Tuesday, August 6, 2019
I am a big proponent of oral argument. It can, and should, make a difference in complicated cases. No matter how tight our writing is, there is something about the give-and-take of oral argument with a well-prepared panel that refines arguments in a way that is difficult to match. But we also have to be very careful, or the words we say can live on in ways we did not expect.
While I was catching up on my reading following summer vacation with my family (a big thank you to my friend, John Browning, for covering with his excellent guest post while I was gone), I dove into the recent analysis of the Plain Error Doctrine in Justice Oldham's concurring opinion in U.S. v. Del Carpio Frescas, No. 17-50245 (5th Cir. July 29, 2019). While I found his analysis of the origins and misadventures of the doctrine since the 1800s to be fascinating and recommended reading for anyone who deals with the doctrine or the topic of waiver versus forfeiture of error, what caught my attention most was his reference to a comment by the Federal Public Defender's Office made during oral argument in a different matter. Without going into detail, Justice Oldham used that comment to raise what he considers to be an anomaly in the law.
We already know that some Supreme Court Justices are prone to quoting oral argument in the opinions that they write in the same matter. According to a 2008 analysis, Justice Ginsberg cites the transcript in almost every opinion she writes, with Chief Justice Roberts following a bit behind at one citation to the transcript every other authored opinion. See Frederick Liu, Citing the Transcript of Oral Argument: Which Justices Do It and Why, 118 Yale L.J. Pocket Part 32 (2008). The Justices use the transcript for three primary reasons: (1) to describe an advocate's affirmative position; (2) to record an advocate's concession; and (3) to note an advocate's representation of the record or facts. Being quoted is not necessarily a good thing -- Justices were almost twice as likely to cite statements made by an advocate whose side they opposed than one they supported.
We already know, then, that what we say at oral argument in a given case may be used in the opinion that follows. The oral argument does seem to make a difference, at least to justices on the margins, and the right argument can still sometimes win the day. Of course, the converse is true. Loose lips can sink ships. The impact of the statements made at oral argument is the primary reason I urge advocates to "moot" their appeals.
But what struck me about Justice Oldham's use of the transcript was that he was drawing from other cases. As more courts record oral argument and transcripts become more widely available and searchable, the idea of having my words used in an opinion months or years later is a bit sobering. And it drives home the idea that these transcripts are another important research tool that is easy to overlook.
Don't forget that even our spoken words live longer now than ever. We need to tap into that as a source of research, and be careful with what we say for both the cases we are currently handling and the ones we may handle in the future.
(Image information: WWII era poster from the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration).
Monday, July 15, 2019
This is a guest post by Raffi Melkonian, a partner at Wright Close & Barger in Houston, Texas.
The day after I gave my first (and only!) United States Supreme Court argument, I put up a thread on Twitter (where I post as @RMFifthCircuit) about my oral argument preparation. It was well-received, and many people encouraged me to tease it out a little into a blog post or article. This is my first attempt to do exactly that. A caveat: these thoughts are for people like me. That is, lawyers who don’t normally practice in the rarified air of the Supreme Court. It’s advice for the first-time tourist, not the experienced traveler. Maybe it’s even good advice for the new lawyer preparing for their first appellate argument. So if your name is Paul Clement or Neal Katyal, stop reading!
One more thing. This post is not about briefing. Yes, it’s conventional wisdom that the merits brief is the most important part of the Supreme Court presentation. I think that’s true. And yet, it’s a complicated topic that goes far beyond the scope of this post.
Anyway, oral argument is the moment many first-time advocates focus on, and with good reason. It’s the one time you’re alone with the nine justices of the Supreme Court. No one can help you. And, the stakes for your client are high. Not many cases are won at argument, to be sure, but some are lost. In Justice Ginsburg’s words, “I have seen potential winners become losers in whole or in part because of … oral argument.” But the advocate too has some skin in the game. As I know from scrutinizing arguments on #AppellateTwitter, a lawyer’s missteps at oral argument are judged harshly by the commentariat. You don’t ever want to be that guy.
So what then? The answer is intense and unrelenting preparation. Listed below are some of the strategies I used to get ready. But remember, excellent lawyers prepare differently. What may work for me won’t work for you, and the reverse. So, as they say on the Internet, Your Mileage May Vary.
- My grandmother, like many Catholics, would read a small prayer book every morning, a daily devotional. It seemed to me that I needed to know all of the briefs as intimately as she knew her prayers, so I had all the pleadings set out in a binder – our briefs, their briefs, and the various amici – and I read them every morning. I took notes, of course, but mainly the point was to read them again, and again, and again.
- David Frederick, the famous Supreme Court lawyer, recommends in his book on oral argument that you spend much of your time thinking of questions the Court could ask you. That’s part of my normal oral argument preparation, and I took his advice doubly to heart for SCOTUS. I spent hours thinking of as many questions as possible. I scrawled some of these questions on note cards, some I typed. No question was too benign, and none too difficult. The hardest work was writing out extensive answers to each question.
- I wrote a very short outline of what I wanted to say, and practiced in front of a camera at a podium (well, a cardboard box) many times. A picture I posted on twitter of that effort was even turned into a meme by the incredibly creative @AliceLfc4, a court clerk in Florida (here’s proof!). Every 20 seconds or so, I’d pick a question from my pile and ask it to myself, and then answer, and then practice pivoting back to what I was trying to say. This effort required many edits to my note card answers. Some of my answers were bad, others too long. Over time, they became tighter, more focused, pithy. Well, as pithy as I get, anyway.
- Ultimately, I became convinced that there were only six thematic sentences I needed to say, no matter what. I wrote these on a notecard and practiced saying them during my note card answers. The goal was to say each of the six at least once in any practice session. I got five of them out during the actual oral argument.
- I did three moot courts in total, beginning about two weeks before the argument. I spent two days before the moot preparing for the argument, and then the entire day after the moot incorporating the feedback. Needless to say, I am ever grateful to the teams at Stanford, Public Citizen, and the Georgetown University Law Center Supreme Court Institute that mooted me.
- Finally, consider the physical space. I hadn’t been to the Supreme Court since college, and so I picked an oral argument day earlier in the week to observe. This turned out to be a good idea. The space is both overwhelming and tight, and knowing what it feels like helped put me at ease when I went for real. Plus, I had many guests with me, none of whom had been to the Court either. Being able to give them real world advice about the process of getting in and to the courtroom (though really, you can just read Jaime Santos’s go-to thread) was invaluable.
An article I read before the argument helpfully advised that most advocates do not faint at the Supreme Court’s podium. At the time, I felt that was rather macabre. But with the right preparation, a Supreme Court argument can be enjoyed rather than endured. I know I enjoyed mine.
Tuesday, June 25, 2019
In my last entry, I gave an overview of how to set up a moot court session for your real appeal, including panelist selection, timing, and preparation. Today, I want to talk in more details about how to set up and conduct the moot court session itself.
1. Plan Ahead and Be Respectful of your Panel's Time.
Making the most of this time is critical. You are either costing your panelists their time (if they have volunteered) or paying them for it, either in the form of a flat or hourly fee. Be respectful of that time. First, give them copies of the briefing and key cases or statutes far enough in advance that they can time-shift the work needed to be prepared for the session. Second, let them know your expectations for their participation at the session and the anticipated time involved.
2. Establish a Format for the Session.
The latter bit of information will depend on whether you are going to have a “typical” session or add on time. The “typical” session that I recommend is in two parts. First there is a true “moot court” session, accurately emulating the anticipated oral argument. Second, the panel takes off the robes (literally or figuratively) and talks through their critique of the argument and the answers given. Give yourself time for your moot court (with or without opposing argument presented) and then, as a rule of thumb, at least double that time for the follow-up discussion. Encourage the panelists to raise issues or questions that might not have been brought up during the round.
You can add to this time if you wish. Some practitioners want to give the argument first without questions as a straight run-through, then have the panel hear the argument again and ask questions. I usually counsel against this, because it means your moot panel will have heard the argument much more clearly than your actual panel will.
If your panel has time, you may want to have an initial roundtable after the argument, then watch the video and see what other questions or comments are brought to mind when doing so. As mentioned in the earlier article, you might even want to have a separate brainstorming session before your response or reply are due, in order to flesh out issues during briefing instead of oral argument.
In my moot court coaching, I alternate between informal roundtable discussions, question and answer sessions, and argument. Over the years I have come to believe that it takes all three types of preparation, much like a sports team might have team meetings to discuss plays, conduct skill drills, and then play in scrimmages in order to prepare for a real game.
Whatever the plan is, make it explicit to the panel and be sure to prepare for each step. Do not underestimate the time for your panel if you want them to work with you again.
3. Accurately Emulate the Oral Argument.
Next, pay attention to the actual setup of the moot court session. I prefer using as realistic a setup as possible. If you have never argued before a particular court before, find out what kind of timing mechanism is used and find one that matches it as closely as possible. If you are not familiar with timing lights, they can be very distracting and a bit confusing. To prepare, you can find timing lights on Amazon or other retailers. Practicing with the light will help you get a better feel for how to time your argument without fearing your first encounter with “the light.”
If possible, try to hold your moot session in a setting that emulates your oral argument environment. Many law schools have practice courtrooms, with some set up for appellate simulation. In a pinch, a conference room will work, but use a podium and have the panel sit together so you can get used to scanning for reaction. Teleconferencing is also an option if time or distance simply do not allow for everyone to be in the same room, but I don’t find it to be as accurate a simulation as other setups.
4. Prepare Yourself and Your Panel.
When the date of the session arrives be sure that you and your panel are prepared. If you have selected former justices, appellate practitioners, or even former clerks for the court you are approaching, and have provided them with materials in time to prepare, they will be ready to serve as a general panel. If you receive a notice of panel change or setting, be sure to share that with them and discuss potentially doing additional research to emulate a particular justice on the panel, if that is the approach you wish to take.
Prior to the session, practice and refine your argument on your own, and work with potential Q&A that you and your colleagues may have developed. If you are a newer or infrequent advocate, and you are nervous about how to handle questions, one practice technique is to write down anticipated questions on note cards, give them a good shuffle, then start your “speech,” grabbing a card at intervals and responding to the questions while working back into the arguments.
Finally, watch oral arguments from your court, your panel members, and your opponent. The proliferation of online videotaped oral argument is a wonderful preparation tool.
5. Enjoy the Conversation
The ultimate goal of all of this work is to make yourself comfortable with the subject matter, the format, and the environment to such an extent that you are able to engage in a meaningful conversation with your real panel. Only by working with a practice panel can you reassure yourself that your weaknesses have been fully probed, and only be simulating the experience accurately can you feel comfortable when you stand to speak. But don’t forget to enjoy the moment – oral argument is increasingly rare on appeal, and each time it is granted you are being given an opportunity to meaningfully collaborate with the court in properly developing the law in a setting that is meant to speak your sometimes dry legal arguments to life.
(Image credit: My furtive photo of an excellent simulation experience for two of my SMU Law School moot court students, Adrian Galvan (speaking) and Sydney Sadler (sitting to his left) at the final round of the TYLA Moot Court Competition earlier this month, where they were able to argue in front of all but one of the judges (that is the proper term for this court) from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.)
Tuesday, June 11, 2019
As both a moot-court coach and a real-life appellate specialist, I find myself moving back-and-forth between real appeals and simulations on a regular basis. Each one advises the other, and I think the experience makes me both a better coach and practitioner.
One area of overlap is in "mooting" appeals. In law school, it is an exercise in practical skill building with formative assessment in the form of constant feedback. In real appeals, it is the best preparation there is for oral argument, no matter how skilled the presenter might be.
Don't just take my word for it:
No preparation for oral argument is as valuable as a moot court in which you're interrogated by lawyers as familiar with your case as the court is likely to be. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is so effective in bringing your attention to issues that have not occurred to you and in revealing the flaws in your responses to issues you have been aware of.
Antonin Scalia & Bryan Garner, Making your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges 158 (2008)
Your opponents are probably doing it. The United State's Solicitor General's office, as well as Appellate Staff throughout the government, conduct at least one moot session before oral argument. In larger cases, it is increasingly considered best practices to do so. Larger firms often conduct multiple moot sessions in-house. Even in smaller matters, informal mooting sessions are becoming more common.
Fortunately, if you are familiar with moot court from law school, you can probably put together a moot round for your argument. You just need a panel, a video camera, a plan, and time. Lots of time.
1. Pick your Panel Carefully
In general, you want to pick at least three panelists who will represent the type of judges you anticipate will be on your panel. Legal expertise is less important than appellate experience. For this reason, former appellate judges and appellate specialists are often utilized. Appellate specialists can put together a panel for you if you need the assistance.
Why not pick someone who really knows the substantive law? Because they aren't a good emulation of your court. You want people who will read what the court will read (the briefing, key cases, orders/judgments at issue and record excerpts) and then ask you the type of question that this preparation brings to mind. Someone who knows the law very well outside of this exercise might carry the same blinders you have developed during your time with the case.
If you are appearing before a court en banc or a court with more than three justices, you can use more panelists. Most practitioners do not suggest matching the full number, however, as there is diminished value in adding more seats at the moot.
2. Prepare For Your Session Wisely
You want to have at least one moot round within two weeks of the oral argument so you have time to prepare and adjust based on your session. If possible, discussing the issue even earlier can be of great benefit. Indeed, if you can schedule a time with your panelists to have a roundtable discussion before you finish briefing, that is ideal. Uncovering arguments and answering questions you had not thought of asking in your briefing, rather than in the oral argument alone, is ideal.
Some research into your potential panelists is a good idea. If you are in a jurisdiction that videotapes oral argument, watch recent arguments on related issues to get a feel for how the justices you might get on your panel are approaching your issues. I recently mooted a panel for a public interest group, and noted that one justice in particular on the circuit tended to focus on a particular statutory issue. I flagged that for them during the moot court, and when that issue arose at oral argument, they were able to answer it when others had not and ultimately prevailed.
You may also wish to find someone willing to argue the other side. The moot session can work with just your side if you are experienced. But if you need work on your rebuttal skills or in shaping your appellee or respondent argument to an unexpected approach or to address questions asked to co-counsel, this step can provide you some additional help.
3. Videotape the Proceedings
Time acquires a very subjective and malleable quality when one is being grilled by a panel of intelligent skeptics about a topic that has great importance. Before you know it, your time is up and you are sitting down trying to remember what was just said. Videotaping the round ensures that you will remember the questions asked and answered, and you can see how you look and act during your moments of panic and introspection. If you need to work on your "uhs" and tendency to sway while speaking, now is the time to do so.
4. Take Your Time at Every Stage
Finally, make sure everyone takes the time necessary for the process to work. You need to take your time in preparing your argument and answers for the moot session just like a real argument. Your panel needs to take the time to read the briefing and record. After your session, take the time to round everyone up and discuss what worked and what did not, how answers can be refined, and otherwise discuss the round. Then, if you have time, do it again.
Indeed, you can schedule multiple moots with multiple panelists. There are law schools that have appellate clinics who may be willing to do so for free. If you are arguing in the Supreme Court of the United States, book your time with the Georgetown University Supreme Court Institute as early as possible, as they are "first come first serve" when it comes to sides.
If you pick panelists who will ask you difficult and unexpected questions, if you take the time to prepare your presentation, if you review the videotaped proceeding carefully and refine your arguments, and if you are willing to do it all again if need be, you will go far in refining your argument. There is a reason one of the most commonly-heard comments from real judges who sit on panels for moot court competitions is "I wish the real advocates who appear before me were as prepared and skilled as you are."
In the next installment I will talk in a bit more detail about how to actually conduct the moot session to maximize its usefulness.
(Image credit: Honore Daumier, The High Tribunal of Judges, 1843)
Tuesday, May 28, 2019
In my last post I talked about the importance of tailoring your arguments to your panel. This week, I want to provide some practical advice on how to get to know your justices.
The first step is to know what they have written on in relation to your case. Most likely, you are already doing this as part of your legal research. Taking the time to take notes and reference authoring or dissenting justices will let you know if one of your justices has written on your issue in the past, and the approach they have taken to similar types of analysis.
This step should be a starting place for your analysis, not an end-point. As discussed earlier, judges are people, too, and their prior opinions may give you the “what” of their past reasoning, but not necessarily the “why.” To figure that out, you have to go a bit deeper.
There are a dizzying array of resources available for that task. Be aware that some are put together with particular social agendas in mind, or based on a particular experience with a judge, and are thus likely slanted one way or another. Recourse to several tools or sources is thus necessary to get a complete picture. These resources include:
- Westlaw Profiler
- Ravel Law
- League of Women Voters
- Alliance for Justice (AFJ) Reports on the Judiciary
- The Robing Room
In addition to these online nationwide resources, you can also find background information in court biographies, state and local bar association websites, campaign websites (for those judges who are elected or retained by vote), social media websites, news outlets, and by simply “Googling” the judge. Offline, don’t forget your own network of peers who will have insights based on their personal experiences.
When you have looked over these resources, you will have a better idea of what makes your particular judge or panel of justices “tick.” You can then tailor your argument to their life experiences in a way that will help them better understand your case. Be sure to stay mindful about the proper ways to do so, as discussed earlier.
If you know of a good resource that I did not list, please let me know.
(Image credit: Gene Elderman, Washington Post, January 7, 1937)
Saturday, May 18, 2019
A few weeks back, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Thomas Ward argued before the Fourth Circuit. What followed "May it please the Court," has become a lesson for appellate practitioners everywhere: Always remember your audience.
The case is Sanders v. United States, No. 18-1931. It's a pretty important case in its own right. Sanders is a Federal Tort Claims Act case. The plaintiffs alleged that the Government had failed in its duty to conduct a background check on Dylann Roof, the man who murdered nine African-Americans in Charleston, South Carolina. The plaintiffs contended that the Government's failure had allowed Roof to buy the guns used in the shooting.
The Government contended that the FTCA's discretionary function exemption applied and, thus, that there was no liability. That argument carried the day at the district court, and the Government relied on the same argument on appeal. The panel was relatively conservative, so the Government should have felt pretty good about its odds.
The Fourth Circuit's Chief Judge, Roger L. Gregory, wasn't having it. He asked a particularly charged question, which ended with Judge Gregory calling the Government's argument "absurd." That exhortation drew an eyebrow-raising comment from Mr. Ward, who responded, "Your Honor, I know you're not trying to humiliate me by that tone." What followed was a well-deserved tongue lashing from Judge Gregory, ending with the command to "just answer [the] question."
Mr. Ward's Sanders argument is a great example for us all. It's tough to see another attorney go through something like that. There, but for the grace of God, go I, right? Even so, the exchange offers an important lesson. Always keep your audience in mind. Remember that most judges are warm, friendly people, but that every so often one will find your considered position offensive. You've got to do your best to put these personal differences behind you. Otherwise, your argument will end up as a footnote to the much more juicy exchange you had with the bench. I know I remember very little about the Sanders argument, other than the attention-grabbing bit.
Monday, May 6, 2019
Don't worry, this post isn't about what color suit and shirt you should wear during an appellate argument (I mean, we all know the answer is charcoal or blue with a white shirt). This post is about whether you should wear any sort of affiliation pin on that (charcoal or blue) suit. Should you indicate your support for the Marine Corps, your alma mater, breast cancer research, the Federalist Society, Black Lives Matter, or any other number of groups by wearing some sort of lapel pin?
As I recently learned, the answer is no. A few weeks ago, I was listening to judges talk to students about appellate advocacy. One of the students was wearing a lapel pin for one of the branches of the military. A judge commented that the student shouldn't wear the pin at oral argument, and the judge's colleague agreed. I was surprised by this advice, as I had never heard it before from a judge. I asked around on a moot court listserv and got surprised responses as well. But, as I reflected on the advice, it made sense. It especially made sense for attorneys who are appearing before a judge for the first time or who are unknown in the jurisdiction.
Imagine a scenario where an appellate attorney argues a case before a panel of judges, two of whom have been active in an organization like the Federalist Society or the American Constitution Society. The attorney dons a lapel pin from that organization. As he stands up to argue, he is sending a signal to the judges that he is one of them--that he is part of their society and ascribes to the same ideals as the organization that he is representing on his suit collar. It boosts his ethos with the court.
Some trial court judges have specific rules preventing attorneys from wearing "political pins" in court. One listserv member shared a story about an attorney in Ohio who was held in contempt of court for wearing a Black Lives Matter pin into such a courtroom in 2016. Although the attorney appealed the decision, the case was settled and she stated that she "now understands 'that a courtroom is a nonpublic forum over which [the judge] had the authority to dictate decorum.'"
Without digging into the constitutional issues, the no pins policy seems to be a prudent one. The logos, ethos, and pathos of an attorney's argument should carry the day, rather than the "I'm part of your secret society" message that some lapel pins might attempt to convey. I do think, however, that some pins, especially school affiliation or military ones, become less of an issue with attorneys who practice regularly before the same judges. My husband was a prosecutor for many years in Virginia. He practiced primarily in juvenile court before the same three judges. After a few years of practice, I am sure that the judges didn't care if my husband had a lapel pin reflecting his military service--they knew that he was reliable, dependable, and prepared based on the years of seeing him in court.
For my students who are still building their ethos, I will now be telling them to (1) button their jacket when they stand to address the court, and (2) be cognizant of wearing a lapel pin that might be seen as an attempt to improperly influence a judge.
Monday, April 8, 2019
While many people may be swearing on April 15 because they forgot to do their taxes, the Supreme Court will have swearing on its mind for another reason. Iancu v. Brunetti poses the very interesting question of whether, under the First Amendment, the government may refuse to register trademarks it deems "immoral" or "scandalous." Mr. Brunetti was denied a trademark for his clothing brand FUCT (Friends U Can't Trust). The Federal Circuit ruled in Brunetti's favor, and now the Supreme Court will hear the case.
Just two years ago, the Supreme Court ruled in Matal v. Tam, that the "disparagement clause" in the Latham Act is incompatible with the First Amendment. I think that is likely that Brunetti will succeed too in his trademark quest.
But, the merits of the case isn't want I wanted to blog about. What is quite interesting in the case are the numerous examples in Brunetti's brief of trademarked and rejected words that could be deemed "immoral" or "scandalous." National Law Journal, in its Supreme Court Brief email, noted that the briefs are "most assuredly not suitable for minors." According to NLJ, the brief lists "34 words that might sound scandalous, only three of which have been handled consistently. [The trademark office] has allowed FCUK, FWORD, and WTF IS UP WITH MY LOVE LIFE? Again, those are mild compared to other unmentionable words and phrases in the brief." If you would like to read all of the bad words in Brunetti's brief, you can find it here. The juicy part starts on p. 11.
Despite the bad words in the brief, Brunetti's attorney told the Court in a footnote that he didn't expect it would be "necessary to refer to vulgar terms during argument. If it should be necessary, the discussion will be purely clinical, analogous to when medical terms are discussed." That decision was probably for the best. The NLJ article mentions Carter Phillips, who was called twice by the Court and advised not to use bad words in oral argument when he argued the FCC v. Fox case.
I think that the subject of how litigants and the Court use profane language is fascinating. Should the word be spelled out? Should one use asterisks? And, if you dare spell it out, can you then say it out loud at argument? Dare the justices say the word when announcing the opinion? According to a 2012 New York Times article, when Justice Harlan announced the opinion of the Court in the Cohen case, he was instructed by Chief Justice Burger not to "'use that word' because 'it would be the end of the court' if he did." You may recall from constitutional law that Mr. Cohen was prosecuted for wearing a jacket that contained words that, according to his attorney attorney, were "'not actually advocating sexual intercourse with the Selective Service.'" Despite the Court's reticence to hear the word out loud, in many cases, especially in a case like Brunetti's, it is important to see the word in context.
I plan on listening to Brunetti's attorney's argument if I get a chance to see if he holds true to his word.
Wednesday, March 20, 2019
I've blogged here about laughter at the Supreme Court. And I've blogged about the fascinating empirical work of Tonja Jacobi and Matthew Sag. So I'm thrilled that Professors Jacobi and Sag have trained their analytical lens on laughter in oral arguments at the United States Supreme Court.
Their new piece is Taking Laughter Seriously at the Supreme Court, forthcoming in the Vanderbilt Law Review; they summarize it in two recent posts (here and here) on their must-read blog, SCOTUS OA. This is not the first scholarly effort to track laughter at the Supreme Court: Jay Wexler, for funsies, has been cataloging SCOTUS laughter since 2005, and rhetoric researcher Ryan Malphurs has dug into the communicative function of humor at oral argument (pdf). But Professors Jacobi and Sag take the scholarship of laughter at SCOTUS—and, more generally, the scholarship of oral argument—to entirely new, deeply serious places. They leverage a remarkable dataset: a database of every SCOTUS oral argument transcript from the 1955 through 2017 terms. In the 1.7 million speech events by justices and advocates in 6,864 cases, 9,378 triggered a [laughter] notation in the transcript; about two-thirds of the laughter events were prompted by something a justice said. Jacobi and Sag supplement their text-mining quantitative analysis with old-school qualitative analysis: they read and cataloged all 1,061 episodes of justice-induced laughter from 2010 to 2017.
Their conclusion: laughter at SCOTUS isn't much about fun and frivolity; it's mostly about the modern blood sport of judicial advocacy.
The piece builds on and reinforces Jacobi and Sag's prior work about shifts in the dynamics of SCOTUS oral argument. In an era of sharpening division and partisanship, justices have increasingly used oral argument to advocate rather than inquire. And the justices' use of humor at oral argument is of a piece. Just as justices' use of oral argument time to comment and advocate has increased dramatically in the modern era, so too has the [laughter]. In the 1950s and 60s, laughs were few and far between, and they were prompted nearly as often by advocates as by the justices. This mostly continued into the 1980s. But then, in the late 1980s and again in the mid-1990s, the pace of justice-triggered laughter escalated sharply. And it has stayed high.
There's more: at the same time, the patterns of justice-provoked laughter shifted significantly. Justices tend to draw more laughter during arguments with which they ultimately disagree. Put bluntly, they make jokes at the expense of advocates they oppose. This has mostly been true for most justices since 1955. But the "laughter gap" increased significantly in the mid-1980s and again in the mid-1990s. This too is consistent with the broader trends Jacobi and Sag have identified regarding the rise of judicial advocacy in SCOTUS oral argument. The justices also increasingly use humor as a signal of an advocate's weakness: they direct humor at advocates who are losing. This pattern too deepened in the mid-1980s and again in the mid-1990s. And the justices' use of humor reinforces hierarchy on another dimension: it is directly most often at novice advocates, particularly ones on the losing side. And when one looks at the quips that inspire laughter, the data make sense: a massive share of SCOTUS jokes involve putting advocates in their place. One example, from United States v. Kebodeaux:
So humor in the contemporary Supreme Court is a sharp and serious tool. And Profs Jacobi and Sag have done sharp and serious work.
Wednesday, March 6, 2019
Like a lot of advocacy professors, I'm an avid consumer of social-science literature on persuasion, decision-making, and pedagogy. And I'm a fan of efforts by law professors to apply this literature to what advocates do. Sure, we've got to be humble and cautious: I and many of the law professors with interest in this area aren't trained scientists or statisticians, and stuff like the Social Sciences Replication Project and the hubbub over power posing offer healthy reminders that it's possible (even easy, sometimes) for folks trained in the right disciplines to get out over their skies. As Ted Becker points out, we in the persuasion business don't really know much about what really persuades judges. But much of the good, humble, cautious work helps us at least start down the path of sorting out techniques that work from techniques that we adopt just because they're the way we do things. There is a wealth of interesting work being done in this area related to persuasive writing and legal reasoning: Kathy Stanchi's body of work on psychology and persuasion is remarkable; Lucy Jewel's piece on old-school rhetoric and new-school cognitive science is a revelation; Steven Winter's work broke fascinating ground in knitting together cognitive science and legal reasoning. I could mention dozens of other scholars here: exciting things are happening.
We don't have a similar volume, as yet, of scholarship linking social science to oral advocacy. Still: I'd like to devote a few posts to highlighting a couple of pieces that I find particularly useful in refining the advice I give to advocates and in polishing my own performances.
I think it's fair to call the first a classic in the field: Michael Higdon's Oral Argument and Impression Management: Harnessing the Power of Nonverbal Persuasion for a Judicial Audience, published in the Kansas Law Review in 2009. Professor Higdon offers a rich, comprehensive overview of research into the seven basic codes of nonverbal communication: (1) kinesics (i.e., what speakers do with their bodies); (2) physical appearance (i.e., what speakers look like); (3) vocalics (i.e., what speakers sound like); (4) haptics (i.e., how speakers physically touch an audience member); (5) proxemics (i.e., how speakers use physical space); (6) environment and artifacts (i.e., how speakers use instruments and their environment); and (7) chronemics (i.e., how speakers manages time). And he thoughtfully applies that research to what lawyers do in appellate oral argument.
I find Higdon's piece particularly useful in sorting out advice on things like the use of gestures. Quite often, beginning appellate advocates will do stuff with their hands that distracts judges. So they'll get categorical advice: don't talk with your hands. And they take that advice ... and promptly get told by the next set of judges not to be so stiff and nervous. Higdon's piece details research spanning several decades that makes it clear that any "don't use your hands" advice is flatly wrong: gestures are essential to effective in-person communication generally, and they're especially vital to persuasion. But there's a catch: only those gestures that are "synchronized with and supportive of the vocal/verbal stream" enhance comprehension and persuasion. The lesson that emerges: advocates should use purposeful gestures that match and support the points they make verbally, but avoid gestures that simply accompany the verbal stream. So use the hands to help you make a point, but don't let your hands flap around randomly to accompany your talk.
Higdon's points on speed of delivery (somewhat fast is actually good, so long as it doesn't flatten out a speaker's pitch and tone) and on managing the judges' dominance are similarly illuminating. If it is read as widely as it should be, the generations of appellate advocates will tilt their heads eight degrees to the right (see p. 643). And win.
Monday, February 25, 2019
Moot Court season is upon us. Law students from around the country are headed off to compete in a mock appellate arguments on a wide range of topics. This past weekend students competed at the Jeffrey G. Miller National Environmental Law Moot Court Competition (more commonly known as Pace). Students also competed at the San Francisco and Portland regionals for the National Appellate Advocacy Competition put on by the ABA. (Congrats to the teams from my school that both made it to the round of 5 at the San Francisco regional).
This coming weekend Boston and Philadelphia host their NAAC regional competitions. And, my school hosts the National Native American Law Student Association Moot Court Competition. We are looking forward to hosting 40+ teams from across the country to argue a difficult, but fascinating, Indian Law problem.
The University of Houston has already started tabulating the top moot court programs for its rankings. This year the current top 5 is Texas heavy:
- Loyola University
- South Texas
- University of Georgia
- University of Houston
I really love moot court. I love coaching, I love judging, and I love seeing students develop over the course of the weeks that they work on the problem. Moot court has many benefits for students. While it certainly teaches them teamwork, it also teaches them to be problem solvers and work independently. For most moot court competitions, students cannot receive any outside help on their briefs. For some competitions, they can't even receive substantive help during their oral advocacy practices. Moot court also teaches time management. Some of the major competitions, like the NAAC and the NNALSA, require students to brief over the winter holidays. Finally, moot court helps students learn to become excellent public speakers. I have heard that the number one fear that people have is public speaking. As a person who formerly hated public speaking, I know that the only thing that has helped me improve is practice, practice, practice. Moot court does that for law students.
Moot court has benefits for the local legal community too. Volunteering to judge provides you with more than a few free CLE credits, it allows you to think about and discuss an interesting area of law. Moot court problems are often centered around an interesting and unsettled area of the law--the kind of question your least favorite professor might put on a law school exam. It can be fun to get back into law school mode and ponder these questions (especially when you are asking the questions, rather than the other way around). I also think that moot court gives us hope for the next generation of lawyers. They can, and will, do great things. That is exciting.
But, despite the excitement, moot court isn't perfect. It isn't perfect because we all know that the briefs are way more important than the arguments in real life. It also isn't perfect because, just like in real life, gender stereotypes can rear their ugly heads. I was reminded of that this week when I saw an article on Law.com announcing that the first female appellate law clerk had passed away at the age of 94. Carmel Ebb, who graduated first in her class at Columbia Law in 1945, is believed by most to be the first woman to clerk for a federal appellate court judge. She clerked for Judge Jerome Frank on the Second Circuit. She interviewed for a Supreme Court Clerkship but, according to her obituary, “Her hopes were dashed when the justice concluded their conversation by saying he had no doubt she would be a fine clerk, but that his wife would never allow him to work in such close proximity to a woman.” Ms. Ebb went on to have a successful career, including making partner at a New York firm.
So how do gender stereotypes play a role in moot court? Next post I will look at an article on this topic.
Saturday, February 16, 2019
Recently, Tessa wrote about useful tools for scoping out the court. In her post, Tessa discussed resources for learning more about your audience, so you can effectively tailor your brief and argument.
In this post, I'll address some strategies for those times when learning more about your audience just isn't possible. For instance, if you're arguing to a panel of the Fourth Circuit, you'll have no idea who's been pouring over your brilliant brief until it's show time. Similarly, if your audience is a state supreme court, it's unlikely that any specific tidbit is going to save you. Consider the odds. In North Carolina, where I practice, you'd be left trying to anticipate the desires of seven justices, each with a different background.
So what's the advocate to do? Use your brief not only to argue but also to educate.
Here's some background. Recently, I heard North Carolina's Senior Associate Justice, Paul Newby, speak at a CLE. Justice Newby was tasked with explaining the Supreme Court of North Carolina's mandatory appellate jurisdiction in complex business cases.
The Justice made the point that too often the nuance of a complex business case may be lost on his colleagues. Each of them has a different background, and only one -- himself -- had a history of litigating business disputes, like shareholder derivative actions.
The problem isn't that the justices don't approach each case carefully. Quite the opposite. It's that they're spending too much time trying to grasp the foundational principles, which the attorneys didn't explain sufficiently, and thus don't have enough time to digest the arguments.
That got me thinking. Lawyers get tunnel vision. We know our case -- the ins, the outs, the twists, the turns. Sometimes, we've lived with it for months or maybe even years. We've done the legal research and read all the pertinent authorities.
Being so caught up may not be such a bad thing. If you were involved before the appeal, you have an intimate knowledge of the case that an appellate lawyer will try her best to recreate. But being so caught up also has its downsides. It's easy to become too comfortable with a set of facts, or with a legal principle.
But skimping on the basics can keep your reader from buying what you're selling. If a judge has to read your argument multiple times to get a basic grasp on the issues, you're losing ground. The time that a judge spends re-reading your brief, pouring over the record, or, worst of all, doing background legal research is time that he or she is not spending thinking critically about your case. Chief Justice John Roberts said as much in a 2007 interview with Brian Garner. (Read the whole thing, but especially check page 28 of the PDF).
So what can we do about it? Like all good legal problems, the answer depends. The answer depends on whether the wrinkle in your case is factual or legal.
If the complicated issue is factual, consider a tactic that a partner of mine calls "putting on the white hat." Take the opportunity to explain, as honestly as you can, not only the facts behind your case but also the context. Why are the parties fighting? What are their motivations?
I know, I know. That sounds more like a mediation statement than an appellate brief. But the reader will appreciate it. By putting the case in context, you'll have gained two advantages. First, you will have explained the case in a way that helps the judge or her law clerk understand it. It's likely your opponent won't, which also means you'll get a chance to present your case's human factors. And that leads to the second point. By explaining the human factors motivating your case from your client's perspective, you'll gain a subjective advantage. You'll humanize your client.
Sometimes, putting your facts in context is as simple as an extra sentence, or an extra phrase. For instance, if you're in an employer-union ERISA dispute, consider telling your reader what the employer does. Likewise, consider telling your reader who the union represents. Sure, these facts have nothing to do with the nuance of the ERISA plan in dispute, and you probably won't reference them anywhere in the brief. But this type of stuff is important if you want your brief to do more than recite facts; it helps your brief tell a story.
In any case, if the complicated issue is legal, then the best approach is to keep it simple. Remember, judges are generalists. While you might live and breathe environmental or bankruptcy or intellectual property law, that doesn't mean that your judge does. So think twice before you start using terms of art without first describing them in plain English. Slow the pace of your brief, educate your reader, and then explain why you should win.
I recognize that it might be frustrating to go back to basics. But there's yet another benefit. You have the chance to teach the judge the applicable law as you see it. It's another chance for advocacy, no matter how subtle.
To conclude, I'll leave you with this thought, which, to some extent, ties these points together. Be creative about how you structure your brief. For instance, if you're arguing about a novel issue of statutory interpretation or a complex statutory scheme, the court will likely be less interested in the facts of your case than with an overview of the statute. Lead with it. Embrace it. You can take a lot of approaches when writing your brief and, fortunately, very few are wrong. But more on that in my next post.
Wednesday, February 13, 2019
As a follow up to my last post, I ask: Have you perfected your oral argument skills to the point where you have lost the very essence of the practice itself? Have you adopted a style that is not truly your own, but that you have seen successfully wielded by others? There are guidelines that should be followed, but they seem to be contradictory. For example, consider the following rules: Don’t just rehash your brief, but don’t raise anything new. Don’t be too comfortable, but remember to be conversational. Stand up straight, but don’t be stiff. Bring your notes to the podium, but don’t read them. I can imagine why, if you have seen someone do it well, you would be tempted to adopt that person’s style.
Here is the downfall to mimicry: it isn’t genuine, and your listener can tell. You get hung up on the act of giving the argument, and the performance of it all, as opposed to getting hung up on “having” the argument. We all “give” arguments from time to time. At its essence giving an argument is what we do when we “say our piece.” It is more of a soliloquy than anything else. It doesn’t invite give and take, nor does it want to be questioned. At work, we give arguments when we give presentations, or lectures. We are happy to take questions … but, please, hold them until the end.
When you are truly having an argument with someone, there is give and take … in the moment. If one must wait to ask questions, the question itself loses its meaning. The answers are even farther removed, and they lose their power. Answers draw strength from context. Why would you ever want to disembody your answer by removing it from its contextual location?
If your argument is too perfect, or too unnatural for you, it will become a presentation. An argument that is too tight does not invite questions. In creating the perfect argument, you give off the aura that to disagree with you is to be wrong. Or it appears that you are so right in your position, your authority is not to be questioned. Your panel will follow along, but there will be no opportune moment to interrupt such a presentation. It will feel like interrupting, which is not conducive to conversation.
The best advocates are comfortable in their own skin. If they are nervous, it may show at first, but as the argument progresses and the conversation begins, even the most nervous of advocates settle into the conversation. Settle into the confidence of the argument itself. Your argument doesn’t have to be perfect, although it should be legally sound and logically organized; it merely needs to be inviting. With all the formality of the brief, you have already detailed a step-by-step approach to solving the problem before the court. Your argument is the time to explore the problem, and explain why your position is preferable to any alternative. Feel free to look down one rabbit trail or another, but confident enough to explain to the court why it does not want to, or should wait to, follow that trail. The more welcoming you are to questioning, the more confident your position will seem, and that is the key to a winning argument.
Tuesday, February 12, 2019
Last night, I watched On the Basis of Sex with first-year law students. Munching on popcorn and candy, the students learned about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and her first gender-discrimination case, Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, 469 F.2d 466 (10th Cir. 1972). Moritz challenged section 214(a) of the Internal Revenue Code, 26 U.S.C. § 214(a) (1954), because it precluded him, as an unmarried man, from claiming a caregiver deduction despite caring for his elderly mother.
On the Basis of Sex provides 1Ls with an excellent introduction to appellate advocacy. The movie begins with Ginsberg’s first day of law school, then chronicles her writing her first brief and delivering her first oral argument. After the movie, I discussed with the first-year students how the movie compares with what they will do when they receive their first appellate problem in a few weeks. Below are some of the lessons learned.
Appellate Practice Is a Lot of Work
Most of the movie occurs outside the courtroom. Students saw Ginsberg meet with Moritz to discuss taking an appeal. They saw her strategize with other attorneys about arguments. She works with her husband, a tax attorney, and her staff and students at Rutgers Law School. She researches, writes, and rewrites the appellant’s brief. When appellee’s brief arrives with an appendix of over six hundred federal laws that distinguish between men and women, Ginsberg and her team look up and discuss each one. She takes a settlement offer to her client. Before oral argument, Ginsberg practices before a moot court and then before a mirror. Ginsberg works hard. The process takes a long time.
Oral Argument Is a Little Scary
The climax of the movie is during the final minutes when the parties argue before the Tenth Circuit. Students noted how different oral argument looks from the trials they had seen on TV. There is no jury. A lone attorney stands before a panel of three judges. They remarked how Ginsberg was nervous and awkward at first. The judges directed the course of the argument. They interrupted with questions.
The students began to imagine what it will be like when they argue in April. We discussed how preparation goes a long way toward easing nerves. I shared that they will have the opportunity to practice before moot courts organized by our Moot Court Honor Society. I encouraged them to practice in front of a mirror like Ginsberg. I shared that it is normal to be nervous, especially for your first argument.
One Case Can Be Two Different Stories
The underlying dispute in Moritz involved the denial of a tax deduction because the taxpayer did not meet the qualifications in the tax code. The law was clear. Mr. Moritz did not qualify for the caregiver deduction because he was an unmarried man. Had he been a woman, divorced, or a widower, he would have been eligible for the deduction.
The students observed how the lawyers (arguing for the IRS) and Ginsberg (arguing for Mr. Moritz) told two different stories based on the same case. The IRS portrayed Mr. Moritz as a tax cheat. Ginsberg held him up as a loving and devoted son. The IRS, armed with one hundred years of precedent, argued that the Tenth Circuit should protect society by maintaining the status quo on gender. Ginsberg advocated for new law because precedent had failed to keep up with society’s evolving views on gender.
During oral argument, the IRS argued that “radical social change” is something to be feared and must be stopped. Ginsberg picked up on this point during her rebuttal. She argued that “radical social change” had already happened and the Tenth Circuit should bring the law into alignment with that change. Students were struck by this exchange. Each side used the same words to make two very different points.
At the end of the evening, students left our gathering excited, inspired, and a little nervous. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to introduce them to appellate advocacy in such a fun way. Ginsberg remarks at one point during the film that by teaching law students she hoped to inspire the next generation of lawyers. Through this movie, Justice Ginsberg is still doing just that.
Friday, January 25, 2019
Each week, the Appellate Advocacy Blog Weekly Roundup presents a few tidbits of news and Twitter posts from the past week concerning appellate advocacy. As always, if you see something during the week that you think we should be sure to include, feel free to send Dan Real a quick email atDReal@Creighton.edu or a message on Twitter (@Daniel_L_Real). You can also send emails to Danny Leavitt at Danny@tsalerno-law.com or a message on twitter @Danny_C_Leavitt.
Supreme Court News and Opinions:
The Supreme Court is out of session for a few weeks, now that the January sitting is over, although this week saw the issuance of some orders and decisions from last week's conference.
The Washington Post reported earlier this week about how the Court has maintained a relatively "low-key term," delaying taking up a variety of divisive issues such as immigration, abortion, and sexual orientation and gender identity, while also signaling some interest in other controversial topics like transgender service in the military and the Second Amendment. CNN had a similar story.
Earlier this week, over the objection of the four more liberal members of the Court, the Justices allowed the Trump Administration's ban on transgender members serving in the military to go into effect while the issue is litigated in lower courts. MSNBC had a report. CNN also reported, noting the impact the Court might have upon the 2020 Presidential election.
On Tuesday, the Court granted cert in a case involving a challenge to New York City's limits on transporting personal firearms, bringing an opportunity for the Court to provide clarity on its Second Amendment jurisprudence. With the shifting makeup of the Court now leaning more conservative, there is speculation that the Court will create a test for handgun restrictions that invalidates many local laws. The case is New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. City of New York. More about the case and what the eventual ruling might mean for the Second Amendment and gun regulations from the Atlantic and National Review.
Federal Appellate Court News and Opinions:
The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals recently issued a decision in a case that provided some discussion of interest to appellate advocates concerning the procedural distinction between an appeal from a decision granting summary judgment and a decision denying a motion for reconsideration and the respective standards of review. The case is SPV-LS, LLC v. Transamerica Life Insurance Company. Thanks to reader Ben Rand of Harris Beach for the tip about this opinion. According to Rand (quoting one of the firm's attorneys): "The court focused procedurally on the appellant's efforts to conflate [the decision granting summary judgment and the decision denying reconsideration and the respective standards of review], and the Eighth Circuit carefully distinguished between the separate and distinct standards of review. If there were doubts in the Eighth Circuit regarding these concepts and related standards of review, the Eighth Circuit laid them to rest in this decision."
State Appellate Court News and Opinions:
The Arizona Supreme Court was scheduled this week to hear arguments in a case concerning how far business owners can go in refusing to serve customers because of their sexual orientation. The case presents the question of whether the owners of a business can refuse to use their talents to design custom wedding invitations and other materials if the couple is of the same gender or whether they are required to serve the couple under a city of Phoenix ordinance barring places of public accommodation from sexual orientation discrimination. More from Tucson.com.
Appellate Job Postings:
The California Office of the Attorney General has a posting for a Solicitor General position.
Thursday, December 20, 2018
Margaret Hannon, guest blogger, Clinical Assistant Professor of Law, University of Michigan Law School
Distraction is not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about effective persuasion. Isn’t the aim of persuasion—and advocacy more generally—to try to avoid distraction? To the contrary, Professor Melissa H. Weresh argues that distraction and redirection are persuasive techniques that advocates can use effectively to influence results. In her article, “Wait, What? Harness the Power of Distraction or Redirection in Persuasion,” recently published in Legal Communication & Rhetoric: JALWD, Professor Weresh “studies how distraction influences results and whether there is therefore a potential for the intentional use of distraction, or redirection, in advocacy.” As a baseline, Professor Weresh defines distraction, misdirection, and redirection as “deliberately redirecting the attention of the listener with persuasive intent in mind.”
Professor Weresh connects the use of redirection in advocacy to principles from storytelling and psychology. All three hinge on the innate human desire for “equilibrium, or resolving uncertainty.” When redirection techniques are used to disorient the listener and shock her out of her equilibrium, a solution can then be offered that resolves the uncertainty and allows the listener to regain her control, leading to a solution that the storyteller wanted all along.
Professor Weresh argues that advocates are already using redirection techniques, even if they are not explicitly described as such. As advocates, lawyers use redirection by making choices “as to what to reveal or emphasize” to “orient the reader’s focus or attention,” which then “redirect[s] the attention to a persuasive result.” For example, criminal defense lawyers have multiple redirection strategies at their disposal. They can use explicit misdirection to create doubt about bad facts and law by “keeping relevant material out of consideration, confusing witnesses, or redirecting the flow of the argument.” With this strategy, the lawyer tries to “undermine the plausibility of the story offered by the prosecution and therefore to interfere with the coherence of the story offered by the prosecutor.” Criminal defense lawyers can also use more implicit redirection strategies, such as using closing arguments to recast the role of the jury as the protagonist. But the use of redirection is not limited to the criminal defense context. Professor Weresh also presents other redirection strategies that can be used more generally. For example, advocates may frame or reframe an issue to invoke the decisionmaker’s fear (“the reptile strategy”). When used by plaintiffs, it “seeks to pit the [decisionmaker] against the defendants by making the [decisionmaker] feel that the defendants’ actions and products threaten themselves, their families, and their societies.”
Redirection strategies, of course, raise ethical concerns. If lawyers are expected to be truthful, then how can they engage in misdirection? There is no bright line between true and false; instead, there is a continuum—some middle ground between absolute truth and deliberate misleading or misrepresentation. Ultimately, advocates must use their own judgment when considering how they can effectively, and ethically, use redirection techniques in their practice.
Professor Weresh’s article pushes readers to consider how redirection could supplement approaches to advocacy and, more generally, to persuasive storytelling.
Special thanks to Alison Doyle for her help with this blog post.
Wednesday, October 10, 2018
If you're looking to gin up controversy in moot court circles, here's one way: raise the topic of arguing without notes. If the moot-court whisper network and this Reddit thread are to be believed, some faculty coaches insist that their student advocates argue without notes. And, whether coaches insist on it or not, quite a few moot court advocates (including a bunch from my school) compete notes free. Hence the controversy. A lot of folks, like Reddit Person, don't see much genuine benefit to arguing sans notes. Sure, it might intimidate opponents or wow easily-impressed judges. But beyond that? Not much.
I would agree that going notes free probably doesn't offer many benefits in the actual oral argument performance. As the notoriously notes-free Paul Clement explains on page 16 of this article, well-prepared advocates mostly bring notes to the podium. And they mostly don't use them. Of course, as the Supreme Court's Guide to Counsel admonishes, "under no circumstances should you read your argument from a prepared script." But having notes to provide security, especially about key statutory language or sharp bits from the record, and making nondistracting use of them on occasion ... often a good thing, and rarely a bad thing.
But I think going notes-free is incontrovertibly great in one context: practice. Why? Science. As I've argued before on this blog, oral argument is a tremendous tool for learning. And doing it without notes can deepen learning. In a study published a few months ago in Applied Cognitive Psychology, researchers built upon a substantial body of literature showing that teaching material to others enhances the teacher's own learning of the materials. They attempted to figure out why. So they split research subjects—a group of undergraduate students—into four learning groups, all of which were given time to study and prepare to teach a lesson on the Doppler effect. Then two groups actually taught the lesson. One group taught from a script; the second taught without notes. A third group didn't teach, and instead took a free-recall test about the Doppler effect. The forth group—the control—simply did arithmetic problems.
One week later, the subjects were tested on their knowledge of the Doppler effect. And the subjects who taught without a script outperformed those who taught from a script.
The reason: teaching without notes forced subjects to engage in retrieval practice. The experiment suggests that teachers learn by teaching largely because—and when—they are required to extract, with effort, information from their brains. So it isn't the act of teaching per se that boosts learning, but the act of retrieving the information that does the trick. Hence this result: the no-notes teaching group performed as well on the test as the group that engaged in retrieval practices without teaching. And the scripted teaching group barely outperformed the control group.
As I've said here before: prepared oral advocates learn, deeply, then teach, and learn more deeply for having taught.
Pull the notes, and the learning is richer and deeper.
Thursday, September 27, 2018
Margaret Hannon, guest blogger, Clinical Assistant Professor of Law, University of Michigan Law School
Storytelling is an integral part of a lawyer’s work, particularly for appellate lawyers. One critical aspect of effective storytelling is structure—and when it comes to structuring an effective story, lawyers can learn a little something from screenwriters.
In Teresa Bruce’s forthcoming article in the Journal of Legal Writing Institute, The Architecture of Drama: How Lawyers Can Use Screenwriting Techniques to Tell More Compelling Stories, Professor Bruce proposes that “lawyers build their stories in the same way Hollywood writers do.” Just as screenwriters follow a formula, lawyers should do the same: as IRAC is to argument sections, SCOR is to fact sections.
Professor Bruce’s article builds on existing storytelling literature, which approaches narrative theory from several different perspectives. The structural perspective uses a pragmatic or pedagogical approach, arguing that “[a] large part of telling an effective story is the order in which the reader presents information.”[i] Scholars in this area argue that an effective story structure helps judges and juries understand and remember information, and the story that flows most logically will be the story that seems most probable. As a result, good story structure can increase a client’s chance of winning.
Professor Bruce’s article takes the structural approach to narrative theory a step further by introducing the SCOR structure. Many lawyers will be familiar with the writing stages identified by Professor Betty Flowers: Madman, Architect, Carpenter, Judge. The Architect stage is where writers focus on “large, organizational, paragraph-level thinking.” The SCOR template gives writers a “flexible, generally applicable template they can use each time they tackle a new case.” This enables “lawyers to skip the Architecture stage entirely when writing a facts section (as IRAC enables them to do when writing an argument section).” Ultimately, Professor Bruce’s hope is that using SCOR will make it easier for lawyers to write their clients’ stories more coherently, which will result in clearer, more compelling, and more convincing stories.
So, what is SCOR? To explain SCOR, Professor Bruce begins with the classic three-act story structure, “the basis of Western storytelling.” Act I, the Setup, establishes the protagonist’s “status quo.” Act II, the Confrontation, breaks the status quo and takes the protagonist on a journey to a point of climax. Act III, the Resolution, introduces the protagonist’s “new normal” and resolves any unanswered questions. Taking this basic story structure a step further, advanced story structure builds additional milestones into each act to create an overarching “story arc” that provides “rising tension throughout the first and second acts and falling tension during the third.” Professor Bruce illustrates both the basic and advanced story structure through a classic movie, The Wizard of Oz.
Professor Bruce then translates this traditional formula into legal writing: Setup, Confrontation, Outcome, Resolution, or SCOR. As in advanced screenwriting, within each act, additional milestones help to give the story added structure and keep audience members engaged.
First, the Setup, Act I, humanizes the client by establishing the client’s life and status quo before the “bad event” of the litigation. Second, the Confrontation, Act II, is the “meat” of the story—it introduces the client’s antagonist and sets out the pivotal (i.e. outcome-determinative) facts. While the opposing party will often be the antagonist, for some clients, the antagonist will be subtler. For example, for less-sympathetic clients, the antagonist might be “mental-health problems, addiction, childhood trauma, or poverty.”
The third and fourth components of the story are the Outcome and the Resolution, Act III. The Outcome is “the end of the protagonist’s quest,” while the Resolution is “where the audience gets closure.” This is the most difficult section for legal writers because a “lawyer cannot simply resolve her client’s story . . . the way a screenwriter can.” Instead, the lawyer may invite closure by inviting “the judge or the jury to resolve the storyline in a way that favors the client.”
To illustrate how this structure works and why it is effective, Professor Bruce uses the statement of facts in the Petition for Certiorari in Miranda v. Arizona. This statement of facts helps illustrate the SCOR structure, but also shows how the structure “can work even for a largely unsympathetic defendant, one who has been convicted of a violent crime.” In addition, Professor Bruce points out that other landmark briefs use a similar story structure.
I encourage practitioners, legal writing professors, and law students to read Professor Bruce’s article. In the article, she provides a more in-depth discussion of advanced storytelling structure, including the milestones within each act. SCOR provides a practical, accessible, and memorable way to help lawyers incorporate storytelling into their legal writing. And if lawyers can make their clients’ stories more accessible to their audiences, those stories will hopefully also be clearer, more compelling, and more convincing.
Special thanks to Alison Doyle for her help with this blog post.
[i] Brian J. Foley & Ruth Anne Robbins, Fiction 101: A Primer for Lawyers on How to Use Fiction Writing Techniques to Write Persuasive Fact Sections, 32 Rutgers L.J. 459, 475 (2001).
September 27, 2018 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, Film, Law School, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Moot Court, Oral Argument, State Appeals Courts, Television, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)
Wednesday, September 12, 2018
As First Monday approaches, SCOTUS watchers would do well to follow SCOTUS OA, a blog launched in August by Tonja Jacobi of Northwestern Pritzker School of Law and Matthew Sag of Loyola University Chicago School of Law. Simply put: Professors Jacobi and Sag are doing fascinating things with a remarkable dataset built around the text of every SCOTUS oral argument since 1955.
Their most recent post, on Judge Kavanaugh and the polarized Court, delves into a topic they explore more deeply in a forthcoming article in the Notre Dame Law Review: the change in the dynamics of SCOTUS oral arguments in the last two decades. As veteran advocates and Court watchers have often observed, oral argument has changed over the last few decades: justices increasingly have dominated, advocates have less opportunity to unspool their arguments free from interruption, justices are engaging with advocates less to gather information and more to persuade their colleagues, and so on. Empirical work comparing oral argument dynamics in the 1960s and 2000s -- this piece by Barry Sullivan and Megan Canty and this by James Carter and Edward Phillips -- has confirmed this. But observation, anecdotes, and well-analyzed slices don't tell a comprehensive story of when and how things changed. And they can't tell us much about why.
Enter the work of Professors Jacobi and Sag. They analyze (as a starting point) more than 1.4 million speech episodes in over 6,000 cases over the last 55 years. And yes: oral argument at SCOTUS has changed. Justices are more active. More judicial advocacy, less judicial inquiry. OK: we know that. But the story the data tell is deep and rich, far more interesting than "Scalia's the reason" or "Breyer started asking a question in 1995 and hasn't finished it yet." For example: the number of questions justices ask per case hasn't varied much from 1960 to 2015. But the justices are saying about twice as many words per argument in the last couple of decades, taking up about 13 minutes more per sixty-minute argument than they used to (and, no, it's not all Breyer). So what's going on? In short: judicial advocacy. Less inquiry, more commentary. Jacobi and Sag develop the point brilliantly. And they demonstrate that the shift in dynamic wasn't simply a gradual evolution or one that can be tied to a change in Court personnel. It happened, they show, in 1995. In happened because, they argue, of political polarization embodied in and brought on by the Contract-with-American Congress.
The SCOTUS OA team updates the blog on Monday mornings. I'll be hitting refresh as they do.
Thursday, June 21, 2018
As the Supreme Court's term finishes with a flurry, this is a great time to glue yourself to Adam Feldman's data dives on his outstanding blog, Empirical SCOTUS (cross-posted since March at SCOTUSblog.com). The site is a treasure trove for Court watchers, and Feldman is terrific at collecting, presenting, and analyzing data about an endlessly fascinating institution.
In a recent post, Don't Cite Me Like That, Feldman touches (tentatively, and appropriately so) on issues that keep a lot of us entertained: Does oral argument change outcomes? If so, how? And how can we tell? This debate was raised afresh late last week in the wake of the Court's decision in Minnesota Voters Alliance v. Mansky, a challenge under the First Amendment to Minnesota's ban on political apparel at polling places. Because polling places are nonpublic fora, governments have considerable latitude to impose even content-based restrictions on speech; those restrictions simply must reasonable and viewpoint-neutral. Writing for a seven-justice majority, Chief Justice Roberts concluded that the ban was unreasonable because the state failed to draw sufficiently sharp lines between permitted and banned political messaging; that is, the Chief says, "a serious matter when the whole point of the exercise is to prohibit the expression of political views."
To illustrate the state's difficulty in drawing lines, the Chief Justice cites to segments of the argument where counsel for the state, like, struggled to draw lines. The key questions came from Justice Alito; Mark Joseph Stern describes the most damning colloquy and provides an audio cut in this piece for Slate. Justice Alito relentlessly presents a chain of hypothetical questions about how a reasonable polling official would apply various bits of expressive apparel: a Colin Kaepernick jersey, shirts displaying rainbow flags or various messages, and so on. Counsel for the state's struggle was real (and understandable). It was also, according to the chief, telling:
My intuition is that justices will most often cite to oral argument for the reasons the Chief did here: to oppose the position of the advocate presenting the argument. My sense, too, is that a major subset of such uses would be to expose overbreadth and faulty tailoring by highlighting awkward responses to scope-testing hypotheticals. Characteristically, Feldman doesn't rely on intuition: he pulls the data. This term, justices have cited to oral arguments 69 distinct times in 26 cases (both numbers went up this morning; the justices dropped cites to oral argument in this morning's opinions in Pereira v. Sessions and Lucia v. SEC). And yes: this term, justices' most common purpose for citing oral argument has been to undercut a party's position, either by using the transcript to "create a straw man argument that the authoring justice later deconstructs" or, as in Mansky, to "more directly oppose a party's position" by detailing "miscalculated or erroneous answers," often to questions about hypothetical applications. To be sure, justices use oral argument transcripts for other purposes, and Feldman breaks down and explains those well. This strikes me as a rich area for further study.
Cycling back to the initial question: did the state's struggles in the Mansky oral argument effect the outcome? Obviously, we can't know with the information we have, and given the marginal, late-in-the-game impact of oral argument, a good hypothesis in almost any case would be no. But, as Feldman cautiously explains, Mansky might be different. Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, and Kagan sided with the majority. But their questioning patterns at oral argument (and, to some degree, the substance of their questions, particularly those of Justices Kennedy and Ginsburg) would suggest that they might have been inclined to rule the other way. And Justice Sotomayor's position in dissent—certify the case to the Minnesota Supreme Court for a possible saving construction—was a modest one. And yet: 7-2, with the oral argument transcript cited six times in the majority opinion (the Court also cited twice to oral arguments in Burson v. Freeman, a 1992 case addressing campaigning restrictions near polling places; see footnote 1 of the Mansky slip opinion).
So perhaps oral argument really mattered here.
Mostly, though, just add Empirical SCOTUS to your must-read list if you haven't already.