September 03, 2014 Article

Preparing for Your First Appellate Oral Argument: A Practical Primer

One thing judges hate is a lack of preparedness

by Nicholas P. Shapiro

In my first three years of practice, I have had the somewhat unusual privilege of arguing two appeals before the Massachusetts Appeals Court. As you might expect, it was often intimidating and not always smooth sailing. But the benefits of that experience prompt me to encourage even relatively new attorneys to look for those opportunities and not to be afraid to seize them when they appear—and not to just assume the more senior lawyer should argue the case on appeal. The purpose of this article is to provide more junior attorneys with practical tips and insight into the process of preparing for an appellate oral argument.

Know Your Court

Before joining my current law firm, I worked as a law clerk for an associate justice of the Massachusetts Appeals Court, the very appellate court before which I would first argue. This background gave me critical insight into the process. For example, I came to know that the court is composed of 24 associate justices, one chief justice, and one recall justice; how a case is selected for oral argument; that, if a case is selected for oral argument, it will be assigned for hearing before a three-judge panel; and that each hearing typically consists of three criminal cases, which are heard first, followed by three civil cases, heard last. But one can figure this out without clerking for the court. There are numerous resources through which one can find this information. These resources include the court’s own website, rules and standing orders, list serves, chat rooms and blogs, and colleagues who have either worked at a given court or have significant experience practicing before it.

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