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)
Saturday, May 18, 2019
A few weeks back, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Thomas Ward argued before the Fourth Circuit. What followed "May it please the Court," has become a lesson for appellate practitioners everywhere: Always remember your audience.
The case is Sanders v. United States, No. 18-1931. It's a pretty important case in its own right. Sanders is a Federal Tort Claims Act case. The plaintiffs alleged that the Government had failed in its duty to conduct a background check on Dylann Roof, the man who murdered nine African-Americans in Charleston, South Carolina. The plaintiffs contended that the Government's failure had allowed Roof to buy the guns used in the shooting.
The Government contended that the FTCA's discretionary function exemption applied and, thus, that there was no liability. That argument carried the day at the district court, and the Government relied on the same argument on appeal. The panel was relatively conservative, so the Government should have felt pretty good about its odds.
The Fourth Circuit's Chief Judge, Roger L. Gregory, wasn't having it. He asked a particularly charged question, which ended with Judge Gregory calling the Government's argument "absurd." That exhortation drew an eyebrow-raising comment from Mr. Ward, who responded, "Your Honor, I know you're not trying to humiliate me by that tone." What followed was a well-deserved tongue lashing from Judge Gregory, ending with the command to "just answer [the] question."
Mr. Ward's Sanders argument is a great example for us all. It's tough to see another attorney go through something like that. There, but for the grace of God, go I, right? Even so, the exchange offers an important lesson. Always keep your audience in mind. Remember that most judges are warm, friendly people, but that every so often one will find your considered position offensive. You've got to do your best to put these personal differences behind you. Otherwise, your argument will end up as a footnote to the much more juicy exchange you had with the bench. I know I remember very little about the Sanders argument, other than the attention-grabbing bit.
Monday, May 6, 2019
Don't worry, this post isn't about what color suit and shirt you should wear during an appellate argument (I mean, we all know the answer is charcoal or blue with a white shirt). This post is about whether you should wear any sort of affiliation pin on that (charcoal or blue) suit. Should you indicate your support for the Marine Corps, your alma mater, breast cancer research, the Federalist Society, Black Lives Matter, or any other number of groups by wearing some sort of lapel pin?
As I recently learned, the answer is no. A few weeks ago, I was listening to judges talk to students about appellate advocacy. One of the students was wearing a lapel pin for one of the branches of the military. A judge commented that the student shouldn't wear the pin at oral argument, and the judge's colleague agreed. I was surprised by this advice, as I had never heard it before from a judge. I asked around on a moot court listserv and got surprised responses as well. But, as I reflected on the advice, it made sense. It especially made sense for attorneys who are appearing before a judge for the first time or who are unknown in the jurisdiction.
Imagine a scenario where an appellate attorney argues a case before a panel of judges, two of whom have been active in an organization like the Federalist Society or the American Constitution Society. The attorney dons a lapel pin from that organization. As he stands up to argue, he is sending a signal to the judges that he is one of them--that he is part of their society and ascribes to the same ideals as the organization that he is representing on his suit collar. It boosts his ethos with the court.
Some trial court judges have specific rules preventing attorneys from wearing "political pins" in court. One listserv member shared a story about an attorney in Ohio who was held in contempt of court for wearing a Black Lives Matter pin into such a courtroom in 2016. Although the attorney appealed the decision, the case was settled and she stated that she "now understands 'that a courtroom is a nonpublic forum over which [the judge] had the authority to dictate decorum.'"
Without digging into the constitutional issues, the no pins policy seems to be a prudent one. The logos, ethos, and pathos of an attorney's argument should carry the day, rather than the "I'm part of your secret society" message that some lapel pins might attempt to convey. I do think, however, that some pins, especially school affiliation or military ones, become less of an issue with attorneys who practice regularly before the same judges. My husband was a prosecutor for many years in Virginia. He practiced primarily in juvenile court before the same three judges. After a few years of practice, I am sure that the judges didn't care if my husband had a lapel pin reflecting his military service--they knew that he was reliable, dependable, and prepared based on the years of seeing him in court.
For my students who are still building their ethos, I will now be telling them to (1) button their jacket when they stand to address the court, and (2) be cognizant of wearing a lapel pin that might be seen as an attempt to improperly influence a judge.
Monday, April 29, 2019
Many of the characteristics of the best real-world briefs—clarity, strong theme, readability, focus—are critical in moot court, too. An appellate attorney and a moot court participant both want to produce a winning brief. But winning is defined differently in moot court. Rather than a panel of appellate judges or justices deciding the issues in a case, moot court briefs are scored on a point basis and compared to potentially dozens of other briefs on the same issue and even same side.
My plan over my next several posts is to compile advice for specific sections of Supreme Court briefs generally, then add some thoughts that specifically relate to moot court. I have scored moot court briefs for several national competitions and graded hundreds of students briefs over the years, and those experiences give me insights into common student pitfalls. I have also pulled score sheets from a variety of competitions to give concrete examples of moot court scoring criteria.*
We will start at the beginning with Questions Presented and Issue Statements. You know what they say about first impressions. . . It’s absolutely true for briefs. As a jumping off point and for reference, I compiled a list of many of the Issue Statement/Question Presented blog posts that have appeared on this blog.
From earlier this month, Chris Edwards on framing issues:
Tonya Kowalski’s series on (1) Deep Issue Statements:
(2) Streamlining longer issue statements: https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/appellate_advocacy/2014/01/streamlining-longer-issue-statements.html
(3) More Objective Deep Issue Statements:
Thomas Burch on which style of Issue Statement/Question Presented is used:
As you’ll see from these posts, there is not unanimity as to what format is used and preferred in actual Supreme Court briefs. But it’s helpful to get grounding in how practitioners are framing questions presented.
As for question presented scoring criteria from moot court competitions, here’s four examples with their respective point values:
Competition 1 - Are the questions posed to frame the issue(s) to be decided in a favorable manner without being
Is there a clear point of view? (5 points out of 100)
Competition 2- Do they clearly and accurately explain the issues before the court?
Are they persuasively phrased? (10 out of 100)
Competition 3- Correctly states issues
Articulates legal questions and includes relevant facts
Does not include legal arguments or conclusions
Succinct and concise (12 points out of 100)
Competition 4- Combine legal principles with key facts
Are persuasive but not conclusory
Are clear and succinct (4 points out of 100)
All of these criteria include persuasion, argumentation, or relevant facts. A neutral short framing would not fully comply. Instead, it’s likely that a well-written, Bryan Garner-esque Deep Issue, as described in the second post above, would be better scoring. My theory is the professors and students who run competitions and create score sheets have a preference for the more modern, persuasive, multiple-sentence Deep Issue. Though, I think a short, argumentative question presented with a few key facts could also score well.
Finally, there are a few key errors that will really impact the question presented score on a moot court brief. First, as a brief scorer, I gave very little credit for just copying the issue certified for appeal. That is not the task at hand. Don’t do it. Take the time to frame a well-written issue for the court. It’s possible you could lose 5-10% of your brief score by copying and pasting the issues certified for appeal.
Second, in moot court briefs there are usually two or three separate issues that need questions presented. Try to make them stylistically similar. It’s not cohesive to have one deep issue and one neutral short issue. Yes, this takes time and possibly teamwork. But your questions presented set the tone for the brief. If it’s obvious they were slapped together at the last minute, that’s not a good sign for the rest of the brief.
Third, on a technical note, do not rely on spell check for ALL CAPS in Word. If you type in ALL CAPS, spell check does not pick up spelling errors. Either proof read it carefully, or type it in regular font, then go to font and change it to the ALL CAPS. I see more typos in headings and questions presented than anywhere else because of this. A question presented with spelling errors also sets a poor tone.
Overall, students participating in moot court should start with the good advice in the posts above for practitioners about focusing and selecting the issues and framing them clearly and positively. But, since most competitions seem to prefer a persuasive style with concise inclusion of facts, I’d avoid a neutral short issue for questions presented in moot court competitions.
For those of you involved in moot court, do you have any other suggestions?
* Of course, students should try to find and refer to the score sheet of their own competition if it’s available.
Monday, March 18, 2019
Tessa’s moot court posts over the last few weeks have been timely for me, as I am leaving tomorrow with a team from the University of Houston to coach them in the Hispanic National Bar Association in Albuquerque. I’m a fan of moot court. Not only is it correlated with bar exam success, but it rewards students for becoming an expert on a topic. The presentation skills honed translate to areas beyond appellate advocacy, and students have to be able to argue both sides of an issue, creating intellectual flexibility. Some of our readers may be in a position to give back to their law school by coaching a moot court team, so I wanted to spend some time on moot court coaching.
Before joining UH’s faculty, I directed Pepperdine’s Moot Court program and learned the value of excellent coaching. My predecessor, the amazing Nancy McGinnis, developed a team of top-notch alumni coaches who invested significant time helping students prepare for oral arguments. As I learned how to run a program and develop student advocates, I saw how some coaches have consistent success with their teams. Beyond awards and trophies, though those were plentiful, there were deep relationships built and significant growth in the students.
While I could spend an entire blog post giving recognition to amazing coaches and students, the two that I learned the most from are Pepperdine alums Wendy McGuire Coats and Jeff Belton. These two have generations of law students who hold them up as extraordinary coaches and professional mentors. They do most of the things I am suggesting below, and then some. After observing dozens of competitions, teams, and coaches, and coaching some of my own, here are the top moot court coaching tips I have gleaned:
- Establish accountability for students
The best coaches set expectations for the students early. Solid moot court programs have strong team expectations, but the coach reinforces these and makes sure that students understand the work that they will have to put in to be ready for the competition. An introductory meeting is a great start. Plan a schedule of practices leading up to the competition and what students should do on their own. Encourage the team to read all of the briefs if they are available. Have them identify the most compelling arguments. They should make lists of the hardest 15-20 questions for each issue on each side. Knowing that you, the coach, expect this output from them is key.
- Give them a realistic view of national competitions
This is particularly important for students who have never competed nationally before. The level of competition that they will see at a national competition is dramatically different than intraschool competitions they might have experienced. What type of questions are they likely to get? How should they deal with inevitable challenges? There will be few teams at a national competition that are not well-prepared. Not every excellent team will win, but an unprepared team will definitely not. I try to hit this point home, because typically law students involved with moot court are busy with other law school activities. They need to understand how important their preparation time is.
- Be a coach, trainer, cheerleader, and tour guide all at once at the competition
Finally, once the competition arrives, the coach fills many rolls at once. As coach, I take notes during the competition of questions asked, feedback from the judges, and any areas that may need tweaking between rounds. The rounds fly by for the advocates, so it’s helpful to have something to recap. I’m also ready to advocate for my team with the competition administration, if necessary. I also think of myself as sort of an athletic trainer, and I try to bring a bag full of potentially useful items – a sewing kit, snacks, highlighters, usb drive, and all of the competition documents. You never know what might come in handy. Many students find these competitions stressful, so I see my role as cheerleader, as well. I know how much hard work has gone into their argument, and I want them to see the value of their experience regardless of the results. Their job is just to stand up and do their best. Lastly, I don’t want the advocates to have to worry about anything other than their arguments, so I figure out all of the logistics, find cool places to eat, and try to make the times that they are not arguing fun. Moot court develops skills, but it also builds relationships, and that’s a big part of what I love about it.
Coaching moot court has to be one of the most fun and rewarding ways to be engaged with a law school. Like most things, if you put a lot in, you will get a lot out. If you are interested in more reading on this subject, I highly recommend The Moot Court Advisors Handbook by James Dmitri, Melissa Greipp, and Susie Salmon.
Wednesday, March 6, 2019
Like a lot of advocacy professors, I'm an avid consumer of social-science literature on persuasion, decision-making, and pedagogy. And I'm a fan of efforts by law professors to apply this literature to what advocates do. Sure, we've got to be humble and cautious: I and many of the law professors with interest in this area aren't trained scientists or statisticians, and stuff like the Social Sciences Replication Project and the hubbub over power posing offer healthy reminders that it's possible (even easy, sometimes) for folks trained in the right disciplines to get out over their skies. As Ted Becker points out, we in the persuasion business don't really know much about what really persuades judges. But much of the good, humble, cautious work helps us at least start down the path of sorting out techniques that work from techniques that we adopt just because they're the way we do things. There is a wealth of interesting work being done in this area related to persuasive writing and legal reasoning: Kathy Stanchi's body of work on psychology and persuasion is remarkable; Lucy Jewel's piece on old-school rhetoric and new-school cognitive science is a revelation; Steven Winter's work broke fascinating ground in knitting together cognitive science and legal reasoning. I could mention dozens of other scholars here: exciting things are happening.
We don't have a similar volume, as yet, of scholarship linking social science to oral advocacy. Still: I'd like to devote a few posts to highlighting a couple of pieces that I find particularly useful in refining the advice I give to advocates and in polishing my own performances.
I think it's fair to call the first a classic in the field: Michael Higdon's Oral Argument and Impression Management: Harnessing the Power of Nonverbal Persuasion for a Judicial Audience, published in the Kansas Law Review in 2009. Professor Higdon offers a rich, comprehensive overview of research into the seven basic codes of nonverbal communication: (1) kinesics (i.e., what speakers do with their bodies); (2) physical appearance (i.e., what speakers look like); (3) vocalics (i.e., what speakers sound like); (4) haptics (i.e., how speakers physically touch an audience member); (5) proxemics (i.e., how speakers use physical space); (6) environment and artifacts (i.e., how speakers use instruments and their environment); and (7) chronemics (i.e., how speakers manages time). And he thoughtfully applies that research to what lawyers do in appellate oral argument.
I find Higdon's piece particularly useful in sorting out advice on things like the use of gestures. Quite often, beginning appellate advocates will do stuff with their hands that distracts judges. So they'll get categorical advice: don't talk with your hands. And they take that advice ... and promptly get told by the next set of judges not to be so stiff and nervous. Higdon's piece details research spanning several decades that makes it clear that any "don't use your hands" advice is flatly wrong: gestures are essential to effective in-person communication generally, and they're especially vital to persuasion. But there's a catch: only those gestures that are "synchronized with and supportive of the vocal/verbal stream" enhance comprehension and persuasion. The lesson that emerges: advocates should use purposeful gestures that match and support the points they make verbally, but avoid gestures that simply accompany the verbal stream. So use the hands to help you make a point, but don't let your hands flap around randomly to accompany your talk.
Higdon's points on speed of delivery (somewhat fast is actually good, so long as it doesn't flatten out a speaker's pitch and tone) and on managing the judges' dominance are similarly illuminating. If it is read as widely as it should be, the generations of appellate advocates will tilt their heads eight degrees to the right (see p. 643). And win.
Monday, February 25, 2019
Moot Court season is upon us. Law students from around the country are headed off to compete in a mock appellate arguments on a wide range of topics. This past weekend students competed at the Jeffrey G. Miller National Environmental Law Moot Court Competition (more commonly known as Pace). Students also competed at the San Francisco and Portland regionals for the National Appellate Advocacy Competition put on by the ABA. (Congrats to the teams from my school that both made it to the round of 5 at the San Francisco regional).
This coming weekend Boston and Philadelphia host their NAAC regional competitions. And, my school hosts the National Native American Law Student Association Moot Court Competition. We are looking forward to hosting 40+ teams from across the country to argue a difficult, but fascinating, Indian Law problem.
The University of Houston has already started tabulating the top moot court programs for its rankings. This year the current top 5 is Texas heavy:
- Loyola University
- South Texas
- University of Georgia
- University of Houston
I really love moot court. I love coaching, I love judging, and I love seeing students develop over the course of the weeks that they work on the problem. Moot court has many benefits for students. While it certainly teaches them teamwork, it also teaches them to be problem solvers and work independently. For most moot court competitions, students cannot receive any outside help on their briefs. For some competitions, they can't even receive substantive help during their oral advocacy practices. Moot court also teaches time management. Some of the major competitions, like the NAAC and the NNALSA, require students to brief over the winter holidays. Finally, moot court helps students learn to become excellent public speakers. I have heard that the number one fear that people have is public speaking. As a person who formerly hated public speaking, I know that the only thing that has helped me improve is practice, practice, practice. Moot court does that for law students.
Moot court has benefits for the local legal community too. Volunteering to judge provides you with more than a few free CLE credits, it allows you to think about and discuss an interesting area of law. Moot court problems are often centered around an interesting and unsettled area of the law--the kind of question your least favorite professor might put on a law school exam. It can be fun to get back into law school mode and ponder these questions (especially when you are asking the questions, rather than the other way around). I also think that moot court gives us hope for the next generation of lawyers. They can, and will, do great things. That is exciting.
But, despite the excitement, moot court isn't perfect. It isn't perfect because we all know that the briefs are way more important than the arguments in real life. It also isn't perfect because, just like in real life, gender stereotypes can rear their ugly heads. I was reminded of that this week when I saw an article on Law.com announcing that the first female appellate law clerk had passed away at the age of 94. Carmel Ebb, who graduated first in her class at Columbia Law in 1945, is believed by most to be the first woman to clerk for a federal appellate court judge. She clerked for Judge Jerome Frank on the Second Circuit. She interviewed for a Supreme Court Clerkship but, according to her obituary, “Her hopes were dashed when the justice concluded their conversation by saying he had no doubt she would be a fine clerk, but that his wife would never allow him to work in such close proximity to a woman.” Ms. Ebb went on to have a successful career, including making partner at a New York firm.
So how do gender stereotypes play a role in moot court? Next post I will look at an article on this topic.
Tuesday, February 12, 2019
Last night, I watched On the Basis of Sex with first-year law students. Munching on popcorn and candy, the students learned about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and her first gender-discrimination case, Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, 469 F.2d 466 (10th Cir. 1972). Moritz challenged section 214(a) of the Internal Revenue Code, 26 U.S.C. § 214(a) (1954), because it precluded him, as an unmarried man, from claiming a caregiver deduction despite caring for his elderly mother.
On the Basis of Sex provides 1Ls with an excellent introduction to appellate advocacy. The movie begins with Ginsberg’s first day of law school, then chronicles her writing her first brief and delivering her first oral argument. After the movie, I discussed with the first-year students how the movie compares with what they will do when they receive their first appellate problem in a few weeks. Below are some of the lessons learned.
Appellate Practice Is a Lot of Work
Most of the movie occurs outside the courtroom. Students saw Ginsberg meet with Moritz to discuss taking an appeal. They saw her strategize with other attorneys about arguments. She works with her husband, a tax attorney, and her staff and students at Rutgers Law School. She researches, writes, and rewrites the appellant’s brief. When appellee’s brief arrives with an appendix of over six hundred federal laws that distinguish between men and women, Ginsberg and her team look up and discuss each one. She takes a settlement offer to her client. Before oral argument, Ginsberg practices before a moot court and then before a mirror. Ginsberg works hard. The process takes a long time.
Oral Argument Is a Little Scary
The climax of the movie is during the final minutes when the parties argue before the Tenth Circuit. Students noted how different oral argument looks from the trials they had seen on TV. There is no jury. A lone attorney stands before a panel of three judges. They remarked how Ginsberg was nervous and awkward at first. The judges directed the course of the argument. They interrupted with questions.
The students began to imagine what it will be like when they argue in April. We discussed how preparation goes a long way toward easing nerves. I shared that they will have the opportunity to practice before moot courts organized by our Moot Court Honor Society. I encouraged them to practice in front of a mirror like Ginsberg. I shared that it is normal to be nervous, especially for your first argument.
One Case Can Be Two Different Stories
The underlying dispute in Moritz involved the denial of a tax deduction because the taxpayer did not meet the qualifications in the tax code. The law was clear. Mr. Moritz did not qualify for the caregiver deduction because he was an unmarried man. Had he been a woman, divorced, or a widower, he would have been eligible for the deduction.
The students observed how the lawyers (arguing for the IRS) and Ginsberg (arguing for Mr. Moritz) told two different stories based on the same case. The IRS portrayed Mr. Moritz as a tax cheat. Ginsberg held him up as a loving and devoted son. The IRS, armed with one hundred years of precedent, argued that the Tenth Circuit should protect society by maintaining the status quo on gender. Ginsberg advocated for new law because precedent had failed to keep up with society’s evolving views on gender.
During oral argument, the IRS argued that “radical social change” is something to be feared and must be stopped. Ginsberg picked up on this point during her rebuttal. She argued that “radical social change” had already happened and the Tenth Circuit should bring the law into alignment with that change. Students were struck by this exchange. Each side used the same words to make two very different points.
At the end of the evening, students left our gathering excited, inspired, and a little nervous. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to introduce them to appellate advocacy in such a fun way. Ginsberg remarks at one point during the film that by teaching law students she hoped to inspire the next generation of lawyers. Through this movie, Justice Ginsberg is still doing just that.
Wednesday, October 10, 2018
If you're looking to gin up controversy in moot court circles, here's one way: raise the topic of arguing without notes. If the moot-court whisper network and this Reddit thread are to be believed, some faculty coaches insist that their student advocates argue without notes. And, whether coaches insist on it or not, quite a few moot court advocates (including a bunch from my school) compete notes free. Hence the controversy. A lot of folks, like Reddit Person, don't see much genuine benefit to arguing sans notes. Sure, it might intimidate opponents or wow easily-impressed judges. But beyond that? Not much.
I would agree that going notes free probably doesn't offer many benefits in the actual oral argument performance. As the notoriously notes-free Paul Clement explains on page 16 of this article, well-prepared advocates mostly bring notes to the podium. And they mostly don't use them. Of course, as the Supreme Court's Guide to Counsel admonishes, "under no circumstances should you read your argument from a prepared script." But having notes to provide security, especially about key statutory language or sharp bits from the record, and making nondistracting use of them on occasion ... often a good thing, and rarely a bad thing.
But I think going notes-free is incontrovertibly great in one context: practice. Why? Science. As I've argued before on this blog, oral argument is a tremendous tool for learning. And doing it without notes can deepen learning. In a study published a few months ago in Applied Cognitive Psychology, researchers built upon a substantial body of literature showing that teaching material to others enhances the teacher's own learning of the materials. They attempted to figure out why. So they split research subjects—a group of undergraduate students—into four learning groups, all of which were given time to study and prepare to teach a lesson on the Doppler effect. Then two groups actually taught the lesson. One group taught from a script; the second taught without notes. A third group didn't teach, and instead took a free-recall test about the Doppler effect. The forth group—the control—simply did arithmetic problems.
One week later, the subjects were tested on their knowledge of the Doppler effect. And the subjects who taught without a script outperformed those who taught from a script.
The reason: teaching without notes forced subjects to engage in retrieval practice. The experiment suggests that teachers learn by teaching largely because—and when—they are required to extract, with effort, information from their brains. So it isn't the act of teaching per se that boosts learning, but the act of retrieving the information that does the trick. Hence this result: the no-notes teaching group performed as well on the test as the group that engaged in retrieval practices without teaching. And the scripted teaching group barely outperformed the control group.
As I've said here before: prepared oral advocates learn, deeply, then teach, and learn more deeply for having taught.
Pull the notes, and the learning is richer and deeper.
Thursday, September 27, 2018
Margaret Hannon, guest blogger, Clinical Assistant Professor of Law, University of Michigan Law School
Storytelling is an integral part of a lawyer’s work, particularly for appellate lawyers. One critical aspect of effective storytelling is structure—and when it comes to structuring an effective story, lawyers can learn a little something from screenwriters.
In Teresa Bruce’s forthcoming article in the Journal of Legal Writing Institute, The Architecture of Drama: How Lawyers Can Use Screenwriting Techniques to Tell More Compelling Stories, Professor Bruce proposes that “lawyers build their stories in the same way Hollywood writers do.” Just as screenwriters follow a formula, lawyers should do the same: as IRAC is to argument sections, SCOR is to fact sections.
Professor Bruce’s article builds on existing storytelling literature, which approaches narrative theory from several different perspectives. The structural perspective uses a pragmatic or pedagogical approach, arguing that “[a] large part of telling an effective story is the order in which the reader presents information.”[i] Scholars in this area argue that an effective story structure helps judges and juries understand and remember information, and the story that flows most logically will be the story that seems most probable. As a result, good story structure can increase a client’s chance of winning.
Professor Bruce’s article takes the structural approach to narrative theory a step further by introducing the SCOR structure. Many lawyers will be familiar with the writing stages identified by Professor Betty Flowers: Madman, Architect, Carpenter, Judge. The Architect stage is where writers focus on “large, organizational, paragraph-level thinking.” The SCOR template gives writers a “flexible, generally applicable template they can use each time they tackle a new case.” This enables “lawyers to skip the Architecture stage entirely when writing a facts section (as IRAC enables them to do when writing an argument section).” Ultimately, Professor Bruce’s hope is that using SCOR will make it easier for lawyers to write their clients’ stories more coherently, which will result in clearer, more compelling, and more convincing stories.
So, what is SCOR? To explain SCOR, Professor Bruce begins with the classic three-act story structure, “the basis of Western storytelling.” Act I, the Setup, establishes the protagonist’s “status quo.” Act II, the Confrontation, breaks the status quo and takes the protagonist on a journey to a point of climax. Act III, the Resolution, introduces the protagonist’s “new normal” and resolves any unanswered questions. Taking this basic story structure a step further, advanced story structure builds additional milestones into each act to create an overarching “story arc” that provides “rising tension throughout the first and second acts and falling tension during the third.” Professor Bruce illustrates both the basic and advanced story structure through a classic movie, The Wizard of Oz.
Professor Bruce then translates this traditional formula into legal writing: Setup, Confrontation, Outcome, Resolution, or SCOR. As in advanced screenwriting, within each act, additional milestones help to give the story added structure and keep audience members engaged.
First, the Setup, Act I, humanizes the client by establishing the client’s life and status quo before the “bad event” of the litigation. Second, the Confrontation, Act II, is the “meat” of the story—it introduces the client’s antagonist and sets out the pivotal (i.e. outcome-determinative) facts. While the opposing party will often be the antagonist, for some clients, the antagonist will be subtler. For example, for less-sympathetic clients, the antagonist might be “mental-health problems, addiction, childhood trauma, or poverty.”
The third and fourth components of the story are the Outcome and the Resolution, Act III. The Outcome is “the end of the protagonist’s quest,” while the Resolution is “where the audience gets closure.” This is the most difficult section for legal writers because a “lawyer cannot simply resolve her client’s story . . . the way a screenwriter can.” Instead, the lawyer may invite closure by inviting “the judge or the jury to resolve the storyline in a way that favors the client.”
To illustrate how this structure works and why it is effective, Professor Bruce uses the statement of facts in the Petition for Certiorari in Miranda v. Arizona. This statement of facts helps illustrate the SCOR structure, but also shows how the structure “can work even for a largely unsympathetic defendant, one who has been convicted of a violent crime.” In addition, Professor Bruce points out that other landmark briefs use a similar story structure.
I encourage practitioners, legal writing professors, and law students to read Professor Bruce’s article. In the article, she provides a more in-depth discussion of advanced storytelling structure, including the milestones within each act. SCOR provides a practical, accessible, and memorable way to help lawyers incorporate storytelling into their legal writing. And if lawyers can make their clients’ stories more accessible to their audiences, those stories will hopefully also be clearer, more compelling, and more convincing.
Special thanks to Alison Doyle for her help with this blog post.
[i] Brian J. Foley & Ruth Anne Robbins, Fiction 101: A Primer for Lawyers on How to Use Fiction Writing Techniques to Write Persuasive Fact Sections, 32 Rutgers L.J. 459, 475 (2001).
September 27, 2018 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, Film, Law School, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Moot Court, Oral Argument, State Appeals Courts, Television, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)
Thursday, August 2, 2018
Ruth Anne Robbins, Distinguished Clinical Professor of Law, Rutgers Law School
Dr. J. Christopher Rideout, at Seattle School of Law wants lawyers to appreciate the elements of narrative plausibility (colloquially: story believability). The believability quotient is affected by whether the proffered story’s structure bears up in its consistency and completeness, and whether the story's substance jibes with the audience's experiences and lessons learned from those experiences. In his Journal of Legal Writing article Storytelling, Narrative Rationality, and Legal Persuasion, Rideout explains that his understanding of what persuades in law has shifted from one grounded primarily in rhetorical models of persuasion to now include narrative models as well.
To be persuasive, a narrative must possess narrative probability and narrative fidelity. Narrative probability is formalistic, in that it is structural. It involves two elements: coherence and correspondence. Narrative fidelity, in contrast, is substantive, focusing on the content. The bulk of rhetorician’s work on the persuasive structure of narratives has focused on the structural features. The way in which a story is told influences its credibility. “regardless of the actual truth status of the story.”
Narrative coherence refers to the way the parts of the story fits together. The story structure should have a cause and effect flow. Having that cause and effect flow makes a story feel feasible—thus, the story that is presented most coherently will be the story that feels the most probable. To be coherent, a story must also be complete—that it contains all of the expected parts of a story. While the audience may be able to fill in some of the elements with inferences, a story that is too incomplete will appear to have logical gaps.
Narrative correspondence. the second formal (structural) requirement, lines up what the audience believes typically happens in the world. As story consumers we are always comparing the story being told with how we have experienced our world’s physical properties or within the audience’s mental storehouse of social knowledge. A story that contradicts the audience’s understandings of how things work will lack plausibility. While the story need not conform precisely to the most-common-flow in a given situation, it must be congruent to how humans react in given situations.
Dr. Rideout spends the second half of the article working through his suggestion that when competing legal narratives have equally compelling story probability, the substantive concept of narrative fidelity may tip the persuasion scales. Narrative fidelity may feel like narrative correspondence but is not structural in nature. The story must present good reasons for belief or action. It must fit with the social norms of the setting and moment in time. Fidelity goes beyond formal inferences to include what one rhetorician terms “communal validity.” The story should have a “tug” to it because it appeals to our lived experiences and the values derived therefrom. Stories that win, do so for the logical construct but also for the substantive fit.
 W. Lance Bennett & Martha S. Feldman, Reconstructing Reality in the Courtroom: Justice and Judgement in American Culture, 89 (Rutgers Univ. Press 1981).
 Robert Burns, A Theory of the Trial, 217 (Princeton Univ. Press 1999).
Thursday, July 19, 2018
Ruth Anne Robbins, Distinguished Clinical Professor of Law, Rutgers Law School
Dr. Joan Magat, a law professor at Duke, wants you to know that hyphens matter, and they are too often underused. For years she has tried to convince the editors at Legal Communication & Rhetoric: JALWD that the phrase should be “legal-writing document” rather than “legal writing document.” And that lawyers who work with clients who have been charged with crimes are “criminal-defense attorneys,” rather than “criminal defense attorneys.” The latter isn’t distinguishable from someone trying to describe one of those specialists who themself was convicted of a crime. That lawyer would be a “criminal defense attorney.” See the problem? Although she often finds herself on the losing side of these battles, Joan Magat isn’t wrong.
Her 2014 article, Hawing Hyphens in Compound Modifiers explains as it proves her point. Although she thanked and dedicated the article to her fellow-editor colleagues, its brevity and clarity offers an argument for all lawyers.
The base rule is easy to remember: compound adjectival-modifiers preceding a noun should be hyphenated. It easy to apply it consistently. Exception exist for phrases in italics, quotes, and proper nouns. Yet, to Professor Magat’s woe, too often writers omit the hyphen, mimicking some of the familiar-but-unhyphenated phrases like “high school student” or “sales tax increase.” She rejects the entries in The New York Times Manual on Style and U.S. Government Printing Office’s Manual of Style, both of which advise against hyphens when the meaning is clear without them. It is up to the writer to determine what might be clear or unclear to the reader. The MLA Style Manual, in contrast, takes the opposite approach and instead requires hyphens to prevent a misreading. Only commonly unhyphenated phrases are excepted. There is much less guesswork involved.
Dr. Magat parses “pointless” from “helpful,” and shrugs off the critique that unexpected hyphens will distract readers. She pushes back, saying that hyphens are unlike scare quotes, exclamation points, or em-dashes used to excess. Rather, the hyphen smooths the way for readers because at times it can become difficult to tell what’s the noun and what’s the modifier. Think about the phrase “common law practice” for a moment. What is that? It could be one of two things. A hyphen could clear it up.
The article ends with a lovely appendix, providing advice about hyphenating compound modifiers. For that alone, the article is worth the thirty-second download time.