I once had an opportunity to judge the semi-finals of the ABA Moot Court Competition for law students. It seemed like a good way to spend a Saturday in the middle of the winter when there was no snow for skiing and it was too cold for golf. I was impressed. Not only did the law students know their arguments, they also dressed right, spoke clearly, and did everything we all know we should do in an appellate argument. Even if you learned these things in law school, it never hurts to be reminded of the basics:
- Dress the part. The law students, without exception, were well dressed. Their suits fit, their hair was cut, their shoes were polished. By dressing well, they demonstrated competence and attention to detail. They had likely also figured out that looking like a lawyer was the first step to acting like a lawyer. It may seem like a small thing, but if you’ve put a lot of time into your case, why ruin it by wearing a suit with spots or a dress that doesn’t fit? Take a tip from the law students and dress well for oral argument.
- Shake hands with opposing counsel. This tip isn’t from the law students. It’s a tip from one of the senior Superior Court judges. Appellate court is a formal place where courtesy is appreciated. Shaking hands with opposing counsel is just a classy, professional thing to do. The judges notice and appreciate that kind of courtesy. So do it.
- Wait for the court. Without exception, the law students waited until all the judges on the panel were looking at them. They didn’t jump the gun. It’s easy when you are nervous to rush into your argument. Don’t do it. Compose yourself. Wait until the court is ready. Then start your argument.
- Introduce yourself to the court. “May it please the Court. My name is Jane Doe and I represent XYZ Corp, the appellant in this matter.” It’s simple. Don’t forget. A pet peeve of appellate court judges is lawyers who approach the podium and jump right into their argument without introducing themselves. It’s not just young lawyers. Often the well-known big name lawyers are the worst offenders. They are so used to everyone knowing who they are that they don’t see the need for an introduction. Don’t be that guy. You know you’re starting out on the wrong foot when the first thing a judge asks is “who are you?” So take a tip from the law students and introduce yourself.
- Don’t interrupt or talk over the judge. This should be obvious, but it still happens all the time.
- Answer the question. Judges ask questions because they want to know something. They need a clarification. They want to test your premise. Don’t avoid the question – answer it. Be succinct. If the question requires a yes or no, say yes or no, then explain. Lawyers can get so caught up in their prepared argument that they forget to answer the question.
- Stop when you’re done. Just because you have 15 minutes to argue doesn’t mean you have to use all 15 minutes. If you have a really strong brief, do a quick summary of your argument and ask if the court has any questions. Answer the questions. Then sit down. The judges will appreciate it.
- Thank the court. Again, common courtesy.
If you ever have a chance to judge a moot court competition, do it. It’s a good reminder of the things we all need to do at oral argument.
For more Appellate Tips for Trial Lawyers, read my blog 9 Ways to Avoid Waiving Issues on Appeal. See you in court!