Tired of online court, school, happy hour, family holidays, and more? Me too. However, we also know some form of virtual court is here to stay, and based on the number of great pointers judges from across the county have shared with us this month, we can all still improve.
Moreover, in reflecting on the tips I’ve seen lately, I was struck by how many of these pointers apply to any argument, in-person or virtual, and how they track what we have long told law students in moot court. As we evolve from a largely in-person court system, where we had some telephonic and online conferences, to our future, which could involve many more electronic appearances, we should not lose sight of those moot court pointers from law school. And for those of us teaching oral advocacy, we should remember to share best practices for preparation and professionalism which will serve our students in any argument, online or in-person.
Recently, Judge Pierre Bergeron shared helpful tips on preparing for oral argument. You can see his blog here: Judge Pierre Bergeron’s Tips. He advises counsel to practice, with a moot court if possible, know the record and case law, provide a roadmap of argument points at the beginning, and be especially cognizant of the need to pause periodically “in an effort to invite questions.” Id. These tips apply equally to in-person arguments.
Similarly, Madison Alder’s piece for Bloomberg Law, Wear Pants, Sequester Pets: Five Tips From Judges for Zoom Court, has excellent advice from judges for online arguments and court appearances in general. See Madison Alder, Wear Pants, Sequester Pets (Bloomberg Dec. 8, 2020). As Alder notes, the “virtual venues have worked so well,” some “courts plan on using them long after the virus is gone.” Id. Therefore, all lawyers who appear in court need to be as proficient in online argument as they hopefully are for in-person proceedings.
Online court platforms vary (federal courts often do not use Zoom, for example), just like courthouses, and “’Lawyers should prepare themselves for venues they’re not familiar with,’” said Chief Judge William Johnson of the District New Mexico. See id. Thus, “preparing a presentation ahead of time is still crucial.” Id. Just as in traditional courthouses, counsel should practice standing at a podium or sitting and looking directly at a webcam. See id. I advise my students to distill their oral argument notes to just one piece of paper, supported by one binder of organized cases and record pages to take to the podium, and that format works well online, where paper shuffling can be magnified on Zoom.
Somehow, despite myriad reminders to dress professionally, we still hear frequent complaints from the bench about attorney attire. Alder recommends: “Dressing properly means wearing professional attire from head to toe, not just head to waist.” Id. “’You never know when you’ll need to stand up in a pinch, which can make for an embarrassing moment if you’re wearing shorts,’ Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Anne Burke said.” Id. The key: “’Besides the same make-sure-you’re-communicating-well lessons that apply in a courtroom—is remembering that this is a courtroom and a formal proceeding. Zoom can make people less formal,’” Southern District of Texas Chief Judge Lee Rosenthal said. Id.
We teach law school moot court advocates not to read from notes, allowing them to “read the bench” and make eye contact with judges. This lesson matters even more for online arguments, where the format makes true eye contact impossible. To be as present as possible, online lawyers (and students) should “make sure they do things like keeping the dogs in the other room, closing the window if the lawnmower is going, and making sure their children aren’t there,” said Chief Judge Rosenthal. Id.
Finally, we all need to be more attentive to virtual context clues in online arguments. “The virtual platform makes it more important for lawyers to pay attention to the tone of a judge’s voice, Jed Rakoff, a senior judge in the Southern District of New York, said.” Id. Tuning in to a judge’s tone is important for lawyers “’because that’s the main remaining clue as to whether they’re scoring or not,’” Rakoff said. Id. As Eastern District of California Chief Judge Kimberly Mueller explained, “It’s as important as ever to pay attention to the judge’s signals, so if you are talking too long, be ready to wind up.’” Id. And, using Judge Bergeron’s point on pausing to allow questions, online advocates should watch for judges’ body language showing they are about to unmute or ask a question.
In my house, with two adults working full-time online and a high school student taking online classes while managing a Zoom social and extracurricular schedule, we are weary of an online-only world. I know many law students and lawyers feel the same way. But at least we can find a silver lining (in addition to the great commute) from the online court experience, as the skills we must hone for the best online arguments will make us better advocates in-person too.