Tips for Appellate Argument, Part One

The last few months, I have been appearing in appellate courts more often than trial courts. For a lot of trial lawyers, this would be a bad thing. I actually prefer it. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy trial work- I love the competition and the chance to use my creativity. But I love handling appeals. If I had the choice, I would choose an appellate argument over a jury trial any day of the week.

Here are a few thoughts I have about the right way to handle oral argument before appellate courts. They are not in any particular order. Actually, one of them is, and it’s first.

DO NOT READ THE ARGUMENT. Seriously. If you think this is a good idea, you are not competent to handle appeals. In fact, not only should you not handle appeals, but if I have to sit there while you read it, you should be killed. Every appeals judge in the land will instantly hate your argument if you are reading. Since they sit on an elevated bench, this means that they can only see the top of your head. It means you are not making eye contact. It demeans the process because it inhibits free flowing interaction with the court.

It undermines your ability to quickly analyze and react to the court’s questions. Even though this seems like the most common-sense rule imaginable, I have personally seen two lawyers do this in the last 30 days. I think all of us are a little nervous, even if only for the first few sentences. But if you need to read a prepared argument, you are probably are not cut out to be an appellate lawyer, and you should retain appellate counsel.

ANSWER THE COURT’S QUESTIONS. Appellate judges are usually pretty smart. If you are not expecting to get asked tough questions, you don’t know what you’re doing. The judges expect answers. If you try to duck the question, you will likely get caught, and the court will ask you again. Or, if you are really unlucky, you will get asked if you are conceding you don’t have a good argument because you are avoiding the question. Also, don’t answer a question if you did not fully hear or understand it. This happened to me in my last argument. I got a long convoluted question from a judge who talks fast. I didn’t catch the last sentence. The right way to handle this is to say “I’m sorry your honor, could you repeat that?” In my case, I ended up with seven laughing judges, because I don’t think I was the only person who didn’t catch it. But it did get rephrased, and I could then give an appropriate answer. It’s better to ask than it is to give a bad answer to a question you didn’t hear or understand.

MEET HYPOTHETICALS HEAD-ON. Appellate courts love hypotheticals. Remember, if you are in a court of record, there is a good chance a reported opinion will ultimately get applied to lots of factual situations that differ from the specific facts before the court in your case. Judges are conscious of this, and you can expect hypotheticals designed to test how the result you are trying for would affect different facts. Sometimes these questions are designed to present intentionally absurd facts, to test the logical reasoning of your argument. Don’t be afraid to pick these hypotheticals apart. If the facts differ so greatly from your case that a different result would happen, tell the court that and tell them why.

Check back later in the week for a few more of my thoughts on this topic.