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.)
Monday, May 11, 2020
This is a guest post from Stephen P. Hardwick, an Assistant Public Defender for the State of Ohio.
I had two Zoom oral arguments in the Ohio Supreme Court in the last week of April. I’ll break what I learned into four categories—the physical and electronic set up, practice and preparation, the argument itself, and finally some thoughts on how to use what might be your only chance to be in the office for weeks or months. And just like preparation for a courtroom argument, there’s a lot more to do preparing for the argument than at the argument itself.
- Computer and room set up:
- Regardless of what I say here, when it comes to the camera set up, the background, and the aesthetics of the podium area, you should do what you need do to feel comfortable and professional. I explain here what worked for me, but trust your judgment. For example, even though I can’t imagine that I’d do better sitting down, if you’re more comfortable sitting in front of a web cam, you’ll probably do better that way.
- Use your office. At least in Ohio, legal services are “essential,” and using your office means you don’t have to shush your kids for hours, share a residential broadband connection with their Zoom classes, or worry about a flushing toilet in the background. When I came home from the first argument, my wife told me a neighbor had been doing concrete work the whole time. Try to imagine that when pleading your client’s case.
- If possible, use a high definition web cam and then test whether it the camera angle is better at the top or the bottom of your monitor. Either way, having the web cam close to the screen means that when you look at the judges, the judges will feel like you’re looking at them. I didn’t use a web cam, but I wish I had because it would have provided a higher quality feed. My office is working to find one for the next attorney with an argument.
- Use a moderate-sized monitor. I used a huge wall-mounted monitor, but I found myself looking at the tiny laptop screen that was about six feet away because it was closer to the camera. A moderate-sized monitor will give enough space to see the judges without pushing the camera too far from the center of the screen.
- If at all possible, physically attach your computer to the office’s Internet service. WiFi is not good enough unless there’s no other choice. Cell connections sometimes are faster than WiFi connections, so if you can’t use a wired connection, test your cell connection and compare it to your WiFi. I had to abandon my first test run with Ohio Supreme Court staff because my WiFi connection was too slow. Most of my suggestions are just suggestions. This is not.
- The computer you use for Zoom might be inaccessible for a few hours before argument, so if possible, use one computer for the video hook up and another one for notes, files, and last-minute Westlaw searches. For Ohio Supreme Court arguments, we check in between 7:45 and 8:00 a.m., and then they put us in the Zoom waiting room until our argument time, which might not be until 11:00. During one of my waits, I checked a transcript, which inadvertently changed the angle of my computer screen. Because I was in the waiting room, I didn’t see that I was cut off at the chest until it was time to say, “May it please the Court.” If I had used a different laptop, I would not have had this problem.
- Have someone in the room with a remote keyboard and mouse who can take care of technical issues, like muting and unmuting or reconnecting the video if needed. If you can avoid it, you don’t want to pause the argument to take care of a technical problem. Your assistant can focus on fixing a problem while you continue to focus on arguing your case.
- Unless you have an exceptional microphone, use the dial-in number from a landline or VoIP. It will almost certainly be clearer, and it will be less problematic than using your laptop microphone. Connect using your “Participant ID” so the audio will be synced with your video. If you don’t know what that means, work with the court’s tech staff.
- Set the camera back far enough that it shows the upper half of the podium and a couple feet on either side. I strongly suggest standing at the podium when arguing and sitting when you’re not. Standing makes it easier to use gestures, and it made me feel more professional. If you sit, do so where the judges can see you so that you don’t entirely disappear from their view. Note: Ohio Supreme Court Justice Judith French has recommended either sitting or standing the whole time. She was concerned about awkward transitions. I hope I was sufficiently ready for the transitions that I didn’t bug her, but I was concerned about fidgeting while standing, which would have created its own nuisance.
- Professional virtual backgrounds are perfectly fine. So is an empty or nearly empty room. So is a bookshelf or uncluttered office. Whatever you do, you should be deliberate about what the camera will show. You should also have it ready before the test session with the court so that court staff can give feedback on the background. The IT professional helping us had spoken with our Chief Justice about how to run the argument, so if he asked me to change something, the Chief Justice probably would have, too.
- On the computer you use for the video feed, quit EVERYTHING. You don’t want anything popping up when you are arguing. You also don’t want your computer using its resources for anything but your argument.
- Practice and preparation:
- Attorneys get a test session the week before an Ohio Supreme Court argument. The test is both mandatory and extremely helpful. Michael Woods, the Ohio Supreme Court’s IT person, was great. Picture an Apollo-era mission control chief—white shirt with a tie, slightly horn-rimmed glasses, and a headset with a microphone extending around in front. He was also meticulous and calm. If you don’t have a practice session, ask for one.
- The Ohio Supreme Court required us to use a Zoom account with our real name and a professional-looking profile photo. The profile picture would appear if the video quit. The name appears over you during the argument. If your kids use the same account for school, make sure you don’t have your kid’s name over your feed and that you won’t present yourself to the court with a dragon avatar
- Make sure the court staff knows the number of the caller ID of the phone you will call in from. Often, our office phones give out a different caller ID than the number needed to call that phone. Because the staff had my correct number, they knew that, if needed, they could answer a call from me and immediately plug it back into the arguments.
- Do at least one Zoom moot court with the set up you will use for the argument. Have someone else host the Zoom moot because that’s how the argument will go. If possible, do the moot after the official test session so you will be using the set up that the court staff has approved. The practice sessions and moot courts will help you make sure that you have all the equipment you need set up in the best possible way. During my first practice session, I discovered that I needed a very specific adapter to physically connect to the Internet. You don’t want to wait until argument day to discover that you need some piece of equipment.
- Have a back-up plan in case you end up with a fever or something else that prevents you from using the office. We all could be the next person to get sick, and even a mild cough will keep us out of the office.
- Conduct of the argument itself:
- Be ready to act without the normal cues. In the courtroom, an attorney waits at counsel’s table until summoned to the podium by the presiding judge. In the Zoom world, you need to be ready when she calls you.
- Prioritize audio. At least in the Ohio Supreme Court, if you lose video during the argument, the Chief will keep the argument moving as long as she can hear you.
- I found it helpful to recreate a familiar environment—the podium, sitting while not speaking, and a real glass with cool water in it, just like the Ohio Supreme Court provides during a courtroom oral argument. A water glass might not be important to use, but I bet something small is. Figure out what that is and do it.
- Ohio Supreme Court staff required attorneys to leave a cell phone on to get messages before speaking or if there was a problem. That felt weird to me. I’m paranoid about my phone going off, so I didn’t like leaving it on. But I did.
- Office issues:
- This may be your only chance to personally check on your plants and retrieve stuff from your office. Take advantage of it, but don’t dawdle.
- Follow whatever rules your office sets. That will probably mean you’ll need to take your temperature, wear a mask when not presenting, and sanitize everything you touch. Your “essential” colleagues have to come to that place, so respect them enough to be careful.
- Final note: If something goes wrong, it’s OK. The judges will be patient as long as you’re making a good faith effort. So calmly do what you can to fix the problem. Remember that screen I accidentally put out of adjustment? During my initial argument, I just made sure my gestures were high enough to see. Before I sat down, I stepped forward, adjusted the camera angle, and sat down. No one said anything, and the argument continued. Your judges will show similar patience with you.
Monday, April 27, 2020
Nearly a lifetime ago (ok, it was just a month ago), I posted tips on how to conduct a virtual moot court competition. Since that post we have had some other great posts on remote oral argument and presentation, including these tips from Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman.
We held the final round of our moot court competition on April 16. Based on that experience, and a few other things I learned along the way, I thought I would offer my final thoughts and tips on virtual moot court competitions, in case we are all doing this again in the fall.
(1) Stagger start times. For our competition, we typically had two separate panels of three judges. Each panel heard two arguments--one starting at 5:30 pm and one starting at 6:30 pm. In my earlier suggestions, I recommended having separate Zoom links for each argument even if the panel was the same. That definitely worked well. But, if I could do it over, I would have had one panel start either 15 minutes earlier or 15 minutes later than the other panel. Why? Well, I "zoomed" into the first argument for each panel, just to make sure that the judges were present and that there weren't any questions. I ended up having one Zoom open on my laptop and one open on my tablet. This was a lot to manage, especially if there were issues that needed to be resolved. A 15 minute staggered start time would have alleviated some of my stress.
(2) Have back-ups. I wish that I had designated a back-up bailiff and judge for each round. We only had one judge who wasn't able to make it, but we did have bailiff sound/video issues. I was able to get those issues resolved with minimal delay, but having a designated back-up would have been even easier.
(3) Develop an online scoring survey. We ask our judges to fill out a fairly detailed score sheet. I take the scores and enter them into a complicated spreadsheet that incorporates the judges' scores and the student's brief score. When we have an in-person competition, I can look at the score sheets right away and identify anything that isn't filled out correctly. For an online competition, I had to wait to receive the score sheets. Then, if there were any problems, I had to get in touch with the judges. This wasn't an issue with the early rounds, but by the eliminate rounds, I needed to notify the students advancing quite promptly. If we do this again, I will work with our IT department to develop some sort of online tool that the judges fill out instead. This would hopefully help me get the scores sooner, and also ensure that the score sheets are completely filled out.
In addition to these general points, here are a few points from the final round:
(1) Use and circulate a background. The version of Zoom on my home laptop allows me to use a background without a green screen. I wish that I had circulated a background to the students and judges to use to make it a little more uniform.
(2) Figure out an online timer. I didn't use an online timer. Rather, my plan was to hold up time cards. I regret that choice. The time cards didn't show up with the background, so I ended up holding up fingers instead. I wish that I had tested the time cards to know that they wouldn't work. Then I would have definitely figured out how to put a small clock on the screen.
(3) Expect the unexpected (or be sure to lock your office door). Our final round started at 5:30 pm on April 16. I had told my spouse in the weeks leading up to the final argument that he would be on toddler duty all night long. I ordered dinner to be delivered, and reiterated to him right before the round began that I was unavailable. Well, as luck would have it, at about 5:50 pm my very tall, just turned 2 year old discovered how to open doors. And, as I am sure that you have guessed, the first door that he opened was the one right into my office as the Respondent was arguing. My microphone was muted, and the background kept him mostly hidden, but he was still a bit visible (as was my husband who, with a look of horror on his face, tried to quickly remove him from the scene). In hindsight, it was pretty humorous. I wasn't able to keep a poker face on while it happened, which I felt bad about. Now I know to lock my office door if I don't want to be disturbed.
Monday, April 13, 2020
We are thrilled to welcome Justice Eva Guzman of the Texas Supreme Court as our guest author. Justice Guzman has served on the Texas Supreme Court since 2009. Her Court recently held Zoom oral arguments. Here are her thoughts on the Zoom argument experience.
The Covid‑19 crisis impacts our everyday existence to an unprecedented degree. But the work courts do must continue. The dedicated judges of the Texas judiciary have united to address novel challenges in novel ways. And at a time of great uncertainty and turmoil, the Texas bar has also stepped up to meet client needs. Social media has played a vital role in disseminating information to the public and the bar in an evolving legal landscape. In different ways, #We’reInThisTogether.
#AppellateTwitter has been a positive space for lawyers and judges to share information, ideas, and practice tips. So, with the Texas Supreme Court’s first‑ever web-based oral arguments looming, I leveraged the #AppellateTwitter community for ideas on best practices. With those arguments successfully in the history books, I will repay the favor with a few tips of my own for the bench and bar.
Preparation is key. On our end, Clerk of the Court Blake Hawthorne, OCA Director David Slayton, and an OCA team led by Casey Kennedy worked tirelessly to make sure every detail was just right—from security to backgrounds, timers, court announcements, monitoring of the argument itself and more. The arguments were relatively seamless. Before the big day, Blake met with the lawyers in each case via Zoom to ensure their familiarity with the technology, lighting, backgrounds, and audio and to answer any questions. I also strongly encourage advocates to practice their argument via Zoom to work through any kinks. If possible, the justices should also test the program by gathering on the platform a day or so before the argument to ensure familiarity with the process. Practice makes perfect!
Zoom arguments require different pacing. If possible, advocates should pause in between their points to allow for questions. Judges could signal they are about to ask a question by unmuting their mics, moving closer to the computer camera, and addressing counsel by name before asking a question. Speaking over each other happens in live arguments, but the nature of video conferencing makes it more awkward.
Don’t forget the details.
- Choose an appropriate background or location. Our judges used a uniform background to help set the tone.
- Fully charge your battery and use a power cord. Batteries discharge quickly while using video applications.
- Maximize internet connectivity to avoid dropping off mid‑argument. Disengaging other household devices from wifi is helpful but may prove difficult with so many children distance learning these days.
Finally, don’t forget about time management. Blake Hawthorne’s inclusion of a screen for the “timer” was ingenious, and having a set time for judges and participants to log into their waiting rooms was critical to staying on schedule.
Sunday, April 12, 2020
Given the unprecedented and challenging times that have arisen due to the coronavirus, many courts (and law schools) are now conducting oral arguments online (e.g., via Zoom). For many lawyers and most law students, this is likely the first time in which they have been required to deliver oral arguments online.
Below are several tips (some rather obvious) to help lawyers and law students deliver effective and persuasive online oral arguments.
1. Make sure that you are positioned correctly
When giving an oral argument – or any presentation – online, be sure to observe the following guidelines.
First, whether you are seated or standing, make sure that the camera on your computer is at eye level. Second, you should position yourself so that you are approximately at arm’s length from the camera. Third, to ensure that you are making eye contact with the judge (or professor) always look straight into the camera and avoid looking at the screen. Fourth, make sure that your volume is at the appropriate level so that you can be heard clearly.
2. Choose a professional background
Be sure to position your desk and computer in an area that includes a professional background and that omits any distracting images. Additionally, eliminate all excess noise.
Also, make sure that the lighting is properly set. For example, if there is too much light in the background, it can cast a glare on the screen and distract the person to whom you are speaking. Finally, be sure to dress professionally.
3. Avoid Unnecessary Physical Gestures
When presenting your argument, avoid unnecessary movements (e.g., hand gestures), particularly those that will take you out of the camera’s range. Unnecessary movements will distract your audience and detract attention from the substance of your argument.
4. Get to the point quickly – the judge (or professor, or anyone) may get more easily distracted in an online format
In an online oral argument, there is an increased possibility that a judge (or professor, or anyone) may get distracted more easily, particularly if the environment within which a judge or professor is hearing the argument is less than ideal (e.g., in a home where other family members are present in the immediate vicinity). As such, you should prepare a short, one-page outline that contains the strongest legal and factual arguments supporting the remedy you seek and state them at the beginning of your argument. Indeed, the most persuasive oral arguments include a powerful beginning where an attorney: (1) states clearly the outcome and remedy that the attorney seeks; and (2) explains why the law and facts support that outcome. In doing so, be sure to omit extraneous or irrelevant facts and legal authority.
5. Follow all of the rules regarding oral argument as if you were giving the argument in person
You should approach online and in-person oral arguments in the same way. For example:
- Have a powerful introduction and roadmap
- State clearly the outcome you seek and begin with the most favorable law and facts that support this outcome
- Address weaknesses in your case (e.g., unfavorable law and facts) and explain why they do not affect the outcome you seek
- Answer the judge’s questions directly
- Be prepared to adjust your argument strategy depending on the questions and concerns expressed by the judge (or judges)
- Always be honest – never mislead the court or attempt to hide unfavorable law or facts
- Don’t be a jerk – never attack your adversary and never use over-the-top words or unnecessary adjectives
6. Be prepared for technical issues
Technical issues sometimes arise when using online platforms such as Zoom or Skype. For example, when I was interviewed via Skype for a faculty position several years ago, my screen suddenly went black and I could not see the faculty members who were interviewing me (although they could still see me). If any technical issues arise, be sure to maintain your composure and go with it. Indeed, in the interview where my screen went black, I still got the job.
7. Remember that this is new for everyone
Don’t be intimidated or overly concerned about performing an effective online oral argument. This is a new experience for many judges and law professors. At the end of the day, just be yourself – speak conversationally and remember that the skills needed to deliver excellent in-person oral arguments are largely the same as those needed to deliver excellent online oral arguments. And appreciate that, in delivering an online oral argument, you are learning a new skill that may prove valuable in the future.
Friday, March 27, 2020
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 a quick note to either (1) Dan Real at DReal@Creighton.edu or on Twitter @Daniel_L_Real or (2) Catharine Du Bois at DuBoisLegalWriting@gmail.com or on Twitter @CLDLegalWriting.
US Supreme Court Opinions and News:
The Supreme Court ruled that states can eliminate the insanity defense for accused criminals who suffer from mental illness. The ruling upholds a Kansas law that prevents defendants from arguing that diminished mental capacity impaired their ability to understand right from wrong. The court rejected the claim that the law was unconstitutional. See the opinion and report from the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, Hill, NPR, and APNews.
The Supreme Court ruled that states may not be sued for copyright infringement. Specifically, the Court held that the Copyright Remedy Clarification Act was an unconstitutional abrogation of state sovereign immunity. The ruling prohibited an underwater videographer’s suing North Carolina for using his copyrighted videos of a submerged ship used by Blackbeard. See the opinion and reports from NPR, Reuters, Bloomberg, ArsTechnica, and National Law Review.
The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that a lower court used the wrong legal standard in a racial discrimination lawsuit. The Court ruled that, for his discrimination case to survive, media mogul Byron Allen must show that race was the determining reason that Comcast refused to carry his channels and sent the case back to the Ninth Circuit for reconsideration. Legal experts and civil rights groups warned that the Comcast victory could make it more difficult to bring racial discrimination cases by setting a high bar. See the opinion and reports from Reuters, Bloomberg, CNBC, and The Hill.
Federal Appellate Court Opinions and News:
The Second Circuit affirmed the ruling that the president’s practice of blocking critics from his Twitter account violates the First Amendment. The court will not rehear the case despite a request from the Justice Department. See the ruling and reports from The Washington Post, Politico, The Washington Times, The Associate Press, and CNN.
The First Circuit upheld a ruling that the Justice Department cannot compel cities to comply with federal immigration authorities as a condition of receiving federal grants. The cities of Providence and Central Falls had sued the Department of Justice for requiring that recipients of a federal criminal-justice grant cooperate with authorities in the enforcement of federal immigration law. The ruling states that the statutory formula outlining how the grant can be allocated “simply does not allow the DOJ to impose by brute force conditions on [such] grants to further its own unrelated law enforcement priorities.“ See the ruling and reports from Bloomberg and Providence Journal.
COVID-19 and the Courts
- More courts are holding virtual oral arguments and some are making those arguments available online. For example, see the Eleventh Circuit’s announcement, the Ninth Circuit’s announcement, the DC Circuit’s announcement, and the Second Circuit’s announcement.
- New York has issued a wide-ranging order suspending statutes of limitation. The executive order temporarily suspended statutes of limitations, service, and other legal time periods through April 19, 2020.
- Montana Supreme Court Chief Justice has asked state judges to release nonviolent inmates to protect against the spread of Covid-19. See report.
Tips from practitioners on telephonic oral argument:
Saturday, March 21, 2020
I hope everyone is staying safe as we navigate our new COVID-19 reality. In response to the virus, some law schools are canceling oral arguments and moot courts, while others are considering moving arguments online.
At Pepperdine Caruso School of Law, we just successfully held the preliminary rounds of our annual first-year moot court competition via Zoom. We are one the first schools to take such a large tournament--with multiple levels of rounds and cash prizes--online. As I helped move us to an online format in one crazy week, so many people inside and outside of Pepperdine gave me incredible support. In an effort to pay that support forward, I am sharing our process here. I hope our lessons can help other schools and moot court competitions make this transition. Our experience was very positive. The students are grateful we gave them a formal oral argument opportunity, and many sent thank you emails and even fun Zoom screen shots to us.
In practice, many of us have appeared via video or phone for short hearings, and even for appellate oral arguments. See https://www.ca9.uscourts.gov/content/view.php?pk_id=0000000995 (video and audio recordings of the Ninth Circuit argument in Sierra Club v. Trump, 929 F.3d 670 (9th Cir. 2019), where Judge Wardlaw appeared via Zoom). Currently, courts all over the country are holding their oral arguments online. See, e.g., https://www.courts.ca.gov/2dca.htm (California Court of Appeal website noting: “Counsel will appear remotely via video conference, by telephone conference, or by other electronic means as available and arranged by the Clerk's Office”).
We knew we wanted to give our students the traditional moot court experience in these new circumstances, and we chose to conduct arguments using Zoom. We made one major change from the past, as we decided to let students opt out of the arguments to help students who had to leave our dorms quickly or who were otherwise struggling. Happily, about half of our first-year students still chose to participate.
We usually have two teams of two advocates each, or four students, argue in each room of our preliminary argument rounds. With about 90 students arguing this year, we placed 4 students and 2 judges in each of our 23 Zoom "courtrooms."
To run courtrooms at more or less the same time, we needed 23 Zoom host judges who could create Zoom meetings open to anyone with the links. These judges also kept time, though we had the students run timers on their phones too. We suggested on-screen timers shared to the whole courtroom, but the students were concerned the timers would take too much screen space, even with Zoom’s side-by-side view.
Once we identified trusted members of our community to be the Zoom host judges, we created and shared a step-by-step guide for making an open Zoom link. We asked hosts to name their meetings "Courtroom One 4:15," and so on. We then collected the hosts' Zoom links and added them to our Google Sheet listing all the students, courtrooms, and argument times. We shared the sheet with the courtroom assignments and links to all of our first-year competitors.
We had great support from our faculty, who joined some Moot Court Team members and Law Review students, as well as a few alums, to be our roughly 40 judges. Some judges helped with multiple rounds, and many judges told us this was almost as fun as in-person arguments.
We ran three preliminary rounds, to spread out the ability for our Moot Court Board and me to “Zoom in” to meetings and help as needed. We used ten courtrooms each during two evening rounds, and we needed to pop in to only two courtrooms to help. The next morning, our three courtrooms ran without a hitch. Having trusted judges as hosts really helped, and we recommend this approach.
We made our score sheet into a Google Form for the judges. It was fun to watch the scores roll in after the rounds. Moreover, our competition co-chairs had a spreadsheet right away with the score sheet data. These chairs could quickly identify our top four teams for the semi-final round, unlike when they type in scores from paper forms.
We will have four teams in our semi-final round Monday night, and then the top two will go to our final round Wednesday night. We will share the Zoom link for our final round courtroom with our whole school, and we will have sitting judges serving on our final round bench. We made the judges a separate deliberation room Zoom meeting, to be doubly sure their voting discussion will be confidential.
In our law school virtual classrooms today, we can still give our students a traditional first-year highlight by moving oral arguments online. Many of our courts are doing the same thing, and after holding these successful digital arguments at Pepperdine, I can promise you will be glad you saved moot court by moving online too.
Sunday, March 8, 2020
On March 4, the United States Supreme Court heard oral argument in June Medical Services, LLC v. Russo, an important case concerning the states’ ability to regulate abortion providers and access to abortion services. Specifically, the Court will decide the constitutionality of a law in Louisiana that requires abortion providers to obtain hospital admitting privileges at a hospital within thirty miles of where the providers perform abortions.
By way of brief background, in Roe v. Wade, the Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment’s right to privacy, which the Court recognized in Griswold v. Connecticut (and other cases), encompassed a right to abortion. In so holding, the Court established a trimester framework. Under this framework, laws restricting access to abortions during the first trimester were presumptively unconstitutional. During the second trimester, states could only regulate abortion to protect a woman’s health and, in the third trimester, states were generally permitted to prohibit abortions, except to save or preserve the life of the mother. In Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, the Court upheld Roe but rejected the trimester framework. In so doing, the Court adopted an “undue burden” test. Under this standard, the constitutionality of laws regulating abortion depends on whether such laws unduly burden a woman’s right to access abortion services. After Planned Parenthood, several states enacted legislation to regulate and, arguably, restrict abortion access, and the Court, applying the undue burden standard, addressed the validity of these laws on a case-by-case basis. As a result, the nature and scope of the right to abortion remains unresolved.
The Court’s decision in June Medical Services will be among the most significant in the Court’s abortion jurisprudence. To begin with, the Court’s decision will clarify the precedential value of Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstadt, where the Court invalidated – by a 5-4 margin – a nearly identical law in Texas. In Hellerstadt, the Court held that the law in question conferred no material benefit on women and would likely lead to the closure of several abortion clinics, thus constituting an undue burden on the right to obtain abortion services. Additionally, the Court’s decision will likely impact the states’ ability to restrict abortion access in future cases and may clarify the scope of the right to abortion. Third, although not likely, the Court may adopt a new or, at least, modified standard by which to assess the constitutionality of laws regulating abortion, particularly because the “undue burden” standard has arguably been difficult to interpret and apply with any degree of consistency or predictability.
At oral argument, the justices appeared divided.
Justice Samuel Alito raised the issue of third-party standing and questioned whether physicians who provided abortions could challenge the law on behalf of women. Specifically, Justice Alito appeared concerned that the physicians’ interests (i.e., avoiding unnecessary or burdensome regulations) conflicted with the interests of women seeking abortion services (i.e., safety and continuity of care). The majority of justices, however, did not appear to find this argument persuasive.
Chief Justice Roberts focused primarily on whether the benefits (and burdens) of laws requiring admitting privileges for abortion providers may differ on a state-by-state basis. Justice Brett Kavanaugh also questioned whether these laws would be considered constitutional if abortion providers could easily obtain admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. Roberts’s and Kavanaugh’s questions suggested that the Court may be considering whether these laws are facially constitutional or whether their constitutionality depends on the facts of each case.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, along with Justices Sonya Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer, and Elena Kagan, appeared skeptical of the law. For example, Justice Ginsburg questioned the utility of requiring that abortion providers obtain admitting privileges within thirty miles of where abortion serves are provided. As Justice Ginsburg stated, since the relatively small number of women who experience complications from medical or surgical abortions go to a hospital nearest to their residence, which almost always outside of the thirty-mile radius, the admitting privileges requirement arguably served no legitimate purpose.
Justice Sotomayor questioned whether, given the various requirements for obtaining admitting privileges at Louisiana’s hospitals, abortion providers could realistically obtain such privileges. For example, one factor is whether the physician has admitted a sufficient number of patients to the hospital to which the physician is applying. Given the fact that women rarely experience complications from abortions and thus are not admitted to a nearby hospital, abortion providers would not, in most instances, meet this requirement. This and other questions suggested that the law in Louisiana, like the law in Texas, reflected an attempt to restrict or even prohibit abortions, rather than to safeguard women’s health. The attorneys for Louisiana disagreed, arguing that most of the physicians who challenged the law had not made reasonable attempts to obtain admitting privileges and thus could not reasonably claim that they were unable to obtain such privileges.
Justice Breyer also questioned whether the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal’s decision to overturn a portion of the district court’s factual findings satisfied the “clearly erroneous standard.”
And Justice Kagan appeared skeptical of the argument that the law served a “credentialing purpose,” particularly because hospitals could deny admitting privileges to a physician based on factors having no relationship to the quality of that physician.
Ultimately, Justice Breyer expressed a concern that has arguably plagued the Court’s abortion jurisprudence: the difficulty in adopting a reliable, predictable, and workable rule.
I understand there are good arguments on both sides. Indeed, in the country people have very strong feelings and a lot of people morally think it’s wrong and a lot of people morally think the opposite is wrong. And in Casey, and the later cases, I think personally the Court is struggling with the problem of what kind of rule of law do you have in a country that contains both sorts of people.
Based on the oral argument, the Court’s decision in June Medical Services is difficult to predict. The difficulty of applying the nebulous “undue burden” standard, the politically divisive nature of this issue, principles of stare decisis, and concerns for the Court’s institutional legitimacy may certainly influence one or more of the justices.
Notwithstanding, based on oral argument, it seems that the Court may decide June Medical Services by a 5-4 vote, and if the Court invalidates the law, the most likely scenario would involve Chief Justice Roberts joining Justices Ginsburg, Kagan, Sotomayor, and Breyer in the majority. However, it is uncertain how Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh will vote, or how the majority decision will be written. It appears unlikely that the Court will simply overturn Whole Women’s Health; rather, if the Court upholds the law, it will likely do so by distinguishing Whole Women’s Health on the facts. The problem is that, if the Court chooses this option, it will fail to effectively guide lower courts and lawmakers, thus inviting additional litigation in the future. As such, the Court may hold that laws requiring abortion providers to obtain admitting privileges are facially unconstitutional because, regardless of the state in which such laws are enacted, they confer no benefit to women.
 410 U.S. 113 (1973); see also Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479 (1965).
 579 U.S. ; 136 S. Ct. 2292 (2016).
 See June Medical Services, LLC v. Russo, Transcript of Oral Argument (March 4, 2020), available at: https://www.supremecourt.gov/oral_arguments/argument_transcripts/2019/18-1323_d18e.pdf.
 Id. at 61:24 to 62:9.
March 8, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession, Oral Argument, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)
Friday, February 28, 2020
Every appellate practitioner knows oral argument rarely changes a case outcome. See, e.g., Ruggero J. Aldisert, Winning on Appeal: Better Briefs and Oral Argument 305 (2d ed. 2003). However, whether you are a first-year law student, certified appellate specialist, or advocate between those levels of experience, you probably still spend a great deal of time prepping for oral argument. This time can be hard to justify to clients, but an advocate must be prepared for oral argument. See generally Cal. Rules of Ct., R. 1.1, 1.3 (2018).
In my last post, I suggested ways to use off-brief oral argument techniques to improve your brief writing. For this post, I propose using an early, short, oral argument prep before filing the brief as a way to streamline your oral argument preparation while also improving your brief. Using this technique can make your oral argument preparation time more useful, shorter, and easier to justify to clients.
In my advocacy classes, I tell my students to distill their oral argument points to one piece of paper, or something very similar. My “one piece of paper rule” forces students to take the main points from their briefs and organize their arguments in one place. This process requires students, and counsel, to review the briefs and record, reread key cases, and be familiar enough with all aspects of the case to synthesize their points on one page. Along with the paper, I recommend students have one binder with their case charts, all briefs, copies of any key pages from the record, and extra paper for notes during the opponent’s argument. The binder should be tabbed and organized for very quick reference. The process of making the binder is also very useful for both final brief editing and oral argument preparation.
On a practical level, my one piece of paper rule also keeps students from reading from their briefs or reading a longer, prepared statement to the court. Since most courts either ban or strongly disfavor counsel reading from briefs or papers at argument, this is a good lesson to learn early. See, e.g., 5 Am. Jur. 2d Appellate Review § 501 (2d Ed. Feb. 2020). Additionally, an advocate who has organized his or her thoughts well enough to note them on only one piece of paper is unlikely to make the mistake of carting a box of scattered materials to counsel table. One piece of paper is easy to follow under pressure, and can help counsel get back on track smoothly and confidently when the court’s questions move away from main points. Advocates also have an organized binder if they do need to check something quickly.
In content, the one piece of paper should include bullet point arguments on each prong, element, or claim, noting the best points for the advocate’s side. The paper should also have bullet points on counsel’s best responses to his or her opponent’s brief.
I recommend students create their one sheet by first copying over their point headings from the brief Table of Contents. Then, students should take the key points from their Introduction or Summary of Argument, and weave these ideas, all with a focus on their theory of the case and key case law, into bullets under each point heading. I ask my first-year students to make this page before turning in their briefs. I suggest they then use the paper as an editing checklist for the brief. The process of distilling the whole case onto one page can reveal holes in the students’ briefing and help with final brief polishing. Practitioners would reap the same benefit in brief writing from doing an initial oral argument preparation shortly before filing a brief.
In the law school setting, making the oral argument sheet before filing the brief is also efficient. First-year oral arguments come shortly after the brief writing, and students can easily review the one piece of paper they prepared as a brief editing tool and be ready for oral argument.
In practice, however, we often wait months after filing a brief for oral argument. Nonetheless, creating an initial one sheet for argument before filing the brief can still be efficient and helpful in practice. By creating the one page when most familiar with the record and the law, in the midst of brief polishing, counsel can ensure he or she does not miss any key points for later oral argument. Also, while attorneys will still need a refresher on the facts and law before oral argument, following an outline created while drafting the brief will streamline the review process, leading to better preparation in a shorter time. Finally, creating this type of one sheet for the whole appellate case before filing the brief can make final edits of the brief more useful, ensuring the brief is as perfect as possible.
For all of these reasons, consider taking a quick break from your usual brief editing to create one piece of paper for oral argument, or anything similar that works for you, with an organized binder. Doing so can show where you have missed something in briefing and can save time later.
Wednesday, February 26, 2020
I write this as I prepare to help administer the San Francisco regional tournament of the 2020 American Bar Association's National Appellate Advocacy Competition. Thirty-two teams from law schools around the country will participate, and on Saturday we'll emerge with four regional champions who will punch their tickets to the national finals in Chicago.
This year's problem is about prosecutors: the advocates are arguing two issues about the scope of prosecutors' obligation under Brady v. Maryland to disclose exculpatory evidence. And, lately, when I think about prosecutors, I think about the remarkable piece of audio I reference in the title of this post.
It is oral argument audio. But there is no argument. As Matthew Stiegler describes in this post to his excellent CA3blog, the case is Fisher v. Commissioner, a habeas matter arising out of a forty year-old murder. Robert Fisher was convicted (after a retrial) of first-degree murder in 1991 and sentenced to death (after a resentencing) in 1996. His habeas action, which dates back to 2003, asserted constitutional infirmities at both the guilt and sentencing phases.
And he won. Last July, the district court granted Fisher's petition. The state appealed to the Third Circuit. The case was briefed, and the Third Circuit granted oral argument. And then, at oral argument in mid-January, this happened:
JUDGE RESTREPO: This is Fisher versus Commissioner. Sir, my understanding is that you wanted to tell us something?
COUNSEL FOR APPELLANT: May it please the court, my name is Bob Falin. I'm with the Montgomery County D.A.'s office.
I no longer believe that the lower court committed error. I spent the past few days working on the case, reading the briefs, doing research, and as the hours passed the less and less comfortable I became with our position. And it dawned on me that if I, as a career prosecutor, was not feeling good about these arguments, then perhaps it was not appropriate to come and stand before the Court and argue and advocate for them. So I am conceding that, I now believe there was no error below.
At this point—and please do listen—one can almost hear the panelists' jaws drop and eyes go wide.
COURT: You're asking us to affirm the district court?
COUNSEL: Yes, your Honor.
COURT: Across the board?
COUNSEL: Yes, your Honor.
And then the apology:
COUNSEL: And I apologize to the court for the inconvenience. I know the court put many hours into it. But sometimes, in prepping for arguments, I get to have a deeper understanding of the case, and sometimes, at least this case, I came to a different conclusion than I had. And I felt compelled to ... take a different position.
COURT: Your position, just to be clear, Mr. Fisher is entitled to a new trial.
Pause. The panel recesses to confer. Returns. Promises to quickly affirm (and, two days later, the judges delivered). Plaudits issue to Robert Falin, including this from Judge Bibas:
I think it’s in Berger v. United States, the Supreme Court talked about the prosecutor’s obligation not to be winning cases but to see that justice is done. It’s not easy to come in and confess error. But we don’t reject wisdom when it comes late. And we thank you very much for your candor in bringing this to us.
What strikes me about Mr. Falin's concession is this: if one reads the district court's thorough, nuanced opinion, one can see that the state has colorable arguments here, particularly because of the hellscape that is the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act: deference under § 2254(d), failure to develop the record under § 2254(e), harmless error, and so on. Colorable. But not ... just.
Here is a link to the Montgomery County D.A.'s Facebook page. It shows Robert Falin receiving the office's highest honor. It's five years old, but apparently it's an award that Mr. Falin keeps earning.
Sunday, February 23, 2020
One question that most, if not all, attorneys have asked themselves when drafting an appellate brief is: “When should I stop researching?”
This concern is certainly understandable. After all, the last thing that an attorney wants is for a judge to ask “Why didn’t you cite X case, which is directly relevant to the legal issue before the court?” or state “I would agree with your argument counselor, except for the fact that X case was decided by the Supreme Court four years ago and the Court ruled against your position.” If this happens, you will be embarrassed, you will lose credibility with the court, and your client will have little if any chance of succeeding on the merits.
To avoid this problem, attorneys must research a legal issue sufficiently to ensure that they know, among other things, the relevant legal standards, including the standard of review, the governing precedent (particularly cases that are factually similar), and favorable and unfavorable authority. But how do attorneys know when they have done enough research? They rely on several criteria (along with experience) to make this determination and ensure that they are fully prepared to draft an excellent brief or deliver a persuasive oral argument.
1. Identify the appropriate scope of your research
Before you begin researching, you should identify the universe within which you should be researching. Doing so will enable you to identify the sources of binding legal authority and ensure that you confine your research to the most relevant precedent. When making this determination, ask yourself the following questions:
- Is your case in state or federal court?
- Does your case involve a state or federal issue?
- Does the legal issue involve a common law cause of action, statute, constitutional provision, or administrative regulation?
- Are you arguing for a correction in a lower court's decision or an expansion of the law?
- Have the courts in your jurisdiction previously addressed the legal issue or is it an issue of first impression?
For example, if your case is in state court and involves a state law issue, your legal research will focus primarily on prior decisions in your state by the state supreme court and the appellate courts. If your case is in federal court and involves a federal issue, your research will focus primarily on decisions from the circuit in which you are litigating. If your case is in federal court and the legal issue involves a state law claim, your legal research (on the substantive law) will focus on decisions by the state supreme court and appellate courts.
You must also identify whether the legal issue relates to a common law cause of action, statute, or constitutional provision. If, for example, you are appealing a case where a state court found that your client acted negligently, you should only research cases in that state (from the state supreme court and the appellate courts). In such a case, your research should focus primarily on cases decided by courts within your jurisdiction that have applied and interpreted the relevant law, and that involve similar facts, if possible.
Importantly, the above advice applies to cases where you are arguing for a correction in the law.
If, however, you are arguing for an expansion of the law, you will likely expand your research to cases from courts outside of your jurisdiction that have considered this issue and that have expanded the law in the manner that you are advocating. For example, if, in 2015, you were arguing before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals that same-sex marriage bans violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, you should have cited in your brief and at oral argument the Seventh Circuit’s decision in Baskin v. Bogan, which previously held that same-sex marriage bans violate the Equal Protection Clause.
Consequently, in cases where, as in the above example, the law is unsettled in your jurisdiction (or is an issue of first impression) you can and should rely on cases from other jurisdictions that have addressed this issue. Although this precedent is not binding on the court, doing so will help to guide the court in reaching an informed and, hopefully, favorable decision.
Ultimately, determining the scope of your research is critical because it will enable you to identify the sources of binding, as opposed to merely persuasive, authority and it will ensure that you avoid conducting unnecessary or irrelevant research.
2. Look for repetition
You will likely know that you have researched a legal issue sufficiently when you encounter repetition in the relevant case law. For example, if you are researching the negligence standard and you read fifteen cases in which the courts rely upon the same criteria to determine if a party was negligent (i.e., duty, breach of duty, causation, and damages), you can be confident that you’ve identified the relevant legal standard. Likewise, if you are researching how the courts define causation for purposes of determining negligence and you read several cases where the courts recite the same test or standard for causation, you can be confident that you’ve researched causation sufficiently. Additionally, if you continue to find the same legal authority despite using different research methods, you’ve probably located the relevant authority.
You should also strive to identify cases that involve similar facts and you should rely only on cases that reach a favorable result. Never rely on a case that, although supporting your recitation of the relevant law, reaches a conclusion that undermines the argument you are making or the remedy you are seeking.
3. Review the cases in your opponent’s brief
You should review the cases in your adversary’s brief. Doing so will enable you to identify relevant (and likely unfavorable) legal authority that you may have failed to discover in your research. In addition, you should review carefully how your adversary presents relevant case law to ensure that your adversary is not misrepresenting precedent.
4. Read the briefs submitted by the parties in prior cases that involve the same or similar legal issue
To the extent possible, read the briefs submitted by the parties in prior and relevant cases. In so doing, you may discover additional cases that you did not find in your research or you may simply confirm that you have sufficiently researched a particular legal issue.
5. Identify the cases cited by courts in prior decisions
You should identify the cases that courts in your jurisdiction have relied upon when deciding the same or similar legal issue. This will facilitate and expedite your research and it will provide you with the specific cases that courts found influential when deciding the issue.
6. Research the subsequent history of the cases you cite in your brief
Be sure to research the subsequent history, if any, of the cases you rely upon in your brief or at an oral argument. In so doing, you will discover whether there is negative history that impacts the persuasive value of the cases upon which you are relying and whether a case has been overruled.
The above tips are not intended to be exhaustive. However, adhering to these tips will enable you to decide when to stop researching and provide you with the assurance that you’re prepared to draft an excellent brief or deliver a persuasive oral argument.
Wednesday, February 19, 2020
Continue Teaching the New Dogs, Old Tricks: The Value of Teaching Appellate Advocacy to Law Students
A majority of U.S. law schools teach persuasive writing and oral advocacy to 1L and 2L students as part of required courses.1 These courses often focus on appellate advocacy. This model has existed for many years, gaining steam especially in the late 1980s after the ABA criticized law schools for failing to properly train law students in appellate advocacy.2 Some law professors and law students question the value of teaching appellate advocacy when we know that many lawyers will not actually engage in writing formal appellate briefs or participate in formal appellate oral arguments during their careers. Through this post I support the continued teaching of the skills required to write an appellate brief and make an appellate argument because the skills taught and tested when doing this kind of work are essential lawyering skills across a wide range of jobs held by lawyers. Lawyers are professional communicators—writing and speaking are essential skills of the profession.
First, writing an appellate brief requires careful, precise, and accurate work. Students must work with and follow procedural and local rules that dictate how to format a particular document, what information must be included, and when and how the document produced must be filed. Students must learn to carefully read a record and research the law to craft legal arguments within parameters set by the rules, including page limits and section requirements that force writers to write and rewrite their work until it is sharp and concise. All of this must be done while the writer is persuasively and accurately explaining to the court why a particular argument has merit when considering the governing law and the facts. The writer must also properly cite the law and the record. These skills are all skills that are valued in the jobs that lawyers hold, from actually working in a litigation setting as an advocate, to advising and counseling clients in a more transactional practice, to working as a judge or a law clerk, just to name a few settings.
Second, oral communication skills are critical for lawyers. While not all lawyers will choose to engage in a litigation-type practice in which arguing to courts is a part of the work, most lawyers will need to “argue” or explain persuasively in their jobs. Appellate advocacy involves presenting arguments as well as responding to questions; it requires advocates to think on their feet. Lawyers who train in the skills of appellate advocacy will develop skills that will transfer to trial advocacy, negotiation, and other tasks requiring effective oral communication. Transactional lawyers will need to discuss positions with clients, orally communicate terms of a deal or a position, and negotiate terms of contracts. Many of the more formal skills required for oral argument will transfer to this transactional work. Even for those lawyers whose jobs do not include a focus on oral presentations, training to skillfully and thoughtfully respond to questions and clearly present legal and factual analysis is training that is an asset to most everyone in any type of legal job.
Third, developing appellate advocacy skills in law schools introduces students to professional and ethical norms that serve to give these burgeoning lawyers a taste of the legal profession and its traditions. Following rules, extending deference in a professional manner to the court, and showing respect for opposing counsel are all norms that should be learned in law schools and carried into the profession. Participating in the ceremony and discourse required in courses that teach appellate advocacy initiate these soon-to-be lawyers and welcome them into the legal community.
In conclusion, let’s continue to teach the new dogs the old tricks. Let’s strive to improve how we do it. Let’s even consider adding to appellate advocacy instruction, instruction and experiences in a variety of written and oral communication settings, like contract negotiation and drafting, trial advocacy, international advocacy, treaty negotiation and drafting, and other areas where lawyers are called upon to use their communication skills. We can value the foundational skills taught and learned through courses in appellate advocacy and supplement legal education with even more experiences that call on students to learn how to communicate effectively.
1 ALWD/LWI Survey 2018, Q. 6.4, https://www.lwionline.org/resources/surveys; Section on Legal Education & Admission to the Bar, Sourcebook on Legal Writing Programs 28, 46 (2006).
2 Michael Vitiello, Teaching Effective Oral Argument Skills: Forget About the Drama Coach, 75 Miss. L.J. 869, 869 (2006).
February 19, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Law School, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Moot Court, Oral Argument, State Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (0)