Appellate Advocacy Practicum

Today, we continue our look at the third year’s practicum course requirement with a blog post from one of our third year students, Ellis Pretlow. Last semester, Ellis was enrolled in the Appellate Advocacy practicum. In the course catalog, the course is described as follows:

“This course is ‘hands on.’ Students will have the opportunity to argue in a moot setting cases that are currently on appeal to the Supreme Court of Virginia. After moot arguments, students will observe the actual arguments before the Court. Students will learn the nature and function of appellate courts; how to preserve issues for appeal; what is subject to appeal and when; standing and what parties must be before the court; how to perfect an appeal; how to make the appellate record; effective brief writing; standards of review; oral argument; and how a judge thinks and makes decisions. With visits to one or more of the Supreme Court of the United States, the Supreme Court of Virginia, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, and the Court of Appeals of Virginia, students will also observe appellate advocacy “up close” and have the opportunity to speak with appellate judges about their roles and their work.”

This course is led by Justice Donald W. Lemons. Justice Lemons is Justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia. In addition, he has served as a judge or justice at every level of the judiciary in Virginia.

Here are Ellis’ thoughts on the course:

Being in the Appellate Advocacy Practicum with Justice Lemons last semester took me from preparing an Appellate Brief and Oral Argument all the way through seeing cases argued in the Supreme Court of Virginia and the United States Supreme Court.

During the classroom portion of our practicum, my classmates and I met once a week with Justice Lemons to discuss various issues affecting the nation’s appellate court system today. Justice Lemons’ unique perspective was invaluable to these class disucssions. Having been a trial attorney, trial judge, Court of Appeals of Virginia Judge, and a Justice on the Virginia Supreme Court, Justice Lemons is able to share war stories and real life perspective on litigation in Virginia and across the Nation. Because Virginia’s court system is unique and sometimes quirky, having someone who knows the law well and has molded some of it himself in various important decisions was incredibly helpful as we worked to learn more about the intricacies of appellate practice.

In addition to these class meetings, we had to conduct an oral argument. To this end, each one of the students in the class was assigned a case currently before the Supreme Court of Virginia to argue in front of a three judge panel, consisting of Justice Lemons, Professor Calhoun, and Professor Bruck.  Arguing in front of our classmates and receiving critique from the judges was tough but it definitely helped me identify my strengths and weaknesses as an oral advocate.

After our oral arguments, we then travelled to Richmond to see the very cases we argued in class argued in front of the Supreme Court of Virginia. Most of us were impressed and humbled by the attorney’s knowledge of the record, case law, and persuasive tactics.  It was interesting to see what the attorneys focused on in their arguments and how they molded the facts in the record to fit a cogent oral narrative.  I have a newfound respect for oral advocates after having done it myself, and I am here to tell you that it is never as easy as it looks, especially when you’re getting peppered with questions from Justices on the Supreme Court!

Next, we all wrote Briefs for cases that were also being argued in front of the Supreme Court of Virginia this term. Interestingly enough, the case I was assigned centered on a car accident in my hometown; you can’t get much more real world than that! The Brief writing process was arduous and wading through the trial court record of five hundred plus pages was not fun, but it was definitely rewarding. In law school, you typically don’t spend a lot of time on case facts. Instead, professors tend to focus on the principles of law and not so much the people involved, their lives, the circumstances surrounding a dispute. Consequently, it was refreshing to get involved in the specifics of a case and put names to faces instead of just gleaning the legal doctrines from a case in a textbook.

For our final class meeting, we travelled to D.C. to hear two arguments in front of the United States Supreme Court.  This was an excellent culmination of the semester and a very cool experience for those of us who had never been to the Supreme Court before. The building itself was beautiful and awe-inspiring; as I told another member of the class: Going to the Supreme Court is prime law-school geek out time. It was so amazing to imagine all of the important cases that have been heard in that building and all of the advocates that have gone in front of the Court.

We heard arguments in Setser v. United States and Federal Aviation Administration v. Cooper.  The issue in Setser was whether a federal district court may direct that a criminal defendant’s sentence run consecutively with a yet-to-be-imposed sentence that the defendant is expected to receive for a state crime. The Justices started firing off questions almost immediately after the Petitioner’s attorney started talking, and the contentious nature of the argument did not stop until the attorney sat down. It was especially interesting to see the Justices speaking to each other and pushing for their position through the oral advocates. I also never realized that there were pages behind the Justices who assisted the Justices with everything from passing notes to getting anything the Justices may need during the argument. I saw Justice Kennedy pass Justice Scalia a note which made Scalia chuckle. Justice Thomas sent away for a book to look something up, and I thought we just might hear him ask his first question in nine years, but we weren’t so lucky!

The issue in the second argument, Cooper, was whether a plaintiff who alleges only mental and emotional injuries can 
establish actual damages within the meaning of the civil remedies provision of the
 Privacy Act. It was pretty cool to hear the attorneys and Justices cite to cases that I used in support of my argument in the John W. Davis Appellate Advocacy Competition last year. Following the arguments, our class had lunch in the Supreme Court cafeteria, got a behind the scenes tour of the Supreme Court and met with General Suter, the Clerk of the Court.

Overall, the Appellate Advocacy Practicum was one of the best experiences I have had in my law school career. I know that looking back on law school, I will always remember going to the Supreme Court of Virginia and the Supreme Court of the United States, even if I am never lucky enough to have a chance to go back and argue in front of either body. The practical aspects of the class combined with the interactive field work was truly a unique and inspiring experience at a time when I thought I knew everything there was to know about law school!

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