September 11, 2013
Move Right into the First Issue
Once you’ve introduced yourself, any relevant facts, legal issues, why you should win and what you want the court to do, then be prepared to jump right into your first point.
If you’re the appellant, always lead with your strongest argument. The judges may ask so many questions that you won’t have time for your second or third points, so it is essentially that you put forth your strongest arguments first.
If you’re the appellee, be flexible. What did the appellant say? How favorably was it received by the court? You probably don’t need to spend a lot of time addressing any of appellant’s substantive points that were met with a lot of resistance. You’ll want to spend more time with any of opposing counsel’s points that were warmly received or that are particularly strong. Start there. After you’ve done that, then move to your strongest argument.
Confidently Handle Questions
Always remember that oral arguments are meant to be a conversation between you and the judge – not simply a presentation. As such, you should welcome questions and use them to your full advantage.
Follow the LIACT method:
- Listen to the question. Make sure you respond to the question you were asked, rather than the one you wished was asked. If you don’t understand the question, try to rephrase it in your own words or ask the court to restate it.
- Immediately answer. The worst thing you can say is, “I’ll get to that later.” Answer it now, even if it is part of a later point.
- Answer directly. If the question requires a “yes” or a “no” then say “yes” or “no” first. Then explain your answer in more detail.
- Be candid. You are going to have weak points in your case. It’s okay to concede a bad point, but explain to the court why that point isn’t controlling.
- Transition back. After you’ve sufficiently answered a question and explained, then smoothly transition back to your planned presentation. Usually, good follow through comes with a lot of time and practice. One way to help build this skill is to anticipate questions as you outline and prepare your answers to naturally transition back to the argument.
Succinctly Wrap Up
As soon as you’re out of time, stop. In mid-sentence, if need be. Most judges will tell you to finish your statement, but if they don’t, you’re done. The last thing you want to do is seem resentful that you’re out of time or desperately ask for more.
If you finish early, provide a 20-second summary if you think it will be effective. Return to your theme and reiterate your prayer for relief so the court will remember exactly what you want it to do and why.
For example, “For the reasons we have discussed, your honors, fairness demands and the law requires compensation for the appellant’s injury. We ask that you affirm the judgment of the district court. Thank you.”
Then calmly and confidently take your seat.
Keep it brief. You only want to respond to specific points raised by your opponent. This is not a time to re-summarize your earlier argument. To prepare in advance, think about what your opponent will say and how you’d respond to those ideas.
For example, “I’d like to briefly address two points that appellee made: one, _____________ and two, _________. First, the ….”
Be Respectful & Flexible
The most successful arguments follow similar patterns to the elements laid out above. Overall, be respectful and don’t forget to approach your oral argument as a conversation. Regardless of which party you represent, the judges may re-direct your argument with questions. While it is important to make your strongest points, be flexible first and answer all questions head on.
For some last minute advice on handling oral arguments, check back for our third installment in this series next week, when we highlight some do’s and don’ts.