Tips for oral arguments in moot court?
May 1, 2014 10:20 AM   Subscribe

So I've been selected to participate in a major moot court at my law school (to be judged by a member of the Court of Appeal), but I'm totally clueless about oral arguments (I was selected on the basis of my written brief). Does anyone have any practical tips to share with a first-time mooter? I've been told to speak slowly and answer all questions directly, but are there any non-obvious things that I should be doing/aware of as well? What would be the best way to pivot questions back to the main theme of my case? Any help/advice welcome!
posted by AtavisticApple to Law & Government (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Look at the Court of Appeal's website, and see if there are recordings of oral arguments. (There is also a list here.) You may be able to get a sense of the judge's questioning style.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 10:46 AM on May 1, 2014

Know your material so well that if you panic or freeze up, you still do what you are supposed to do.
posted by Flood at 10:51 AM on May 1, 2014

Assuming there are other students involved in the competition, or at least who also wrote the brief, ask them to ask you questions relating to various parts of the brief. When I did this, I was working with a partner, and we would randomly sprinkle our conversations about completely unrelated topics with questions about our brief/argument. It was really helpful and kept us both on our toes and ready to answer anything the panel threw at us.

Congratulations and good luck!
posted by loolie at 11:00 AM on May 1, 2014

Check out your library, there are almost certainly books on mooting. I can't give specific recs because my legal librarianship is in the UK and I don't know how similar the moot styles etc are but they have always been very popular books in my law libraries and I know they tend to layout what successful moots consist of.

Good luck and congrats!

(5 years of legal librarianship and moot is still the weirdest word to repeatedly type...)
posted by halcyonday at 11:32 AM on May 1, 2014

Do as much preparation as you possibly can, and the best way to prepare is to do what loolie suggested, and have someone who understands the material ask you questions.

There are certain questions that should probably be pretty obvious to you at this point--how do you deal with the weaknesses in your case? You must have a plan for how to answer questions related to these weaknesses. These are the types of questions you need to focus the most on.

You will need to have some outline but it would be unusual for you to make it all the way through it. For that reason, don't rehearse your prepared remarks over and over and over again as a way of practice. You'll never make them through it all. Know the first thing you want to say, the transitions between portions of your argument, and your conclusion. You'll want to have these handily memorized.

People who did well at this in my recollection did not seem to be married to their prepared speech. Any time they were interrupted with a question (which was almost all of the time), they'd answer the question and then move back to their point without it appearing that they had been interrupted in the middle of some prepared remarks. Students who struggled fell frequently into two groups: (1) so dependent on a memorized and rigid outline that they sounded hopelessly lost when they were diverted from it or (2) students who thought they could wing it and just answer questions without having a structure to their argument--when there was a brief pause in questioning, these students seemed like they had no idea what they needed to say next.

Your answers to their questions need to be concise and to the point. Beyond answering directly, you can do very well by using specific facts from your case to illustrate the point you're making. (i.e., "Not in this situation, your honor, because at the point that Officer Krupke opened Bernardo's trunk, Officer Krupke testified that the only reason he had to suspect Bernado was based on an anonymous tip. That makes this case different than State v. Dr. Suess, because in Dr. Suess, although the officer also received an anonymous tip, the officer opened the trunk only after he smelled peppermint on the car passenger's breath," or whatever. Then stop there without rambling on and go back to your outline).
posted by MoonOrb at 12:30 PM on May 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I was really, really good, my second year doing NAAC--the first I was petrified. My teams both years did markedly better than our school usually does, but I was not at one of the schools that's really known for moot court.

First thing, definitely going to agree, prep. Ideally, you should know every one of the appropriate cases backwards and forwards, but at least know what distinguishes each one from the others and why it's relevant to your position.

Don't fight the judge(s). If they don't want to focus on what you want to focus on, give it up. Sometimes they will have a completely different idea of priorities than you will. If you keep trying to change the subject, they will see you as evasive.

Have your intro memorized 100% to the point where you could do it blind drunk. Have a longer, formal closing, also memorized, and then a very short single-sentence I'm-out-of-time close that sounds professional. The rest of the middle should just be bullet points. Be prepared to actually present for a significant portion of your time if you don't get asked much, but that's extremely unusual in my experience.

Speak slowly. If you think you're too slow, you're probably just about right. Smile from time to time. Be really rigorously polite.

The best scorers that I ever saw were incredibly familiar with the material, but oral argument scores rarely had to do with actual strength of their position--it had to do with sounding polished and professional and calm. Always at least take your notes to the podium, but if you can do the whole thing without referring to them, they tend to notice that. Because it came up at both of my competitions, by the way, have an idea where you're competing because if you turn out not to actually have a podium and you've got your notes in a form that isn't easy to hold in your hands, that's tricky.

Practice as much as possible beforehand--if you're competing in a local competition without team practice that can be harder, but have a friend sit in for you if you can, and come up with at least some of the obvious questions to give them. Record yourself doing it at least once. Try to listen for how often you use things like "um" and "ah" and cut those back.

Finally, if you've ever had problems with anxiety symptoms while doing public speaking, if you can get in to see your doctor beforehand, there's something called Inderal that does wonders for it. To the point where I have seen people joke that it should be considered a performance-enhancing drug. It's cheap and pretty low on side effects, though.

So, yeah, all those things pretty much learned after the first year and I think I doubled my average score between the two. For someone who was petrified of public speaking when I started, it was a really big deal for me, and pretty much the only thing I count as a good experience from law school.
posted by Sequence at 12:59 PM on May 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

understand the difference between real life and court life. real life is infinitely complex and subtle, but court life is a role-playing game where the major objective is to win. research your adjudicator to the point where you know the buttons you have to click on to win.
posted by bruce at 1:03 PM on May 1, 2014

I have been practicing law for 33 years. When I argue a motion or try a case, I take a good amount of time to script out my argument and the points I want to make. This helps me to organize my thoughts and keep them coherent. And then, when the time comes, I never use the script. I have it handy, with main points highlighted, circled, etc., just in case I need to refer to it, but I never do. It is my backup in the event all systems fail. They haven't yet.
posted by yclipse at 2:31 PM on May 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Know every single excruciating fact of your case in exquisite detail. And let go of the dream of pivoting questions back to the main point. Oral arguments can go like this:

"And so, your honors, the laws cited in our brief clearly weigh in favor -"
"What about his breakfast?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"What did your client have for breakfast on the day of his arrest?"
"Uh, I'm not sure, your honor, but regardless of what he had for breakfast, the Supreme Court in -"
"Don't tell me what's regardless! I asked a simple question, counselor. I wouldn't have asked if I thought it was 'regardless'. What did your client have for breakfast on the day of his arrest?"
"I don't know, I never asked."
"How could you not ask? How long have you been practicing? Don't you realize you could have spent all the time you just wasted reviewing your briefs getting your ass down the holding cell and asking him what he had for breakfast?!"

At this point the judge rolls his eyes at his bailiff, the reporter shakes her head and you pee a little bit. Maybe it isn't exactly like that, but my point is to know everything there is to know about your case to anticipate the most off-the wall questions. And really forget about redirecting. Answer the question, wait silently for a few beats to see that the judge is satisfied, then go back to what you were talking about. If you try to lead a judge around by the nose, well -- just don't do that.

Also do what Bentobox said and listen to oral arguments. The only real secret is to practice, and the only way to practice is to start in moot court competitions and then start going to court again and again and again.

I've become a really great public speaker since I graduated from law school and started practicing. I think my presentations to the government bodies I pitch to every day are casual, engaging, humorous and informative; I can even explain complex concepts impromptu to a group of people without getting nervous, and I think I do it pretty well. (Hint: it's because I really know the subject matter.)

But I went to court a few weeks ago. Got the shakes and dry mouth. Felt like an ass, even though it was a favorable ruling. Black robes do that to people, so just keep on doing it.
posted by mibo at 2:37 PM on May 1, 2014

Adding to the above:

The first thing you always say: "May it please the court..."

Absolutely practice talking slowly and carefully. It's almost impossible to slow yourself down too much. Take the time to think about the question and formulate your words carefully.

Have an outline in front of you. Have a prepared intro consisting of several sentences. But be prepared to get derailed.

How to handle getting derailed is a real art. You need to able the answer the questions directly, and then get back into your outline, either picking up where you left off before the last question, or using your answer to segue into some other part of your outline.

Practice your argument with others who will play the judge.

Don't physically move around too much. Stay in front of the podium. If you're going to use your hands, keep them in the "strike zone" (in front of your chest). Stand up straight and don't shift your weight from one foot to the next.

Try to be somewhat casual. Think of it as a conversation that you're having with the judges, not an argument.

Get some footage/audio of reknowned Supreme Court practitioners (often Solicitor Generals or former SGs). They have a certain relaxed, casual style -- not too casual, but not stiff and formal.

A highly skilled attorney in oral argument appears impressive yet subtle. They have a style analogous to a very fine, carefully tailored suit; you don't notice it's there -- all you know is that they look really good.
posted by mikeand1 at 5:22 PM on May 1, 2014

While real-life oral argument can be kind of adversarial--sometimes extremely adversarial!--I think that my experience with competition is that even if sometimes they are Wrong, moot court judges on the whole are generally quite in favor of all involved being able to do well, and while they might end up dragging you off on a wild goose chase, I think it helps a lot to think of them as being much kinder than mibo's example. Save those nerves for if you ever do it in actual practice, in competition even if they ask hard questions they are not your adversary. They are trying to give you opportunities to show you know what you're doing.
posted by Sequence at 6:12 PM on May 1, 2014

You know, I thought of another thing I'd do in court:

Take a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle. While opposing counsel is talking, write down points to rebut and on the other side of the line write your counter. Refer to the list while you're talking to clarify your version -- you can have a great argument but it's pointless if it doesn't address what the other guy just said.

Also, take a cheat sheet of common objections. Read the bases for them and be listening for grounds, then be ready to stand up. (Also, always stand up.)

Pour yourself a cup of water and sip right before you start talking, but leave it at the table.

If it's an appellate moot, check with your professor on how to address or refer to individual judges -- "justices" or "judges," it may vary by jurisdiction.

Try to aim for a balance between confidence and humility. You're confident because you know your case -- but you're humble because you're willing to take instruction on the law from the judges. (At a moot anyway . . . and usually in court, but don't worry about that until later!)
posted by mibo at 7:08 PM on May 1, 2014

"moot court judges on the whole are generally quite in favor of all involved being able to do well"

Yes, 98% of them are -- but watch out for some of the judges who are actually judges in the real world. Some of them can be real arseholes.

At my law school, the panel for the moot court championship once featured a judge from the DC Circuit Ct of Appeals (who shall remain unnamed). He felt that one of the students, in her briefs, was somewhat dishonest on a point of law. That point of law happened to be the subject of an opinion he had authored.

In front of the entire school, and many other notable attendants, the judge absolutely pounded that student into the ground. Brutally. Practically to the point of crying. To this day, I don't know how that student did not break down into a puddle of tears and urine. Seriously, I probably would have passed out before I had the chance to start crying.

So yeah, it happens. And as a side note, do not be dishonest in your briefs -- especially if one of the judges wrote the opinion you're discussing.
posted by mikeand1 at 7:18 PM on May 1, 2014

I've been a member of the bar since 1980, but mine was an office practice. The advice others have given you here is great.

My suggestion is to seek advice from whichever faculty member is supervising the event. Why? Because he or she is being paid to teach you.

Maybe you've done this and, if so, that's good. Good luck.
posted by ADave at 5:19 AM on May 2, 2014

Practice for both a hot bench (lots of questions) and a cold bench (i.e., you talk for 15 minutes straight). I have seen people get tripped up when they prepared for one or the other, but not both.
posted by Carmelita Spats at 2:48 PM on May 2, 2014

I was on the moot court team for national competitions when I was in law school, and for years afterwards I judged moot court competitions for the legal writing class taught by the judge I used to work for. SO, I have thoughts on this sort of thing!

Your answer to *every* question should start with "[Yes/No/It depends], your Honor...", then explain, and try to end in a way that leads them in the direction you want them to go.

Never say stuff like "clearly", "obviously", "it's irrefutable", &c. As my Dad always used to tell me, if it were so clear we wouldn't be here arguing about it!

Never say stuff like "I think", "I believe", "I want to argue", &c. We know you want to argue - so just go ahead and make the damn argument already! And frankly, no one gives a shit what you think or believe. Just get to the point, and back it up with facts, law, and some good reasons.

Sometimes a judge will ask questions as a way to help you, to evoke answers that will help persuade other judges to agree with them agreeing with you. Don't assume everything is an attack or a trick.

Don't concede everything. It's okay to disagree with a judge and stand your ground respectfully. That said, it's tremendously important to know what you CAN concede safely- those kinds of concessions can really improve your credibility.

When the timer hits 2/3 minutes remaining, start to look for a good exit. You want to end on a strong note, not just keep blabbing until you run out of time. So when you hear a question that lets you give a really strong answer in those last couple minutes, answer it and then just say "Thank you, your Honors" and sit the hell down.

Practice practice practice, in front of a bunch of different groups of people pretending to be panels of judges. Hot benches, cold benches, because they're hard in different ways.

Don't even bring any notes with you up to the podium. Then you won't be tempted to read from them! You can work up to this by practicing with scanter and scanter outlines of your notes and finally practicing without any notes at all.

Ask people you practice in front of to stand as far away from you as the judges will, and to tell you afterwards if you were loud enough. I always had to feel like I was shouting before I was as loud as I needed to be, and it took me time to learn that that was the feeling I had to aim for.

Know the basic facts of the cases you're citing, so you can deal with it if a judge tries to distinguish the precedent from your case on the basis of facts. If there was a dissent, know what it said.

In advance, think about the answers to questions like: What are the risks for future cases and policy decisions of you win? What about if you lose? How can those be mitigated? What's the narrowest ruling that can get your client what they need? (And do remember, you're there to represent your client!)

What will you say when some judge peers at you from the bench and says, "But counselor, isn't this a slippery slope?" (I had a great professor in law school who told us that the essence of law lies in drawing discrete grids across continuous gradients. The line has to be drawn somewhere. You just have to give some reasons for why it should be drawn here.)

Ultimately, this sort of thing is more about principles than precedent. I had a professor in law school who liked to shout about how the name for 'dissent' is LOSER, but when you're arguing before a panel of judges who have the power to overturn their own precedent, it's a bit loosy-goosier than that. The big question they need to know from you is WHY they should rule your way. Your job is to make them want to side with you, give them something to hang their hat on, and clear any obstacles out of their way.
posted by 168 at 7:24 AM on May 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

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