Earlier this summer, Ketajh Brown presented an oral argument before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, an experience he says most people find hard to understand.
Brown, who begins his third year of law school this fall, is one of six law students who spent their academic year learning how to build an appeal through UW Law School’s Federal Appeals Project. He appeared before the 7th Circuit on behalf of a client who wanted to challenge his criminal conviction, based on a change in the law.
“In appellate court, you can’t rely on new evidence. You can only talk about what’s already in the court record,” Brown explains. “And unlike what people see on TV, there's no Johnny Cochran moment, no poetic closing. You just have to prepare as best you can, and then you try not to focus on your heart jumping.”
For appellate attorneys, being prepared—and flexible—is key. Each side generally gets ten minutes to present their case, and judges often interrupt attorneys’ prepared statements with questions.
The interrogation can be stressful, especially for new lawyers. But that’s the point of oral argument: to address the court’s particular concerns about whether the law was correctly applied in district court. “Oral arguments are really about having a conversation with the judges, and they’re in charge. There are a million-and-one questions they could ask, so you have to be ready for anything,” Brown says.
Students in the Federal Appeals Project learn by doing, under the supervision of Professor Adam Stevenson, the project’s director. Working in pairs, they take responsibility for all aspects of an actual appeal, including communicating with real clients, researching their cases, reading court transcripts, and filing briefs. Through a required companion course, they learn about federal appellate procedure, the ethics of appellate representation, issue spotting, and persuasion.
Brown says the casework and the coursework, along with his participation in UW Law School’s moot court last year, taught him that he enjoys appellate litigation, and he especially likes looking for mistakes in the application of the law.
“The class was right on point. We covered it all: from intake to oral arguments, and everything in between. In conjunction with my clinic and moot court experience, I now have all the tools I need for my next oral argument,” he adds.
Federal Appeals Project clients whose cases reach the oral argument phase get to determine whether a student or supervising attorney will speak on their behalf. Brown is the third UW Law student in the past three years to earn that opportunity, along with Meredith Stier in 2014 and Trevor Brown in 2013.
According to Stevenson, developing oral argument skills through hands-on experience with the court is invaluable for future litigators. “Law students can’t argue before the Supreme Court, so the court of appeals at the 7th Circuit—or any circuit—is as high as they’re going to get,” he says.
Submitted by Tammy Kempfert on August 5, 2015
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