Sunday, July 18, 2021
This month marks 80 years since Robert H. Jackson took the bench as a U.S. Supreme Court justice. Students of the Court remember him as one of the most elegant writers to grace the pages of U.S. Reports. Jackson also notably took a leave of absence from the Court to serve as chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crimes trial, an extracurricular activity that generated some controversy.
His service on the Court and at Nuremberg overshadows contemporary memory of his earlier service both as Attorney General and as Solicitor General. It was in the latter role, as an advocate before the Court on which he would eventually sit, that caused no less a luminary than Justice Louis Brandeis to suggest that Jackson should serve as Solicitor General for life.
Yet, despite such high praise, Jackson, at the time newly a justice, famously wrote a 1951 article on oral advocacy that expressed doubt about his effectiveness as an advocate. In it, he revealed that he composed three arguments each time he went before the bench. The first argument anticipated a well-planned presentation designed to hit all the critical points needed to prevail and was, of course, presented in an inexorably logical order. The second one did not match the care taken to construct the first one, because it was the argument actually made in court. Jackson described that argument as “interrupted, incoherent, disjointed, disappointing.” The third argument was the “utterly devastating argument that I thought of after going to bed that night.” In other words, the one he felt he should have made.
Even with his experience, Jackson was at a loss on how to avoid the disruption caused by justices “much given to interrogation.” Although the hot bench familiar to him was markedly cooler than that of today’s Supreme Court, a flurry of inquiries on topics outside the flow of his intended argument induced Jackson to adopt a categorical opposition to splitting an argument with a co-counsel.
He explained his position was a product of experience in a case where he was supposed to cover the statute in question while his co-counsel focused upon the regulatory scheme of the agency that employed him. When he rose to speak, the justices peppered him with questions about the regulations. He had not prepared that part of the case and had not anticipated that the case could turn on it. By the time his co-counsel took over, the Court had exhausted their interest in the regulations and now proceeded to ask about the statute. The planned presentation was rendered asunder.
Much of Jackson’s advice seems like an artifact of an earlier era. He repeatedly advises that the facts bear careful and scrupulous description and yet warns that a factual description that attempts to reargue findings of fact or a verdict will be met with “embarrassing judicial impatience.” He also suggests that an advocate should not assume that the panel is familiar with the statute at issue. Modern practice, in contrast, safely presumes that the judges have read the briefs, understand the facts, and the applicable statute, even if argument must focus on some aspect that determines the question presented. Jackson also warns that defeat can be snapped from the jaws of victory in rebuttal, suggesting that the “most experienced advocates make least use of the privilege.” That advice seems too uncompromising. While there are times that waiver of rebuttal makes good sense, experienced advocates often make productive use of that opportunity.
While some of Jackson’s advice appears dated and tied to a different era of oral advocacy, other points confirm that some things never change. Tying your argument to a judge’s extrajudicial writings or speeches, Jackson says, “is a matter of taste,” but usually “bad taste.” He denounces memorized orations, brief-reading, and rambling discourses as inappropriate.
Consistent with the most common advice an oral advocate receives, Jackson emphasizes comprehensive preparation. Knowing the facts, the cases, the context, and the flow of relevant doctrine is a given. Opening with a clear presentation of why the facts or law or a combination of the two inexorably lead to a favorable decision sets the stage for the questions that will likely follow. You want those questions to play to your strengths and to set the stage so that the bench poses difficult questions that exposes weaknesses in the contrary argument being made by an opponent.
Jackson also recognizes that questions from the bench may appear hostile to an advocate’s position. He warns against adopting that assumption, though, because the questions may seek to do nothing more than sharpen the advocate’s position.
A court of last resort will have a consistent group of judges over a significant period of time. Much like the U.S. Supreme Court of today, there may be some fissures that sharply divide the justices. Jackson acknowledges that this will often present a dilemma to an advocate. It apparently did to him. For that reason, he states plainly that he has no advice and suggests reliance on wit.
Jackson’s article amounts to something from a time capsule, undoubtedly presenting a thoughtful and practical introduction to oral advocacy as it was practiced at the highest levels of his day. And, while some aspects of oral advocacy remain the same, others have changed significantly. One thing has not. Jackson ends his article with a parable about three stone masons asked about what they were doing. The first responds that he is doing a job. A second explains that he is carving a pattern. The third indicates he is making a cathedral. He closes by saying that “it lifts up the judge’s heart when an advocate stands at the bar who knows he is building a Cathedral.” Successful advocacy forms the facts and law into a work of architecture. It did so then and does so now.
 Robert H. Jackson, Advocacy before the Supreme Court: Suggestions for Effective Case Presentations, 37 A.B.A J. 801 (1951).
Wednesday, July 7, 2021
A few months ago I found myself drafting a motion for rehearing in an appeal that I had thought would be a fairly easy win for my client. It involved the interpretation of an easement, and there were three strong reasons why the trial court's rulings should have been reversed. The court had denied the requests for oral argument and a new justice issued an opinion that went in a direction neither party really argued.
As I was drafting the motion for rehearing, I asked myself (as I always do when drafting such a motion) where things had gone wrong. The court's opinion was based on what I considered to be dangerously flawed presumptions about provisions that were fairly standard, and that would cause significant problems in the industry if they were interpreted in this new way. If only the court had granted oral argument, and they had telegraphed their understanding, I could have addressed the issue then.
Unfortunately, while oral argument on appeal is considered to be very important to advocates, it is increasingly disfavored by courts. The courts have grown weary of poor presentations that waste a considerable amount of time, and ultimately provide little value. As such, oral arguments are being denied in many courts and cases submitted entirely on the briefs.
The problem with this is that, when done well, oral argument can explore and test arguments in ways that are difficult to test by the briefing alone. We need to convince the courts that it is worth their time again.
This second edition of Point Well Made: Persuasive Oral Advocacy, a practice guide for new and old advocates alike, could go far in helping courts see the value of oral argument again. New lawyers can pick up the book and find simple checklists and guidelines that will help them learn how to properly craft and present their arguments. Seasoned attorneys will find reminders and new tips on remote argument that will keep them updated and current on both thinking and style. And if the practitioners follow this advice, the courts may find oral argument helpful again.
Point Well Made begins with a short primer on rhetoric and them moves straight into audience analysis. New practitioners in particular will find value in acquainting themselves with the mindset and concerns of their judges and justices. Old practitioners may need the reminder that our justices have needs that should be met as the focus of the argument, not just a side-effect.
The book then provides a step-by-step checklist, with examples, of how to prepare the argument (with attention paid to theme development, story telling, and how to handle the law), how to handle questions, and how to draft the argument outline and "script." Both the guidance on how to craft the argument and how to handle questions from different "types" of justices are very valuable to new practitioners.
The authors also provide guidance on verbal and non-verbal communication skills to employ and refine in presenting the argument. They start with the six most common body language errors, then proceed to provide practical advice on how to overcome those errors and avoid others. Thankfully, they recognize that "one size does not fit all" when it comes to body language, and recommend instead variations of stances and techniques that each speaker can try out themselves to develop their own style.
The authors end this second edition with a detailed discussion of the "new normal" of remote argument. I wish I had been given this guidance at the beginning of my time in quarantine. During quarantine (and since) I argued motions via Zoom, participated in a Zoom trial, and have had oral arguments via Zoom. As a result, I learned many of the lessons presented in the book regarding camera placement, lighting, and so on by trial and error. But even with that experience, I found many of the remote argument tips to be helpful and plan on employing them in my next remote argument, particularly with regard to vocal inflection and ramping up intensity, since we tend to appear more "flat" on remote viewing.
Finally, the authors have included appendices with useful checklists for each topical chapter, as well as short exercises to implement the concepts. Practitioners and students alike will find these short exercises to be helpful in driving home the points taught.
As an appellate specialist who also coaches moot court, I wince a bit each time a justice sitting as a volunteer on a moot court panel comments on how much better prepared and practiced the students are than the majority of the "real" lawyers who appear before them in court. If more practitioners read and applied the lessons in Point Well Made, perhaps I would hear that criticism less often, and perhaps the courts would be willing to hear more oral arguments again.
(Image credit: A lithograph from Honore Daumier, Les Gens de Justice, 1845.)
Friday, July 2, 2021
Persuading other people to adopt your point of view, whether in a courtroom, a faculty meeting, a debate, or any other context, depends on how you deliver your argument. Below are tips to maximize the persuasive value of an argument.
1. Persuasion is about perception
In many instances, people do not decide whether to accept a particular argument based on facts or science. Rather, their decision is based on their perception of you. And that perception will be influenced substantially by how you deliver your argument. The most important aspect of that delivery is confidence. If you appear confident, the audience will be more likely to agree with you, regardless of contrary facts or evidence.
Simply put, confidence is everything.
Confident advocates take a stand and are bold.
They are unequivocal.
They never get flustered.
They never act surprised.
They never say “um,” or, “I think,” or, “I’m not entirely sure.”
When they receive hostile questions, they react by stating, “I’m really glad that you asked that question.”
In short, if you win the battle of perception, you also likely win the war of persuasion.
2. Make your audience initially agree with you by connecting your argument to commonly accepted values
To win an argument at the end, you have to win at the beginning. And winning at the beginning means connecting your argument to broader values upon which nearly all people can agree. If people agree with the broader values underlying your argument, they will be more likely to accept the specific aspects of that argument. Consider the following examples of two hypothetical lawyers arguing that the First Amendment protects “hate speech”:
The First Amendment protects hate speech because the Founders believed that the right to free speech was essential to liberty and democracy. As a result, offensive, distasteful, and unpopular ideas must be tolerated to ensure that a true marketplace of ideas exists and that people are not threatened by government censorship. Therefore, hate speech, however one might define such speech, must be tolerated.
Ok, whatever. Now consider this example:
Speech that degrades, denigrates, and demeans other people can be terribly hurtful. I’m sure that we can all recall a moment in our lives when another person said something demeaning to us and remember the pain that it caused. And I’m sure we wish that all people realized the harm that words can cause and respected the dignity of every human being. At the same time, most people don’t want the government to become the speech police. They don’t want the government to arbitrarily decide what speech is considered “hate speech,” and what speech is not, thus giving it the power to censor whatever ideas it deems unpopular. If the government had that power, liberty, autonomy, and democracy would be threatened. For these reasons, as much as we may despise those who degrade, denigrate, and demean others, the answer is to fight back by using our free speech rights, not to give the government carte blanche to dictate what we can and cannot say.
The second example appeals to values that most reasonable people accept and view as essential to a free society. And when they agree with these broader values, they are likely to accept the argument that hate speech must receive First Amendment protection.
Simply put, if they agree with you at the beginning, they are more likely to agree with you at the end.
3. It’s ok to be a little unprofessional in the right circumstances
Advocates who are authentic, likable, relatable, and passionate are more likely to sway an audience. And in some instances, authenticity means ‘being real’ and dispensing with formalities when making an argument. In short, sometimes it’s ok to be a little unprofessional. Why? Because it conveys your passion. It shows that you believe in your argument.
Consider the following examples involving two hypothetical appellate advocates who are arguing to the New Jersey Supreme Court the issue of whether defense counsel's performance at trial violated the Sixth Amendment:
In Strickland v. Washington, the United States Supreme Court held that a Sixth Amendment violation occurs where counsel’s performance is negligent and where such negligence results in prejudice, meaning that, but for counsel’s negligence, the outcome of the trial would have been different. This case is a perfect example of ineffective assistance of counsel. Counsel slept during parts of the trial. Counsel admitted to having a cocaine addiction and to being an alcoholic. Yet, the appellate court held that this conduct was harmless error because my client confessed to the crime. Now my client will be incarcerated for twenty-five years for voluntary manslaughter. This decision was erroneous and should be reversed.
Yeah, right. Based on that argument, the appellate court’s decision isn’t going to be reversed. Now consider this example:
My client was represented by counsel who, during the trial, was addicted to and snorting cocaine. He was represented by counsel who smelled of alcohol. And due to the hangovers caused by his frequent cocaine and alcohol binges, counsel fell asleep during the trial, including during the prosecution’s examination of critical witnesses. It should come as no surprise that anyone represented by a drug-addicted, alcoholic, and sleeping lawyer would be convicted. But it should come as a shock that such a conviction would be upheld on appeal. The appellate court didn’t give a shit about this blatant denial of due process. The appellate court didn’t give a shit about the drugs, the booze, and the frequent naps during the trial. To the court, this was harmless error. If that is harmless, it’s difficult to know what would be harmful.
The second example is real. It is raw. It is authentic.
Of course, being a little unprofessional doesn’t give you a license to be a jerk. Never be disrespectful or attack personally your adversary or the lower court. And keep the four-letter words to a minimum. But there are instances in which your passion and authenticity can be best expressed by dispensing with the formalities and being real.
4. Reframe your opponent’s argument
Don’t allow your opponents to frame issues on their terms. Reframe the issues to support your argument and reinforce the commonly accepted values on which they are based. For example, consider the above example regarding ineffective assistance of counsel and how the hypothetical attorney in Example 2 reframes the argument to appeal to basic and commonly accepted values.
The state acknowledges that defense counsel had a drug and alcohol problem and that defense counsel slept during portions of the trial. But that is not the relevant inquiry. The question is whether defense counsel’s performance prejudiced the defendant, such that the outcome of the trial would have been different had counsel performed differently. The answer to that question is no. The conviction should be affirmed.
The state is asking this court to hold that the Sixth Amendment is not violated when defense counsel snorted cocaine during the trial. The state is asking this court to hold that the Sixth Amendment is not violated when defense counsel is an alcoholic. The state is asking this court to hold that the Sixth Amendment is not violated when defense counsel falls asleep during a trial and renders the defendant helpless in the legal process. The state is asking this court to hold that attorneys who are addicted to cocaine and alcohol, and who decide to sleep rather than aggressively advocate for their clients, satisfies the Sixth Amendment’s promise of effective assistance of counsel. To accept the state’s argument is to say that the Sixth Amendment has no meaning whatsoever.
Yikes. I wouldn’t want to be a justice on the New Jersey Supreme Court in such a case.
5. Explain with specificity why your position is good policy and will lead to fair and just results
It’s not sufficient that your proposed rule or policy is workable based on the facts of a specific case. The most persuasive arguments demonstrate that such a rule or policy would be workable, fair, and just in future cases and in a variety of contexts.
To achieve this objective, you should do three things. First, make sure that your position is supported by facts and empirical data. Second, acknowledge weaknesses in your position and explain how your rule or proposal addresses such weaknesses and leads to just results. Third, to demonstrate its efficacy and fairness, give hypothetical examples explaining how your rule or proposal would be applied in other contexts.
After all, facts don’t always win arguments.
The law doesn’t always win arguments.
Be confident. Be authentic.
Saturday, June 26, 2021
Often, students and practitioners ask for me book recommendations on appellate advocacy. Like many, I am a fan of Bryan Garner’s works and of anything by Judge Ruggero J. Aldisert. Recently, Professors Daniel P. Selmi and Rebecca A. Delfino, colleagues of mine when I was teaching at Loyola Law School Los Angeles, published the Second Edition of Principles of Appellate Advocacy with Wolters Kluwer (Aspen). The book is aimed at law students, but its straightforward organization and direct examples will help students and newer practitioners alike. I will definitely be recommending Principles of Appellate Advocacy in the future.
Delfino explained she found the first edition of the book when she needed a legal writing and appellate advocacy text that would not “overwhelm students with a disparate mixture of rules, arcane procedural requirements, and multiple writing instructions.” She also: “didn’t want to use a dense case book, a workbook of exercises, or seminar materials full of platitudes or hacks geared to practitioners. Instead, I wanted something practical, concise, and accessible written by someone who knows the law student audience.” Delfino found Selmi’s first edition easily manageable for students, with instructions “laser-focused on appellate brief-writing.”
In the second edition, Selmi and Delfino, now a co-author, have retained the comfortable length and approachability of the book. The second edition is only 166 pages before the samples and problems. While full of excellent concrete examples, the text flows easily and invites students to stay engaged with clear and direct writing. Just like a good brief, the book has a very helpful Table of Contents and keeps the focus on explaining why each proposed writing technique matters.
Delfino explained the main changes to the second edition came from student and colleague feedback. Selmi and Delfino added more information on standards of review, appealable error, and preservation of issues for appeal. They also included new exercises to stress the “rules for writing discussed in the text and [provide] practice revision and editing techniques.” Finally, they added a helpful video on oral argument and a sample syllabus.
I especially liked Chapter 10, “Basic Writing and Other Mechanics.” As the authors aptly explain, good writing “is not a matter of ‘style’” but of following key principles. Principles of Appellate Advocacy provides ten areas of focus for the best legal writing, such as manageable sentence and paragraph length and effective topic sentences. The book also has great examples, some in understandable diagram form, of the dreaded passive voice and nominalizations my students use sometimes.
As the authors note in the Introduction, “Appellate brief writing is a time-intensive exercise” and a “course in appellate advocacy undoubtedly will take more of students’ time than they estimate.” But the new edition of Principles of Appellate Advocacy will help students and newer practitioners get to winning briefs more quickly and easily.
Sunday, June 13, 2021
Moot Court is an important class in law school because it teaches students the skills necessary to be effective appellate advocates. Below are five rules that moot court students – and practicing appellate advocates – should follow when arguing before an appellate court.
1. Start strong
First, begin with a powerful opening sentence that captures the court’s attention. Of course, don’t be too general or overly dramatic. Instead, ask yourself how you would describe in one sentence why you should win. The answer should be your opening sentence.
Second, use the Rule of Three. After your opening sentence, immediately and concisely provide the court with three reasons supporting the outcome you seek. Be sure that they are clearly delineated and supported by the record and relevant law.
Third, tell the court what remedy that you are seeking and the rule you would like the court to adopt. The court needs to know what you want and why giving you what you want would result in a workable rule that can be applied fairly and consistently to future cases. Put simply, the beginning of your argument is a roadmap for the court to follow that will lead to a ruling in your favor.
Consider the following examples by attorneys who are appealing a district court’s decision to dismiss via summary judgment their client’s defamation case on the ground that the alleged defamatory statements were constitutionally protected opinion:
May it please the court. The First Amendment is sacrosanct in our society. Ensuring a robust marketplace of ideas is essential to a democratic society. To that end, unpopular ideas are protected from government censure and even the most distasteful comments warrant First Amendment protection. But sometimes, people cross the line and say things that neither the First Amendment nor common decency should countenance. The founders did not intend for any speech, no matter how harmful, to receive First Amendment protection, as the United States Supreme Court has recognized in cases like Miller v. California and Brandenburg v. Ohio. This is one of those cases. The harm caused to my client by the statements made against him is actionable under federal law.
What nonsense. If I was the client and listened to this opening, I would cringe and possibly run out of the courtroom. Now consider this example:
May it please the court. The appellee’s statement implied underlying false facts, was defamatory as a matter of law, and caused severe reputational harm. First, the statement that my client was “a disgusting person and attorney who would lie to any client to make money,” implied that my client was an incompetent and unethical lawyer. Under United States Supreme Court jurisprudence, these statements are actionable and defamatory. Second, the statement is verifiably false. As demonstrated in the over fifty reviews by former clients, my client's inclusion in the Best Lawyers in America for the past ten years, and his selection as the Lawyer of the Year last year, the statement is untrue. Third, the statement has subjected my client to harm and ridicule in the community. Several clients have fired him. Many have sent him offensive emails. He has been suspended from the State Ethics Committee on which he served. For these reasons, we respectfully request that this court overturn the district court’s grant of summary judgment by applying the well-settled principle that opinions implying underlying facts can – and often are – defamatory.
The difference should be obvious.
2. Answer the judges’ questions.
Perhaps the most important part of an oral argument at the appellate level is the judges’ questions. Those questions provide insight into, for example, concerns the judges may have about one or more of your arguments or the rule that you would like them to adopt. They are also an opportunity – indeed the best opportunity – to make your case to the judges.
To do so, you should follow two basic rules. First, answer the questions directly. Do not try to avoid them or give answers that may sound persuasive but that aren't responsive. You are a lawyer, not a politician. If you give evasive answers, you will lose credibility with the judges. You will show that you lack effective responses to the judges' concerns. And that will undermine the strength of your argument. Thus, be sure to answer the questions directly. Those answers may require you to acknowledge weaknesses in your case, such as unfavorable facts or law. Who cares. The best attorneys concede these points and explain why they do not affect the outcome they seek.
Second, the best attorneys pivot seamlessly from the question back to their argument and thus continue the argument with excellent organization and flow. Consider the following examples:
Judge: Counselor, as bad as this statement may seem, stating that someone is a ‘disgusting person’ is pure opinion. If we accepted your argument, almost any statement could be construed as asserting an underlying fact, thus compromising core First Amendment values. So where would you draw the line or, to put it differently, what criteria would you use to distinguish between pure opinions and those that imply underlying facts?
Attorney: Well, the real issue here is about the harm. My client’s reputation has been severely and, perhaps, irreparably harmed by this statement. And the record amply supports that fact. So, the technical distinction between pure opinions and opinions implying underlying facts is really just an argument about semantics.
Judge: Let me try this one more time. What criteria would you use to distinguish pure opinions from opinions implying underlying facts?
Attorney: With all due respect your honor, that is not the question in this case. The question is whether my client was defamed. The answer is yes.
That is simply terrible. Now consider this example.
Judge: Counselor, as bad as these statements may seem, stating that someone is a ‘disgusting person’ is pure opinion. If we accepted your argument, almost any statement could be construed as asserting an underlying fact, thus compromising core First Amendment values. So where would you draw the line or, to put it differently, what criteria would you use to distinguish between pure opinions and those that imply underlying facts?
Attorney: The distinction is verifiability. Pure opinions cannot be proven to be factually false. For example, if a person says, “the New York Yankees are a bad team,” that would be a pure opinion because what one considers ‘bad’ is subjective. But if a person said, “The New York Yankees are only a good team because of the stuff their players take to enhance their performance,” that would be an opinion that implies underlying facts because it can be proven that the players do not take performance-enhancing substances. In this case, the appellee did not simply say that my client was a ‘disgusting person.’ He said that he was a ‘disgusting person and attorney who would lie to any client to make money.' We can verify, through affidavits and sworn testimony, that he never lied to a single client about any matter pertaining directly or indirectly to their representation. And that is why the rule we ask this court to adopt is neither novel nor unworkable. We simply ask that you apply well-settled precedent stating that opinions implying underlying false facts can be defamatory. Indeed, in this case, they most certainly were defamatory.
Again, the difference should be obvious.
3. Have a conversation with the court
During an oral argument, you should be yourself and have a conversation, not a confrontation, with the court. The judges are not your enemies. They are simply trying to reach the fairest outcome that is consistent with the law and justified by the facts. Thus, you should be friendly and respectful, realizing that, as an advocate and as an officer of the court, your responsibility is to help the judges reach the best result while remaining faithful to your client’s objectives.
The best way to do this is to provide the court with a practical and workable legal rule that can be applied fairly and consistently to future cases. Remember that appellate judges are not focused exclusively or even primarily on your client. They are focused on whether the outcome they reach and the rule they adopt will provide workable and just in future cases, both as a matter of law and policy. For this reason, the best appellate lawyers advocate fiercely on their clients' behalf but also propose legal rules that the court believes will provide clarity, fairness, consistency, and predictability in future cases.
4. Don’t screw up on the basic aspects of appellate practice
Never make the basic mistakes, namely, the ‘red flag’ errors that undermine your credibility and your case. For example:
- Know the record
- Know the law (and please make sure your legal authority remains valid law)
- Know the standard of review
- Write an outstanding – and concise – appellate brief and remember that the brief is more important than the oral argument
- Never be disrespectful to the lower or appellate court, or the adversary
- Follow the federal or state rules, and the local rules
- Don’t make weak arguments
- Cite cases and other authority
- Know the difference between binding and persuasive authority
- Have realistic expectations and communicate those expectations to your client
- Don’t use notes at oral argument
- Be honest
- Don’t be a jerk
This list is certainly not exhaustive. But if you violate one of these rules, your chances of winning will be compromised – as will your reputation.
5. Have a short list of ‘non-negotiable’ legal arguments
It’s difficult to predict what will happen in an oral argument. Some appellate panels ask many questions, which is known as a ‘hot’ bench. Some ask few questions. Sometimes, the judges raise issues that you don't expect or ask questions that you have difficulty answering. Regardless of what happens at an oral argument, you should always have a list in your mind of the arguments that are so essential that you must communicate them to the court, no matter what the direction or focus of the argument.
And remember, there are some things that cannot be taught or that require significant practice. Those are a lawyer's: (1) charisma; (2) personality; and (3) persuasiveness. The best appellate advocates have all three.
Saturday, June 5, 2021
Winning an argument depends in substantial part on effectively using strategies to maximize your argument’s persuasive and logical force, expose weaknesses in your adversary’s argument, and convince the audience to adopt your position. Below are tips that will enhance your chances of winning an argument in many contexts, such as in court, at a debate, or in a negotiation.
1. Require that your adversary define relevant terms with specificity.
You should always require your adversary to define important terms that are essential to proving or disproving an argument. And you should never engage in or respond to arguments that consist of overly general propositions. For example, imagine the following discussion between two scholars who differ about the extent to which systemic racism and white privilege exists in the United States:
Scholar: Both history and current laws demonstrate that the United States is systemically racist, and that white privilege is pervasive throughout this country. Ultimately, until our society is more diverse and inclusive, we will continue to oppress marginalized populations.
Wow. There is a lot to unpack in that statement.
Importantly, the scholar’s adversary should neither react nor respond to the substance of that statement. Instead, the scholar’s adversary should state as follows:
I certainly agree that racism, inequality, and oppression are antithetical to basic human values. But how do you define and quantify systemic, or institutional, racism? Which specific institutions do you allege are racist? And how do you define and quantify white privilege?
This strategy forces your opponent to be specific and places on your opponent the burden to provide a definition upon which most reasonable people can agree. In so doing, the opponent will likely reveal underlying assumptions or biases in an argument and thus allow you to expose the flaws in whatever definition the adversary provides. At the very least, you will prevent your opponent from relying on unproven generalities and enable yourself to avoid a futile discourse involving statements that may lack an empirical foundation.
2. Expose logical fallacies in your opponent’s argument, especially appeals to authority and emotion.
Logical fallacies undermine many arguments. Two of the most common are the appeals to authority and emotion.
First, many advocates strive to enhance the validity and persuasiveness of an argument by relying upon well-respected sources or unnamed “experts.” Consider the following example:
Any athlete should have the right to kneel for the national anthem and thus exercise their right to free speech. As nearly every justice on the United States Supreme Court has stated, freedom of speech is critical to protecting liberty and democratic values.
This statement represents an appeal to authority. Specifically, the fact that nearly every justice on the Supreme Court may have expressed these sentiments utterly fails to support the argument that any athlete should have the right to kneel for the national anthem. In essence, the person making this statement is saying, “If the justices on the Supreme Court agree with me, the argument must be valid.” Wrong. An argument is valid only if it is based on facts and evidence.
Second, many advocates appeal to the audience’s emotion when striving to maximize an argument’s persuasive value. Consider the following example:
We must resist attempts to abolish the death penalty. A few years ago, my teenage son was brutally murdered by a man who had previously murdered four teenagers. The only way justice will be served is if we hold this man accountable for the atrocities he committed.
This is a tremendously sad story. But it is not a logically valid argument. Whether the death penalty should be abolished depends on facts and data regarding, among other things, whether the death penalty is applied fairly and equitably, and whether it deters crime. The above statement addresses none of these points.
3. Begin your argument with a foundational and well-accepted principle.
To maximize the likelihood that the audience will adopt your position, begin your argument with foundational principles that engender widespread agreement. For example, assume that you are debating whether Georgia’s recently-enacted voter identification law will suppress voter turnout, particularly among minority communities. Consider the following two statements:
Georgia’s voter identification law does not and will not impact voter turnout. And the law isn’t targeted at minority communities. It applies to everyone and enhances election integrity.
Racism and discrimination are intolerable, and equality is a basic principle of democracy and essential to liberty. To that end, we must embrace the core principle that every person, regardless of, among other things, race, ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation, has an equal right to vote and must have equal access to the ballot box. Georgia’s law does not violate this important principle.
Which statement is better? The answer should be obvious – as should the reasons why.
4. Know the statistics. Again, know the statistics.
To win an argument, you must know the relevant statistics and empirical studies that impact the argument’s validity. If you don’t, or if you rely only on statistics and studies that are favorable to you, your argument’s persuasive force vanishes along with your credibility. For example, some scholars have posited, in law review articles and other publications, that implicit bias is a major contributor to ongoing discrimination, marginalization, and oppression in society. In support of this argument, they cite studies allegedly illustrating implicit bias’s pernicious effects.
There is only one problem. Several recent studies have debunked or, at the very least, cast serious doubt upon the relationship between implicit bias and biased behavior. Sadly, very few advocates of implicit bias training have addressed this damaging evidence. This failure renders their arguments unpersuasive and calls into question their objectivity as scholars.
To avoid this mistake, be sure to prepare extensively before any argument by knowing the relevant facts and data, both favorable and unfavorable, that impact your argument. Don’t be afraid to concede bad facts. Instead, explain why they do not affect the outcome you seek and highlight how the statistics favor the position for which you advocate.
After all, facts and statistics are the foundations of powerful arguments.
5. Transition from abstract to concrete arguments.
When making an argument, avoid extensive reliance on abstract principles. Instead, provide concrete evidence and examples that support your argument, and offer a solution or rule that demonstrates your position's practicality and workability. Consider the following example:
The Fourth Amendment should not be construed to allow law enforcement officers to conduct warrantless cell phone searches. Privacy is a bedrock principle in the Constitution and citizens have a right to be free from unreasonable, government-sanctioned intrusions on privacy. Furthermore, law enforcement must not be given the power to encroach upon basic civil liberties and thus place the freedoms of all citizens at risk.
Yeah, whatever. That statement is far too abstract. Consider this example:
Warrantless cell phone searches incident to arrest violate the Fourth Amendment. Unlike searches of closed containers or passenger compartments, a cell phone houses a vast amount of the very papers and effects, such as personal photographs, bank statements and other documents, text and email addresses, and online search history, that the Founders would have afforded the highest Fourth Amendment protection. As such, warrantless searches in this context are unreasonable per se. The Court should thus adopt a rule stating that law enforcement officers must have probable cause and warrant before searching a cell phone incident to arrest.
This statement is far more persuasive because it makes specific points, and proposes a workable and practical rule.
6. Use ‘hidden’ premises in your argument.
Including ‘hidden’ premises in your argument helps to reframe the issue(s) effectively in your favor and increases the likelihood that the audience will agree with your stated premises and conclusion. Additionally, it often presents as accepted or proven precisely the issue(s) that the argument or debate involves. Consider the following example:
The death penalty should be abolished immediately for three reasons. First, the death penalty disproportionately impacts African-American defendants. Second, it is almost certain that innocent people have been executed. Third, the death penalty serves none of the purposes of criminal punishment. Thus, because I am against racial discrimination and inequality, because I do not believe in intentionally murdering innocent civilians, and because I do not support criminal justice policies that have no societal value, the death penalty should be abolished.
This statement is effective because of the ‘hidden’ premises, even though some scholars would disagree with one or more of these assertions. But that is not the point. The point is that all reasonable people are against racial discrimination and inequality. No one believes in “intentionally murdering innocent civilians.” And few would support any policy that has no societal value. By including in your argument widely accepted principles, you increase the likelihood that the audience will accept your argument and adopt your position.
7. Never allow your adversary to characterize you or your argument inaccurately.
Make your adversary work diligently to establish any point that impacts negatively your argument. Put simply, always challenge inferences or assumptions that your adversary makes to undermine your position. Consider the following example:
Professor Smith recently drafted an article claiming that the late Justice Antonin Scalia was an “intellectual giant on the Supreme Court and the author of many extraordinary opinions that respected the Constitution’s text and structure.” Professor Smith’s endorsement of conservative values and a conservative judicial philosophy means that he will support judges who turn a blind eye to progressive values and marginalized populations.
Be sure to call out such nonsense. What Professor Smith said does not even remotely support the proposition that he endorses conservative values and will support judges who “turn a blind eye” to progressive values (whatever that means). Never allow your adversary to get away with such a misrepresentation and never concede more than is necessary to maintain your argument’s credibility.
8. Listen more and talk less.
It’s the quality, not the quantity, that matters. In an argument, never talk too much and dominate the discussion. When you do so, it suggests that you are insecure about the merits of your argument, that you believe your adversary has made compelling points that require an immediate response (which gives your adversary credibility), and that you are so rigidly attached to your argument that alternative perspectives are neither necessary nor welcomed. Unfortunately, that approach undermines your credibility.
Remember, less is more. You should listen calmly and carefully to your adversary’s argument. You should recognize good points that your adversary makes and strive to find areas of agreement. And when you do speak, be sure to make a concise, high-quality, and compelling statement. What does that mean? Get to the point immediately. Start with a powerful theme. Use the Rule of Three. Lead with your strongest points. Use statistics to support your assertions. End powerfully and confidently.
Then, shut up.
The best advocates pick their battles effectively.
9. Never show emotion.
Getting emotional is one of the worst things that you can do in an argument. When you show emotion, such as by being angry, irritated, or offended, it typically means that your adversary is winning the argument and that you are not confident in your position. Consider the following two statements from the captain of an airline to passengers who just flew through severe turbulence in bad weather:
Hi everyone, please do not worry. I know that things were really rough for several minutes, but I will never allow this plane to crash! Let me repeat – I will not let this plane crash, no matter what! I am a veteran of the Air Force and I’m going to fight this weather to the death!
If I were a passenger on this plane, I would immediately believe that the plane was going to crash nose-first into a ditch. Now consider this statement:
Hi folks, sorry about the rough air we just encountered. The plane is fine, of course, and the turbulence we just encountered is pretty common in this part of the country. We’re going to change our altitude as soon as possible to make your flight as comfortable as possible and we don’t expect much rough air for the rest of the flight.
If I were a passenger on this plane, I would feel assured and safe. The difference wasn’t simply the words. It was the measured manner with which the latter statement was delivered.
Simply put, in an argument, be confident. Be calm. Never act surprised by a point your adversary makes or a question that your adversary asks. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t show passion and conviction. You should certainly be your authentic self. But you must avoid the negative reactions and emotional outbursts that invariably raise questions about your credibility and the merits of your argument.
10. Don’t be an a******.
People like others who are nice. They like others who are respectful, friendly, and civil. They like others who are mature. They like others who are honest and genuine. And when people like you, they will be more likely to listen to you and find you credible. Most importantly, when people like you, they are more inclined to adopt your position. After all, people associate with those that they like and respect.
Conversely, people hate jerks. And they know them when they see them. Jerks attack people rather than ideas. Jerks insult others. Jerks always think that they are right and that else is always wrong. Jerks interrupt people when they are speaking. Jerks misrepresent others’ positions. The list goes on and on.
You get the point. Don’t be an a******.
Remember, when you make an argument, people are not just listening to what you say. They are evaluating you.
Tuesday, April 27, 2021
Exigent circumstances have appeared on the Supreme Court’s mind (and docket) frequently in recent months. After hearing arguments on the hot pursuit species of exigent circumstances in February’s Lange v. California (a case I blogged about here), the Court heard arguments concerning the so-called community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement in March’s Caniglia v. Strom. Caniglia gave the Justices plenty to chew on, including whether there is really a separate community caretaking exception or if warrantless entry into a home to check on a resident 's wellbeing is simply another species of exigent circumstances.
That question came into clear focus during Justice Breyer’s questioning of the petitioner’s attorney. Breyer struggled to define the bounds of a distinct community caretaking exception. Nonetheless, he believed some such exception must exist so that officers can respond to protect citizens’ wellbeing even if there is no emergency that requires action immediately. Breyer worried that tying officers hands so they could only warrantlessly react to immediate threats would stop them from responding in slower-burning, yet equally dangerous, circumstances—such as an unattended baby crying in a home for hours.
But limiting officer discretion to act warrantless to only scenarios where a response is required in seconds, rather than minutes, is appropriate in the modern world for two reasons. First, given the speed with which warrants can be obtained today, only traditional species of exigent circumstances—like rendering emergency aid, chasing a fleeing felon, or preventing the imminent destruction of evidence—seem truly necessary. As the Supreme Court has acknowledged, modern electronic warrant procedures allow officers to obtain a warrant in just a few minutes. That is little help when officers must act in a matter of seconds. But the ready availability of warrants undermines arguments for many other categorical exceptions to the warrant requirement, perhaps including community caretaking, when time is less of a limiting factor.
Second, Breyer wrongly implies that officers will fear responding warrantlessly to a slow-burning, community-caretaking style “emergency.” Officers genuinely interested in protecting the community should not be afraid for two reasons. First, even if the officers’ instincts prove incorrect and no community safety threat was present inside the home, there is little chance they will face civil liability. The homeowner is unlikely to file a § 1983 suit given the minimal, if not nominal, damages involved. Even if the homeowner sues, current qualified immunity doctrine provides officers broad protection so long as their actions were not contrary to existing precedent. Second, the officer should hardly be concerned if evidence of a crime that they happen to find inside the home is excluded from a later trial. Such evidence would be an unexpected windfall for an officer genuinely interested in protecting the community from a slow-burning harm. Losing windfall evidence should not concern such well-meaning officers.
If the Court limits exigent circumstances doctrine to genuine emergencies, while at the same time curbing other categorical exceptions to the warrant requirement that seem antiquated in light of the rapid availability of warrants today, it will begin lowering the temperature in many officer-citizen interactions. Both officers and citizens can easily understand and justify a narrow exigent circumstances exception. Everyone sees the benefits of allowing officers to respond to genuine, immediate threats. And if officers have little discretion to act warrantlessly beyond those emergencies, citizens may be less wary of any interaction with officers. Counterintuitively, limiting any community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement may actually help officers care for the communities they police.
 Transcript of Oral Argument at 15-16, Caniglia v. Strom, March 24, 2021, No. 20-157.
 Transcript of Oral Argument at 15-16, Caniglia v. Strom, March 24, 2021, No. 20-157.
 Kentucky v. King, 563 U.S. 452, 460 (2011) (outlining these traditional species of exigent circumstances).
 “[P]olice can often request warrants rather quickly these days. At least 30 States provide for electronic warrant applications. In many States, a police officer can call a judge, convey the necessary information, and be authorized to affix the judge's signature to a warrant. Utah has an e-warrant procedure where a police officer enters information into a system, the system notifies a prosecutor, and upon approval the officer forwards the information to a magistrate, who can electronically return a warrant to the officer. Judges have been known to issue warrants in as little as five minutes. And in one county in Kansas, police officers can e-mail warrant requests to judges' iPads; judges have signed such warrants and e-mailed them back to officers in less than 15 minutes.” Missouri v. McNeely, 569 U.S. 141, 172–73 (2013) (citations and quotations omitted).
Sunday, February 28, 2021
Closing argument is among the most critical parts of a trial, as it provides attorneys with one final opportunity to persuade the jury to rule in their favor. Below are tips to maximize the persuasive value of a closing argument.
Begin with a strong introduction. As with opening statements, the best closing statements begin with a powerful – and memorable – introduction. And the best closing statements repeat, in the introduction, the theme that was used in the opening statement, remind the jury of the strongest facts supporting a verdict for your client, and reinforce the weakest aspects of your adversary’s case.
Repeat the Rule of Three from the opening. In the closing, you should repeat the Rule of Three (i.e., the three strongest reasons supporting a verdict in your favor) that was used in the opening statement and add to the explanation of each point the evidence elicited on direct and cross-examination that supports each of the three points. Simply put, your goal should be to ensure continuity and cohesion throughout the presentation of your case. By following the same structure in your opening and closing (e.g., repeating the theme and rule of three), you simplify the argument for the jury and remind the jury of the strongest points justifying a ruling for your client.
Show emotion and passion. Never deliver your closing argument in a monotone or disinterested manner. Show appropriate emotion. Argue with passion. After all, if you aren’t passionate and emotional about your client’s case, how are you going to persuade the jury to rule in your favor?
Never read the closing. Your goal during the closing should be to relate to the jury. You want the jury to like you and trust you. Thus, speak directly to the jury in an authentic and conversational tone. If you read your closing, you create an artificial – and detrimental – distance between yourself and the jury and, in so doing, you minimize the persuasive value of your arguments. Remember that an excellent closing argument is as much about performance as it is about substance.
Address the weaknesses in your case. Before delivering your closing, put yourself in the shoes of the jurors. What questions would you have about the merits of your case? What weaknesses would you identify? When you identify such questions and weaknesses, address them in the closing. In so doing, you give yourself the opportunity to explain why these weaknesses should not affect the outcome or remedy you seek, and you establish your credibility with the jury.
Discuss the evidence in detail but do so in a manner that tells a story. The best attorneys know how to tell a compelling story at trial. They know how to capture and hold the jury’s attention. They highlight favorable facts and explain away unfavorable facts. And in the closing, the best attorneys use the testimony elicited at trial to complete their story, reinforce the theme and the Rule of Three, and make a passionate case for a ruling in their client's favor. The best attorneys also know what not to do: never merely summarize the evidence. Don’t feel the need to discuss the testimony of every witness. Instead, emphasize and highlight the evidence most favorable to your client and structure your presentation in a manner that compliments your theme (and Rule of Three), and convinces the jury to rule for your client.
Use non-verbal techniques. When delivering your closing, remember that jurors want to see you as a relatable human being who has compassion, decency, and common sense. To establish relatability, you should use strategic movements. For example, move to a different space when discussing each rule of three, even if it is merely a couple of feet. Vary your tone and voice projection. Maintain an open stance, with your feet shoulder-width apart. Use facial expressions and hand gestures to emphasize important points. Your goal is to be authentic, not rehearsed, and convincing, not contrived. And most importantly, be confident, because confidence is everything.
End powerfully. Make your last words your best and most memorable. Your objective is to make sure that the most important points supporting your case stick in the jurors’ memories. Thus, your last sentence or paragraph should impact the jurors’ emotions and sense of justice. It should state with simplicity and uncompromising conviction the reason why you should win. For example, in the O.J. Simpson trial, attorney Johnny Cochran stated, “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” People still remember that line today. And for good reason.
Ultimately, attorneys should remember that a closing argument, like any other aspect of a trial, is a performance. It is not merely a presentation of the evidence and an analysis of the facts. It is a uniquely human endeavor. Thus, your performance, including your likeability, relatability, and authenticity, will matter as much, if not more, than the evidence itself.
Tuesday, February 23, 2021
As the calendar turns to February, the stress of moot court teams preparing for their competitions is palpable in law schools around the country. Students spend countless hours in practices to ensure they are ready on the day of the competition. Often, they spend countless additional hours wallowing in self-doubt over their preparation. Did I do enough to get ready? Have I structured my argument in the most persuasive manor possible? Is practicing more better for me, or should I relax and try to get some rest before the big day?
To those nervous advocates, I offer a simple mantra. Overprepare. Don’t over-rehearse.
By overprepare, I mean that advocates should always strive to be ready for the competition as early as possible. Moot court practice is often psychologically painful. Early practices are invariably embarrassing, as a guest judge is almost certain to ask a question the advocates never considered, catching them flat-footed as they grasp for an answer. But this experience need not feel embarrassing. In fact, it’s the whole point. Practice should expose advocates to as many views of the case as possible, allowing them to feel comfortable that, on the day of the argument, there’s nothing truly unexpected that any questioner can throw at them. The early stumbles are necessary signs of growth. And the earlier they occur, the more likely advocates will be able to adjust their presentation and prepare themselves to answer the difficult questions. Those stressful moments expose the gaps in logic that must be resolved before making an effective argument. Advocates should overprepare by starting early, soliciting challenging views whenever possible, and testing out a litany of analytical approaches while staying in character to see what feels most natural, candid, and convincing.
But advocates should not over-rehearse. There is a fine line between learning how to explain the nuances of the problem and the logical gaps of one’s position and memorizing a stilted script to present to a new group of judges. Advocates must avoid the temptation to generate precisely-phrased responses to each possible question. Often, this leads advocates to fall back on a script during argument. That script builds a wall between the advocate and their audience. It forces the advocate to offer stock, generalized answers to judges’ questions, rather than internalizing the questions, processing their nuances, and offering genuine, original responses that fully addresses the judges’ concerns.
One method to overprepare without over-rehearsing is to catalogue some of the most difficult questions faced in practices, jot them down in a deck of note cards, then mix the deck and practice responding to the questions in random order—no matter where they fall in a planned outline of the issues. This will force advocates to provide original responses to the questions in order to weave their presentation back into the original argument structure. Rather than generating canned responses, the advocate will deepen their neural network around the problem, recognizing the relationships between issues and concepts and learning to tack between them smoothly. That mental pliability is a learned skill, not an innate talent. It takes a great deal of preparation, but it can be mastered by anyone willing to put in the necessary effort. And it cannot be reduced to a scripted series of rehearsed answers.
Advocates often work harder in moot court preparation than they have in almost any other aspect of law school. But concerns about perfection can lead them to work in counter-productive ways. A perfectly-scripted answer is not the goal. Instead, advocates must aim to deepen their understanding of each issue so they can comfortably respond in unique ways to each uniquely nuanced question they face. Overpreparation with that goal in mind, while avoiding over-rehearsing, will lead to an argument performance that will make any nagging moot court coach proud.
Saturday, February 13, 2021
Opening statements are among the most critical aspects of a trial. Indeed, the opening statement provides attorneys with the opportunity to, among other things, make an excellent first impression with the jury, highlight the most favorable facts supporting an attorney's argument, and establish trust and credibility with the jury. Below are tips to maximize the persuasive value of an opening statement.
Begin with a theme. First impressions are critically important, whether it is at a trial, in an interview, or during an audition. For that reason, it is vital to start strong when delivering your opening statement. A powerful beginning, among other things, gets the jury’s attention and establishes your credibility immediately. To ensure that you deliver a persuasive and powerful opening, begin with a theme. A theme is a concise, one-sentence statement that explains what the case is about and, more importantly, why the jury should rule in your favor.
Tell a story. It is critical to tell a compelling and enjoyable story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The story should include vivid details and powerful language concerning, among other things, the characters in your story (e.g., the plaintiff and defendant), and the atmosphere within which the events in question occurred. A compelling story helps to personalize your client, enables the jury to visualize (and thus relate to) the relevant events, and enhances your statement’s emotional impact.
Use the Rule of Three. The best opening statements are well-organized and cohesive. One of the best ways to ensure that your opening statement is structured effectively is to use the Rule of Three. Simply put, the Rule of Three provides the jury with three distinct reasons that support a verdict in your favor – and maximizes the persuasive value of your statement. As one commentator explains:
We humans tend to think in triplets. Three is a good number to wrap our mind around, and we see it in all kinds of instances. We tend to remember points best when given in groups of three, we scan visual elements best when they come in threes, and we like to have three options to consider. Think how often three comes up in our society: three little pigs, three strikes, three doors on ‘Let’s Make a Deal,’ three competitive quotes. It’s a triordered world out there.
In essence, the Rule of Three “creates simplicity, aids recall and makes your job easier.”
Use demonstrative exhibits. During opening statements, demonstrative exhibits can often be a powerful tool to convey important facts and evidence to the jury in a well-structured, clear, and concise manner. Indeed, such exhibits focus the jury’s attention on the strongest facts and evidence supporting your argument, and can make your opening statement more persuasive and engaging, particularly for jurors that prefer visual images to enhance their understanding of the case.
Keep it simple and understandable. Opening statements should always be delivered using simple and easy-to-understand language. Thus, avoid fancy or esoteric words. Eliminate unnecessary legalese. And be sure to explain complex concepts in a clear and straightforward manner. Otherwise, you will likely lose the jury’s attention and fail to communicate your argument persuasively.
Be likeable, relatable, and credible. Likeability is an integral part of persuasive advocacy. Jurors (and judges) will be more inclined to rule in your favor or give you the benefit of the doubt if they like you. To enhance likeability, do not read your opening statement to the jury. Do not use notes. Instead, speak to the jurors in a conversational tone. Make eye contact and engage the jurors. Smile. Be friendly. Do not talk down to the jurors, attack your adversary, or speak in an overtly hostile manner. If the jurors like you, you will gain trust and credibility, both of which are essential to maximizing the persuasive value of your arguments.
Use non-verbal techniques. Non-verbal techniques are an essential part of effective advocacy. Such tecnhniques include, but are not limited to, avoiding speaking in a monotone and overly formalistic way. Instead, vary your tone and pace to emphasize important facts. Show authentic emotion. Use hand gestures and different facial expressions. Do not stand in one place for the entirety of your opening statement. And do not act in any manner that can be perceived as contrived and disingenuous. Effective non-verbal techniques contribute immeasurably to showing the jury that you are a genuine and relatable person -- and increase your openig statement's persuasive impact.
Confront unfavorable facts. Do not avoid facts that are unfavorable to your case. Instead, confront those facts in your opening statement and explain why such facts do not and should not affect the outcome or remedy you seek. If you fail to confront unfavorable facts, you can be certain that your adversary will, and when that happens, your credibility will be undermined substantially.
Avoid including unnecessary or irrelevant facts and explanations. Your opening statement should capture the jury’s attention from the first sentence and keep the jury’s attention until you conclude. To accomplish this, and to maximize persuasive impact, the opening statement must be interesting, engaging, and, at times, captivating. As such, avoid including unnecessary or irrelevant facts and explanations. Make sure that your statement is not too lengthy, unduly repetitive, ineffectively organized, or plain boring. Otherwise, you risk losing the jury’s attention – and your case.
End strong. The end of your opening statement is equally as important as the beginning. Your goal should be to reinforce the theme, maximize emotional impact, and highlight in a memorable way the strongest facts and evidence supporting your argument. Ask yourself, “what is the last and most important thing that I want the jurors to hear before they deliberate?” After all, a poor and unpersuasive ending can affect negatively the manner in which the jurors assess your arguments and, ultimately, diminish significantly your likelihood of success.
 Paul Luvera, “The Importance of a Trial Theme and the Rule of Three” (Jan. 16, 2011), available at: The immportance [sic] of a trial theme&the rule of three – Plaintiff Trial Lawyer Tips (internal citation omitted).
Monday, February 1, 2021
Two weeks ago I blogged that we were close to releasing Volume 21, Issue 1, of The Journal of Appellate Practice and Process. I am pleased to announce that the issue is now online. There are so many wonderful articles in the issue, which I plan to blog on over the next few weeks.
Since I have already written much on online oral arguments, I thought that I would start with the two pieces that discuss that topic. The first, "Remote Oral Arguments in the Age of Coronavirus: A Blip on the Screen or a Permanent Fixture," written by veteran appellate advocate Margaret McGaughey, is a follow-up from her earlier article entitled, "May it Please the Court--Or Not: Appellate Judges' Preferences and Pet Peeves About Oral Argument." In both articles, Ms. McGaughey conducts numerous interviews of state and federal appellate judges and provides their perspectives on the topics. Her interviewees include Justice Stephen Breyer, Judge David Barron (my property professor), Judge Sandra Lunch, Judge Bruce Selya, Judge William Kayatta, Judge Lipez, former Chief Justice Daniel Wathen, Chief Justice Andrew Mean, Justice Catherine Connors, and the late Chief Justice Ralph Gants. She also interviewed several attorneys who have given remote arguments.
The article is full of great tips, including some tips at the end of setting up your space for remote argument. But, there are two things that really stuck with me in reading the article. The first is how well we all adapted. The judges and the advocates have done what has needed to be done to adapt to the situation. They have learned how to use the technology and they have changed how questions are asked and arguments delivered. Some have even changed what they wear to "court." We are all truly in this together, and we have persevered. This leads to the second thing that struck me--while many judges are eager to return to the physical courtroom, things will never be the same. This new style of remote arguments will remain in some form. How frequently it will be used in the future remains to be seen.
The second article on remote arguments is by one of our bloggers--Judge Pierre Bergeron. Judge Bergeron's article, "COVID-19, Zoom, and Appellate Oral Argument: Is the Future Virtual," also contains judges' thoughts about remote argument. What really stands out to me in Judge Bergeron's article, however, is his passionate defense of oral argument in general. He presents a fascinating discussion of the decline of oral argument and how remote arguments can serve to both revitalize oral argument and meet key access to justice concerns. Virtual arguments, he says, could allow courts to create a "pro bono appointment program that would . . . help provide argument at-bats for aspiring appellate lawyers" by matching them with "underprivileged clients who need quality legal representation." He cites to such a program in Arizona. This idea is genius. I could see law school clients jumping on board too.
Hopefully this new year and the vaccine rollout will see some normalcy return to our appellate courts. But, I hope too that we capitalize on all the technological advancements with remote oral argument to increase access to justice and lower costs for clients.
February 1, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Oral Argument, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)
Saturday, December 26, 2020
Law professors, lawyers, and judges have spent countless hours, whether in law review articles, textbooks, at conferences, or in continuing legal education sessions, providing advice regarding legal writing skills, legal analysis, brief-writing, and persuasive advocacy.
Yet, despite this helpful and practical guidance, law students often struggle to develop effective persuasive writing skills. Law graduates – and seasoned lawyers – frequently face criticism of their writing skills, and judges often lament the less-than-persuasive nature of many pleadings, motions, and briefs. And for good reason. Many trial and appellate briefs, for example, lack a cohesive structure, fail to tell a compelling story, lack precision and concision, violate grammatical rules, contain unnecessary repetition and information, and simply fail to convince the reader to rule in favor of the drafter’s argument.
Having said that, for law students and lawyers who seek to immediately and significantly improve the persuasive value of their briefs, there is one strategy that you should adopt from this day forward: The Rule of Three.
The Rule of Three is simple yet incredibly effective. In the Introduction (or Summary of Argument) section of your brief – and throughout your brief -- identify three specific reasons (and only three reasons) supporting the relief or outcome you seek. And state these reasons with specificity, clarity, and conciseness using First…Second…Third…
Here is an example:
Defendant – a well-known tabloid that lacks journalistic integrity – defamed the plaintiff when defendant published an article – to an audience of over one million readers – stating that the plaintiff “was a pathetic attorney who didn’t know the law, preyed on the vulnerabilities of unsuspecting clients, stole their money, engaged in unlawful hiring practices, and repeatedly made inappropriate advances to several clients.”
The defendant’s comments were defamatory for three reasons. First, the defamatory statements are false. Second, the defamatory statements damaged severely the plaintiff’s reputation and standing in the legal community. Third, the defamatory statements caused the plaintiff to suffer substantial, ongoing, and irreversible, harm.
After stating the three reasons supporting the remedy you seek, you should dedicate the next three paragraphs (in the Introduction or Summary of Argument) to relying on the relevant facts or evidence that support each reason. Thus, for example, you should draft one paragraph explaining why the statements were false. Then, you should draft a second paragraph explaining why the statements damaged the plaintiff’s reputation and standing in the legal community. Thereafter, you should draft a paragraph explaining why the plaintiff suffered reputational and economic harm. After that, draft a one-sentence conclusion stating “For these reasons, the defendant’s article was defamatory and thus entitles the plaintiff to damages.” Done.
Also, make sure that your point headings track the three reasons you identify at the outset of your brief. Doing so ensures that your brief will be cohesive, well-organized, and easy to read.
Why is the Rule of Three so effective?
1. The Rule of Three simplifies your arguments
Judges are very busy. They want to know – quickly – what you want and why you should get it. Briefs that confuse judges or make judges struggle to discern your legal arguments damage your credibility and reduce the persuasive value of your brief.
The Rule of Three avoids this problem. It makes it easy for judges to identify your arguments and evaluate the evidence in support of those arguments. As such, the judge will like you for making his or her job easier. The judge will view you as a credible attorney and give you the benefit of the doubt throughout the litigation. And, ultimately, your client will thank you when you win the case.
2. The Rule of Three organizes your arguments
The worst briefs are often those that go on…and on…and on…
The worst briefs read like a rambling manifesto that contains a barrage of loosely related thoughts that are jammed into long paragraphs with no separation of the concepts, arguments, or allegations. In short, it is chaos. It is easier to navigate one’s way out of a forest or maze than it is to navigate the arguments that such briefs present.
The Rule of Three eliminates this problem. It’s quite simple. Say, “First…” and state your argument. Say, “Second…” and state your argument. Say, “Third…” and state your argument. Then, in the next three paragraphs, explain each argument in a separate paragraph – and include each argument as a point heading. Doing so ensures that your arguments will be organized and presented clearly, understandably, and effectively.
3. The Rule of Three appeals to the audience’s cognition and psychology
Let’s face it: listening is hard. Paying attention for a prolonged period is difficult. Remembering what we have heard is often challenging. So how do you draft a brief or make an oral argument that will maintain the audience’s attention and convince the audience to adopt your position?
Studies in social and cognitive psychology demonstrate that people respond positively and attentively to arguments that are delivered in sets of three.
The rule of three is ubiquitous. Humans are both neurologically and culturally adapted to the number three and its combination of brevity and rhythm. We know from studies in neuroscience that our brains seek out patterns and finds the structure of three to be a complete set; it feels whole. Three is the least number of items in a series that make a pattern, and once you start looking for this pattern, you’ll see that it’s everywhere. In mathematics it’s a rule that allows you to solve problems based on proportions. In science there are three states of matter: solid, liquid, and gas. The Latin maxim omne trium perfectum (everything that comes in threes is perfection) echoes Aristotle and his Ars Rhetorica. There Aristotle posits that the most persuasive rhetorical appeals must rely on ethos, pathos, and logos. Extrapolate from that, and even simple storytelling and narratives have a simple structure of a beginning, a middle and an end.
Simply put, the Rule of Three embeds a cohesive structure into your arguments that enhance their readability, appeal, and persuasive value.
Ultimately, the Rule of Three reflects the principle that legal communication (and communication generally) is less complex than you think. It’s about common sense. Use the Rule of Three in your briefs and oral arguments. It’s that simple – and very effective.
Below are a few videos regarding the Rule of Three.
 Brad Holst, Want Your Presentation to Be Memorable? Follow the Rule of Three, available at: Want Your Presentation to Be Memorable? Follow the Rule of Three (mandel.com)
Sunday, December 13, 2020
Tired of online court, school, happy hour, family holidays, and more? Me too. However, we also know some form of virtual court is here to stay, and based on the number of great pointers judges from across the county have shared with us this month, we can all still improve.
Moreover, in reflecting on the tips I’ve seen lately, I was struck by how many of these pointers apply to any argument, in-person or virtual, and how they track what we have long told law students in moot court. As we evolve from a largely in-person court system, where we had some telephonic and online conferences, to our future, which could involve many more electronic appearances, we should not lose sight of those moot court pointers from law school. And for those of us teaching oral advocacy, we should remember to share best practices for preparation and professionalism which will serve our students in any argument, online or in-person.
Recently, Judge Pierre Bergeron shared helpful tips on preparing for oral argument. You can see his blog here: Judge Pierre Bergeron's Tips. He advises counsel to practice, with a moot court if possible, know the record and case law, provide a roadmap of argument points at the beginning, and be especially cognizant of the need to pause periodically “in an effort to invite questions.” Id. These tips apply equally to in-person arguments.
Similarly, Madison Alder’s piece for Bloomberg Law, Wear Pants, Sequester Pets: Five Tips From Judges for Zoom Court, has excellent advice from judges for online arguments and court appearances in general. See Madison Alder, Wear Pants, Sequester Pets (Bloomberg Dec. 8, 2020). As Alder notes, the “virtual venues have worked so well,” some “courts plan on using them long after the virus is gone.” Id. Therefore, all lawyers who appear in court need to be as proficient in online argument as they hopefully are for in-person proceedings.
Online court platforms vary (federal courts often do not use Zoom, for example), just like courthouses, and “’Lawyers should prepare themselves for venues they’re not familiar with,’” said Chief Judge William Johnson of the District New Mexico. See id. Thus, “preparing a presentation ahead of time is still crucial.” Id. Just as in traditional courthouses, counsel should practice standing at a podium or sitting and looking directly at a webcam. See id. I advise my students to distill their oral argument notes to just one piece of paper, supported by one binder of organized cases and record pages to take to the podium, and that format works well online, where paper shuffling can be magnified on Zoom.
Somehow, despite myriad reminders to dress professionally, we still hear frequent complaints from the bench about attorney attire. Alder recommends: “Dressing properly means wearing professional attire from head to toe, not just head to waist.” Id. “’You never know when you’ll need to stand up in a pinch, which can make for an embarrassing moment if you’re wearing shorts,’ Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Anne Burke said.” Id. The key: “’Besides the same make-sure-you’re-communicating-well lessons that apply in a courtroom—is remembering that this is a courtroom and a formal proceeding. Zoom can make people less formal,’” Southern District of Texas Chief Judge Lee Rosenthal said. Id.
We teach law school moot court advocates not to read from notes, allowing them to “read the bench” and make eye contact with judges. This lesson matters even more for online arguments, where the format makes true eye contact impossible. To be as present as possible, online lawyers (and students) should “make sure they do things like keeping the dogs in the other room, closing the window if the lawnmower is going, and making sure their children aren’t there,” said Chief Judge Rosenthal. Id.
Finally, we all need to be more attentive to virtual context clues in online arguments. “The virtual platform makes it more important for lawyers to pay attention to the tone of a judge’s voice, Jed Rakoff, a senior judge in the Southern District of New York, said.” Id. Tuning in to a judge’s tone is important for lawyers “’because that’s the main remaining clue as to whether they’re scoring or not,’” Rakoff said. Id. As Eastern District of California Chief Judge Kimberly Mueller explained, “It’s as important as ever to pay attention to the judge’s signals, so if you are talking too long, be ready to wind up.’” Id. And, using Judge Bergeron’s point on pausing to allow questions, online advocates should watch for judges’ body language showing they are about to unmute or ask a question.
In my house, with two adults working full-time online and a high school student taking online classes while managing a Zoom social and extracurricular schedule, we are weary of an online-only world. I know many law students and lawyers feel the same way. But at least we can find a silver lining (in addition to the great commute) from the online court experience, as the skills we must hone for the best online arguments will make us better advocates in-person too.
December 13, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Law School, Legal Profession, Moot Court, Oral Argument, State Appeals Courts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)
Tuesday, September 1, 2020
Classical English Style, by Ward Farnsworth, is another must-have for the library of an appellate advocate. Farnsworth, who is Dean and John Jeffers Research Chair in Law at the University of Texas School of Law, has written an engaging, easy to read guide to English style that adds to his works on persuasion and rhetoric. The text includes examples, mostly from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries from well-known stylists such as Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas. It also includes examples from Shakespeare and the Bible alongside more modern examples from Franklin Roosevelt and Churchill.
Farnsworth begins, where we all must: Simplicity. “There are two ways to say almost anything in English: with little words or big ones.” The book discusses how the English language developed from words with Germanic or Saxon roots and words with French or Latin roots. Saxon words tend to be shorter and more direct and thus, should be preferred by writers. He provides a list to demonstrate:
Next, the author discusses word choice and rhetorical devices such as metonym and hyperbole and how to use those devices to great effect. He then turns to sentence structure and length and provides examples of the effective use of variation to engage and persuade. A discussion of passive voice includes examples of its effective use.
The final third or so of the text discusses rhetorical devices such as anacoluthon—a technique to challenge readers to think more deeply or to represent stream-of-conscious thought; rhetorical instruction and announcement; and cadence.
One thing the text lacks is annotations to the examples. While the text often discussed the use of techniques in the examples, it would have been helpful to visually highlight the use of different techniques in a few of the examples in each section to draw the reader’s attention to the technique. This is a small quibble, and perhaps reflects more on this author’s shortcomings than on the text.
Classical English Style will help improve both written and oral advocacy; Farnsworth writes in a clear concise style—himself a model of classic English style.
 Ward Farnsworth, Classical English Rhetoric (2016); Ward Farnsworth, Classical English Metaphor (2010).
Wednesday, July 22, 2020
This week, the American Academy of Appellate Lawyers issued a thoughtful set of best-practice recommendations for courts hearing remote oral argument. As this press release explains, the recommendations are the work of a task force of AAAL fellows with experience in remote oral arguments. The Fellows' guidance is driven by the AAAL's longstanding position—which we've previously discussed here—that "oral argument is, and should remain, an important part of the appellate process."
Notably, the report doesn't embrace remote oral argument as the new normal. Although it acknowledges that, post-pandemic, continued availability of remote options could make argument practical where it might not otherwise be—a good thing—it stresses that remote argument is a pale substitute for in-person argument. So remote argument shouldn't become "an automatic or self-justifying way of doing things when it is no longer necessary." Instead, the report emphasizes bringing normal into the new: a key animating principle is that courts and advocates should strive to make remote oral argument as much like in-person argument as possible.
The suggestions it offers are practical and actionable both for courts and for advocates. The Academy's fellows urge courts to use a video-based platform over an audio-only solution and present experience-driven reasons why. At the same time, the report wisely identifies adequate sound quality as preeminent for participants and listeners. And it offers solid advice about how to achieve that: among other things, it urges advocates and judges to consider environmental factors like room size and features. Small spaces with hard walls might produce echoes. Stuff like curtains and bookshelves help reduce echoes and ambient noise. And so on.
Saturday, June 27, 2020
Moving from Pandemic Emergency Zoom Oral Arguments to True Oral Argument Online: Preparation and Professionalism
In March, we had only hours to transition from in-person teaching and law practice to remote options. As many internet memes show, that led to some memorable court appearances sans pants, from closets and bathrooms. Recently, we’ve been able to step back and assess our remote experiences to see what we can use for better practice and teaching, even as we return to in-person work. I’ve attended several excellent sessions on online teaching, and I send kudos to William & Mary Law for its fantastic two-day Conference for Excellence in Teaching Legal Research & Writing Online. (If you could not attend, you can view asynchronous postings here: https://law.wm.edu/academics/intellectuallife/conferencesandlectures/excellence_online_teaching/index.php.) Like many of you, my inbox is full of invites for even more webinars and conferences I am not able to attend.
Luckily, Jill Wheaton of Dykema Gossett recently wrote a summary of the May 4, 2020 ABA Appellate Judges Council CLE webinar on “Appellate Advocacy in the Age of COVID-19.” The ABA’s program featured judges, a state appellate court chief clerk, and appellate practitioners speaking on how appeals courts will use remote appearances moving forward. As Wheaton explained, the panel presented “thoughts about, and recommendations regarding, telephone or video appellate arguments” and suggested counsel “do everything they can to make a remote argument as much like an in-person argument as possible.” Jill M. Wheaton, Appellate Advocacy in the Age of COVID-19, Appellate Issues--2020 Special Edition 1 (ABA May 27, 2020). Overall, the recommendations for practitioners stressed professionalism in how we approach video appearances. In other words, be prepared and yes, wear pants.
Part of our preparation for oral argument today should include a test run of our technology. Whenever possible, appellate practitioners should do moot courts before oral arguments. Now, we should make our moot courts a test of both online systems and legal arguments. Since many courts already used some type of internal video conferencing before COVID-19—and a few trial and appellate courts allowed video argument on occasion before 2020--the clerks and judges are already familiar with some remote platforms. Id. They expect us to be familiar with the platforms as well. In fact, many courts have videos of past virtual oral arguments online, and counsel can watch the videos as part of their oral argument preparation.
We should also be as professional as possible in every detail of our online appearances. Hopefully, we know to avoid the meme-worthy mistakes of March and April, by dressing in full suits and using a professional-looking digital background or physical space free of clutter and noise for a video appearance. The ABA panel stressed smaller points as well. For example, many courts still expect counsel to rise when the bailiff calls the case, and the panel judges noted they prefer advocates to stand when speaking. Id. at 2. Therefore, consider either using an adjustable desk, so you can stand when speaking but sit when opposing counsel argues, or use a stool so you can stay at eye level. The practitioners on the ABA panel suggested using a stack of books to raise your computer to standing level if needed, and to be sure your camera is on the top of your monitor to help you look directly at the judges during the argument. Id. Finally, counsel should remember they will be on camera for the entire hearing, even when opposing counsel is speaking. Id. Thus, find a way to communicate unobtrusively with co-counsel and your client, if needed.
We all want life to “return to normal,” but some form of remote oral arguments will no doubt remain after COVID-19 leaves. For now, “courts have been forced to become creative to continue to advance their dockets, requiring the bench and bar to become creative as well.” Id. at 3. Hopefully, these tips from the ABA panel can help us all be more creative, prepared and professional for this new normal.
June 27, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession, Moot Court, Oral Argument, State Appeals Courts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)
Monday, May 25, 2020
My colleague, Prof. Susie Salmon, recently started a podcast called Practice in Place: Law and Justice Go Viral. You can find the first episode here. The premise of the podcast is as follows:
[H]ow does a profession governed by precedent respond to the unprecedented? Practice in Place investigates how the practice of law and the administration of justice have adapted under the abrupt constraints of the COVID-19 era, how that has affected how and whether we achieve justice, and how those changes and that experience might or should change the practice, the profession, and its procedures forever. Produced by University of Arizona, James E. Rogers College of Law and hosted by Professor Susie Salmon and the Legal Writing Program.
I am pretty excited about the project. For a forthcoming episode, I interviewed Sean Marotta, a partner at Hogan Lovells, and Raffi Melkonian, a partner at Wright Close & Barger, for their thoughts on the pandemic and the future of appellate practice. For those who would like to hear our full discussion, I have posted the video below. Sean and Raffi had insightful tips on surviving the pandemic, keeping your kids occupied, what they saw legal practice looking like in the next few months, and keeping sane. I also provide my insights on the going rate for finding typos in briefs. Enjoy!
Wednesday, May 20, 2020
Chief Justice Roberts, Timecop: data-driven analysis of telephonic oral argument in the Supreme Court
In the time it takes for most of us to formulate a coherent thought, @LeahLitman has written an entire paper.
The team here at the Appellate Advocacy Blog has discussed impressions, both our own and those of others, of telephonic oral arguments in the United States Supreme Court. We're fresh off the Court's reluctant pivot in the first two weeks of May to socially-distanced oral argument. And because the Court adopted telephony rather than video, it had to adjust the process of oral argument: the rapid-fire, justice-dominated, interruption-heavy free-for-all dynamic of modern SCOTUS oral argument would devolve into crackling chaos if freighted without modification into a world of sound and fury, void of visual cues. So adjust it did: the justices asked questions in turn, in order of seniority. And they did so under relatively strict time management by the Chief Justice.
As we've seen from the fascinating work of scholars like Tonja Jacobi and others (which I've discussed here and here), there's much one can draw from careful analysis of data from oral arguments. So, as the dynamic of oral exchanges at SCOTUS has shifted in These Challenging Times, it's cool to see scholarship already emerging that extracts and analyzes data from the arguments. Nearly two weeks ago, in a post at his Empirical SCOTUS blog, Adam Feldman broke down the first four telephonic arguments and compared them to the four most recent traditional arguments. Yesterday, Feldman further developed this analysis in a post on SCOTUSblog; it is the first in a three-part series. One of Feldman's conclusions is that the new format "offers an interesting lens into potential improvements for oral arguments moving forward": according to his analysis, the more structured, centrally governed format led to broader participation by the justices, afforded the justices greater chances to interact with counsel, and gave advocates better opportunities to respond to questions. In earlier work, Feldman and Rebecca Gill of the University of Nevada Las Vegas suggested that the Court do what suddenly sounds familiar: (1) have the Chief Justice exercise more control over who asks what and when, and (2) have justices ask questions seriatim, by seniority. Among the possible benefits of a more structured, moderated conversation: fewer interruptions of women justices, a phenomenon that Feldman & Gill carefully analyze and that's the subject of fantastic work by Jacobi and Dylan Schweers.
And that brings us to the work of Leah Litman. Yesterday, Professor Litman posted her analysis of the telephonic arguments. Among the many interesting strands she identifies: at least in this tiny dataset, gendered (and ideological) interruptions appear to persist when the Chief, like Jean-Claude Van Damme, plays time cop. Although Chief Justice Roberts generally enforced time limits on justices' questioning period by interrupting advocates, Litman tallies 11 instances in which he interrupted a justice. Nine were of women. The Chief cut off Justice Sotomayor six times and Justice Ginsburg three. (He also cut off Justice Breyer twice. My normal reaction to this would be, like, who wouldn't, given that Justice Breyer's questions tend to go on a bit. But, as Litman and Feldman both note, Breyer spoke relatively little in the telephonic arguments.) It looked like this:
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There's much more in the piece and much of interest in Professor Litman's data.
Wednesday, May 13, 2020
This blog post might provide you with information you already know. The information is new to me, which made me think sharing it might assist others as well. As I was looking at the Louisiana Supreme Court’s website recently, a reference caught my eye. That reference was to the publication, “Preparing for a Pandemic: An Emergency Response Benchbook and Operational Guidebook for State Court Judges and Administrators.” The publication can be downloaded here: https://ncsc.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/facilities/id/194.
A team from the Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators worked on a Pandemic and Emergency Response Task Force to create this document, which was published by the National Center for State Courts in 2016! That date caught my eye because, like so many of you, I have been stunned over the past few months (yes, months that sometimes feel like years) by what has been going on in the world: stunned by the magnitude of this pandemic. And now, I am stunned by the fact that this group created this resource four years ago that is so relevant to what the world is experiencing in 2020.
The benchbook/guidebook urges state courts to create their own books tailored to their states in which they include both federal and state laws that will be relevant should a pandemic occur. It raises issues to be considered in a pandemic, such as maintaining constitutional protections during a pandemic; operating courts during a pandemic; searches, seizures, and other government actions to maintain public health; and jurisdiction of public health issues. It suggests that courts create certain model orders and court rules to use in the event of a pandemic. It also provides a resources list that includes citations to state courts that already had such plans back then. From back in 2016, it discusses and suggests many of the things that we are now discussing and suggesting.
I highly recommend you review this document, if you have not already seen it. Perhaps it will be helpful to you in your law practice, in your law school, in your court, and even in your personal life as you grapple with and consider issues that do not often present themselves. Thank you to the National Center for State Courts https://www.ncsc.org/, the Conference of Chief Justices https://ccj.ncsc.org/, and the Conference of State Court Administrators https://cosca.ncsc.org/ for thinking ahead. I only wish we did not need your good book.
May 13, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Current Affairs, Legal Profession, Oral Argument, State Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (2)
Tuesday, May 12, 2020
My family has been using Zoom from home quite a bit during the quarantine. My wife, a history professor, Zooms her lectures. class discussions, and student conferences. My children use Zoom for school and to keep up with friends. And I use the software for work meetings, moot court tryouts and practices, and church events.
I thought I was pretty Zoom competent. Then I was assigned my first Zoom oral argument. To complicate matters, in compliance with local regulations and recommendations, we are running our office on a skeleton staff and most of our attorneys are working from home. I am no exception. I had to take things to another level if I was going to use my home office as a substitute appellate venue.
In the end, I put together a fairly professional setup. But I still made some mistakes. I hope you can learn something, both from the good and the bad, if you also need to use your home office for oral arguments.
First, setting up a more professional Zoom appearance will likely require establishing a more controlled environment, including lighting, sounds, and backdrop concerns. Learn from others. Watch some of the Zoom sessions from your court and others, and see what you find works and what does not.
As I watched those videos I saw distracting backgrounds, poor lighting, mic feedback, noisy interruptions, and awkward paper shuffling. I tried to tackle those problems.
In my home office I have both a desktop with a larger screen set high, and a laptop that I move to-and-from work. I setup the laptop as my "Zoom computer," with the camera slightly above my eye level. That allowed me to still use my desktop screen and keyboard, with the screen just above the laptop camera, which allowed me to keep my eyes close to a "normal" position while looking at my outline and, if necessary, pulling up the record or briefing.
This was handy, cut down on the visual and auditory distraction of trying to shuffle paper, and kept my eyes fairly centered on the screen. But all of that screen glare turned me blue. So next I tackled the lighting.
Most professionals recommend lighting be in front and above the face. So I found a lamp that I could place on my desk and slightly above my screen. I then adjusted the blinds on my windows to cut out a distracting side-glare. The image was still bluer than I would have liked, but the image was crisper and the glare was gone.
Next was sound. My home office is comfortable, but it is not quiet. I have a large window to my left with a lovely view and french doors opening into the entryway of the house. A guest bath is directly behind me.
This means that, at any given time, my dog might decide to visit me at my window. Or a squirrel or happy bird might visit and decide to chat. Likewise, children come and go looking in with curiosity any time the doors are shut, and the guest bath is often used. All of this had to be controlled to the greatest extent possible. Signs go up, conversations are held, dogs are crated, and so on. There is no controlling the squirrels. (Nor the flushing, as we recently learned).
Finally, my office has deep burgundy walls and wood paneling, which, while very masculine, made for displeasing video background. So I searched the web far and wide for the perfect office bookshelf background that could be used without charge, and eventually settled on one that made me look scholarly.
All of this needed to be tested, so I went through some "dry run" recordings and practices and made several fine tunings. My laptop is fairly new, so I did not need to put up a sheet behind me for the virtual backgrounds to work, as some recommend. I did use an ethernet cable instead of a wifi connection to ensure a strong connection.
After numerous tests it was game time. And despite all of the preparation, some of the same problems that have plagued others hit our oral argument. Zoom would highlight the justice's screens in yellow at times, seemingly indicating that they were going to ask a question. I would stop, not wanting to speak over anyone. And for a few seconds (that seemed like eternity), we just stared awkwardly at each other.
My desktop screen, meanwhile, despite being carefully loaded and setup prior to the argument, kept popping up distracting notifications, and I had trouble loading one file I tried to pull up for quick reference. Shadowy figures moved past my doors, distracting me as they tried to be as nondistracting as possible. And something tried to dig into my office from behind my closed shades.
In the end, we all struggled through it. But going forward, there are a few things I would do differently. I am going to talk to the clerk about potential solutions to the problem of either talking over the panel or constantly stopping when it appears they are trying to ask a question. The lag in both the transmittal and the muting and unmuting of speakers is a problem. In some trial court proceedings attorneys are starting to hold up signs that say "Objection" during live testimony to alert the judge that they want to lodge an objection. Maybe we can have "Question" signs or something similar for oral arguments.
The slightly-off lighting is fixed. A relatively inexpensive LED bulb replaced the old incandescent lamp bulb. With an app I can now adjust the color and intensity of that light, balancing out the lighting problems with a high degree of control.
In subsequent tests I still look a bit washed out, even with well-balanced lighting. Some professionals recommend heavier makeup than usual for women, and that men also consider some makeup to appear more natural on screen. I'm not sure I'm ready for that frontier yet, but time will tell.
I am also either going to go back to paper, or learn how to shut down everything but my PDF viewer and practice more with finding and sharing screens. The live screen was just too distracting, and in the end I missed my binder and written outline. That process is going to evolve.
So will yours. As teachers are being reminded, the changes we are making to our routines during quarantine do not allow for perfection. We have to settle for "good enough" while we struggle to find new best practices. I hope my experience helps you in your own Zoom frontier.
As a final note, the Clerk sent out a "Zoom checklist" that was helpful in setting things up. I will share that with you:
- Create a Zoom account;
- Download the Zoom client or app;
- Watch Zoom tutorials on Zoom’s website or YouTube if you need to;
- Start a test meeting on Zoom to test your microphone and speakers;
- For optimal connection, do not use WiFi;
- Start a Zoom meeting as the host and invite friends to join your meeting;
- Discuss your lighting, background, audio, and video in your test meeting;
- Use a non-distracting background;
- When speaking, remember to look directly at the webcam, not at the screen;
- When not speaking, mute yourself in order to avoid any potential background noise or court personnel will mute you when not talking;
- Alt+A (to mute/unmute audio)
- Alt+V (to mute/unmute video)
- Position the camera at your eye level or slightly above eye level;
- Look professional - the same as if appearing in the courtroom;
- Speak one at a time;
- Give your current contact information (email, cell phone number) to court personnel;
- Join a test meeting with court personnel;
- Suggest that a group email and text group be created for your oral argument in case of technical difficulties;
- Discuss what to do if there are technical difficulties during the oral argument with court personnel;
- Practice disconnecting from and rejoining the Zoom meeting with court personnel;
- Make sure you know who the host of the Zoom oral argument will be and when to expect the invitation for the Zoom session to be emailed to you;
- Write down or print out the contact information for court personnel;
- DO NOT FORWARD ZOOM MEETING INFORMATION. The panel justices, and counsel arguing the case for the parties, will be the only participants admitted;
- Join the Zoom oral argument session at the 10 minutes before argument starts.
Good luck on your next Zoom argument. If you have any tips to share, please feel free to join in below in the comments.
(Image attribution: Wikimedia Commons.)