the experience makes me both a better coach and practitioner.
One area of overlap is in "mooting" appeals. In law school, it is an exercise in practical skill building with formative assessment in the form of constant feedback. In real appeals, it is the best preparation there is for oral argument, no matter how skilled the presenter might be.
Don't just take my word for it:
No preparation for oral argument is as valuable as a moot court in which you're interrogated by lawyers as familiar with your case as the court is likely to be. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is so effective in bringing your attention to issues that have not occurred to you and in revealing the flaws in your responses to issues you have been aware of.
Antonin Scalia & Bryan Garner, Making your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges 158 (2008)
Your opponents are probably doing it. The United State's Solicitor General's office, as well as Appellate Staff throughout the government, conduct at least one moot session before oral argument. In larger cases, it is increasingly considered best practices to do so. Larger firms often conduct multiple moot sessions in-house. Even in smaller matters, informal mooting sessions are becoming more common.
Fortunately, if you are familiar with moot court from law school, you can probably put together a moot round for your argument. You just need a panel, a video camera, a plan, and time. Lots of time.
1. Pick your Panel Carefully
In general, you want to pick at least three panelists who will represent the type of judges you anticipate will be on your panel. Legal expertise is less important than appellate experience. For this reason, former appellate judges and appellate specialists are often utilized. Appellate specialists can put together a panel for you if you need the assistance.
Why not pick someone who really knows the substantive law? Because they aren't a good emulation of your court. You want people who will read what the court will read (the briefing, key cases, orders/judgments at issue and record excerpts) and then ask you the type of question that this preparation brings to mind. Someone who knows the law very well outside of this exercise might carry the same blinders you have developed during your time with the case.
If you are appearing before a court en banc or a court with more than three justices, you can use more panelists. Most practitioners do not suggest matching the full number, however, as there is diminished value in adding more seats at the moot.
2. Prepare For Your Session Wisely
You want to have at least one moot round within two weeks of the oral argument so you have time to prepare and adjust based on your session. If possible, discussing the issue even earlier can be of great benefit. Indeed, if you can schedule a time with your panelists to have a roundtable discussion before you finish briefing, that is ideal. Uncovering arguments and answering questions you had not thought of asking in your briefing, rather than in the oral argument alone, is ideal.
Some research into your potential panelists is a good idea. If you are in a jurisdiction that videotapes oral argument, watch recent arguments on related issues to get a feel for how the justices you might get on your panel are approaching your issues. I recently mooted a panel for a public interest group, and noted that one justice in particular on the circuit tended to focus on a particular statutory issue. I flagged that for them during the moot court, and when that issue arose at oral argument, they were able to answer it when others had not and ultimately prevailed.
You may also wish to find someone willing to argue the other side. The moot session can work with just your side if you are experienced. But if you need work on your rebuttal skills or in shaping your appellee or respondent argument to an unexpected approach or to address questions asked to co-counsel, this step can provide you some additional help.
3. Videotape the Proceedings
Time acquires a very subjective and malleable quality when one is being grilled by a panel of intelligent skeptics about a topic that has great importance. Before you know it, your time is up and you are sitting down trying to remember what was just said. Videotaping the round ensures that you will remember the questions asked and answered, and you can see how you look and act during your moments of panic and introspection. If you need to work on your "uhs" and tendency to sway while speaking, now is the time to do so.
4. Take Your Time at Every Stage
Finally, make sure everyone takes the time necessary for the process to work. You need to take your time in preparing your argument and answers for the moot session just like a real argument. Your panel needs to take the time to read the briefing and record. After your session, take the time to round everyone up and discuss what worked and what did not, how answers can be refined, and otherwise discuss the round. Then, if you have time, do it again.
Indeed, you can schedule multiple moots with multiple panelists. There are law schools that have appellate clinics who may be willing to do so for free. If you are arguing in the Supreme Court of the United States, book your time with the Georgetown University Supreme Court Institute as early as possible, as they are "first come first serve" when it comes to sides.
If you pick panelists who will ask you difficult and unexpected questions, if you take the time to prepare your presentation, if you review the videotaped proceeding carefully and refine your arguments, and if you are willing to do it all again if need be, you will go far in refining your argument. There is a reason one of the most commonly-heard comments from real judges who sit on panels for moot court competitions is "I wish the real advocates who appear before me were as prepared and skilled as you are."
In the next installment I will talk in a bit more detail about how to actually conduct the moot session to maximize its usefulness.
(Image credit: Honore Daumier, The High Tribunal of Judges, 1843)