Thursday, March 11, 2010

Finished writing, ready to argue

The deadline for one of the year's biggest assignments came and went earlier this week, when 1L students turned in their appellate briefs for Basic Legal Skills. For the unacquainted, appellate briefs are another one of those 1L rites of passage. The finished product is about 20 pages of facts and legal analysis based on a single hypothetical case. Ours dealt with a lawyer who, allegedly, slept during his client's criminal trial. My task: argue that the client's conviction should not be overturned, because the sleeping was not well-documented, substantial, or prejudicial to the outcome of the trial. The briefs became an obsession for many students. I've heard the writing process compared to childbirth. We even had a fake Facebook page for the defendant (74 friends at last count) complete with fake photos, personal info and so forth. The brief itself went fine for most students, although it was a perfect example of how the bad habits of undergrad don't work in law school. A few students stayed up until 6 or 7 a.m. the night before the deadline. I've even heard of students dropping out of law school because they couldn't handle the project.
Now, however, we're moving on to the next thing: oral arguments. Spring break starts tomorrow, and when it ends we will begin preparing to face off in one-on-one speaking competitions in which we argue the merits of our written brief before real lawyers in a real courtroom in downtown Louisville. I'm pretty comfortable speaking in front of people, and the oral arguments are not a graded assignment. Still, they require solid preparation. A panel of lawyers will grill us in front of our peers, poking holes in our opinions and strategies. The video below, from a January session of the Kentucky Court of Appeals, gives you a sense of what the real thing is like. These arguments were held at the law school, and a similar session will be held the week of March 22. 

In addition to practicing for the oral arguments, there is a 1L oral argument competition that will be held at the end of March. Students will compete one on one, with the eventual winner taking home a small cash prize. It's sort of a tune-up for moot court, in which 2Ls and 3Ls travel to other schools to face off in much stiffer competitions. Moot court is one of U of L's strong suits, and we've recently done very well in regional and national competitions. For now, however, I'm focusing on avoiding some of the basic pitfalls of oral arguments (for example, the dreaded "fig leaf clutch" at the podium). And, of course, spring break.

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