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Becoming an Appellate Lawyer: One Associate's Perspective

Abbott Jones


  • Developing exceptional writing skills is crucial for becoming an appellate advocate, so seek opportunities to improve and practice your writing.
  • Curate your work projects by working with appellate partners in your firm or taking on trial court assignments that align with appellate work.
  • Be a resource for other attorneys in your firm by staying updated on legal rules, changes in the law, and trends that may impact their cases.
  • Brand yourself as an expert in appellate advocacy by consistently publishing articles, teaching CLEs, speaking at conferences, and participating in pro bono appellate work.
Becoming an Appellate Lawyer: One Associate's Perspective
Kobus Louw via Getty Images

How can a new lawyer break into the field of appellate advocacy? And once she has, how can she grow her practice? Here is some practical advice for becoming an appellate advocate, gleaned from my years as an appellate associate at a full-service law firm.

Write Exceptionally Well

The hallmark of a great appellate lawyer is her ability to convey complicated factual scenarios and legal arguments in a concise and persuasive way. Her writing ability, therefore, is one of her most important assets. Do whatever it takes to hone your writing skills. Attend CLEs and read articles focused on improving your writing. Read well-written judicial opinions and scholarly articles. Welcome editing and writing critiques from partners whose writing you admire—and improve your own writing by editing the work of others.

Once you gain a level of confidence about writing, write! Author articles about anything of interest to the appellate practitioner—U.S. Supreme Court cases, state appellate court decisions, circuit splits and trends, preservation of error tips, or changes in standards of review, just to name a few. Being a published author not only helps improve your writing and editing skills, it also raises your profile and helps build your brand.

Curate Your Work Projects

To the extent you are able, work on projects for the appellate partners in your firm. Fair warning: Appellate lawyers are known for their meticulousness and attention to detail, so be sure that all of your work is polished and thorough. If you impress an appellate partner on one project, you are likely to receive more appellate assignments in the future.

If you are not able to work directly with an appellate partner, seek out trial court assignments that typically fall within an appellate associate’s wheelhouse: Prepare summary judgments, handle notices of removal, prepare motions in limine, and draft motions for directed verdict/judgment as a matter of law. If you are part of a trial team, volunteer to be the steward of the trial court record. Assume responsibility for protecting the record by ensuring that the court reporter is transcribing everything, that you obtain a ruling from the trial judge on objections, that you move for directed verdict/judgment as a matter of law when required, and that you make offers of proof when necessary. These steps will help demonstrate that you are capable of handling more appellate-related assignments.

Be a Resource

Other attorneys in the firm often look to appellate lawyers as a resource on legal rules and changes in the law. In the midst of a bustling transactional or litigation practice, most other lawyers do not have the time to keep abreast of changes in the rules or law that might affect their cases. Appellate lawyers spend most of their time reading cases and preparing legal arguments and, consequently, they are aware of any changes in the law or other trends.

If you want to become an appellate lawyer, become familiar with the state and federal procedural rules and statutes, especially the rules about notice of appeal/mandamus deadlines, waiver, and jurisdiction. Learn the common legal standards (e.g., the standards for dismissal, summary judgment, and removal) and standards of review (e.g., de novo, abuse of discretion) as well as when those standards are applicable. Also take the time to monitor opinions and legislative enactments in your jurisdictions. Brushing up on your knowledge of the rules and changes in the law makes you an invaluable asset for your firm and puts you in a position to handle appellate assignments well.

Brand Your Practice

Establish yourself as an expert in handling appeals. Do excellent work, so the judges before whom you practice will have a good impression of you. Continue to publish articles on topics of appellate interest. Scholarly articles published in law reviews are wonderful, but you should also publish regularly on topics of interest in your state and local bar publications or publications through organizations such as the ABA or DRI. Teaching CLEs and speaking at conferences are also great ways to build and maintain your image as an appellate lawyer, while also giving you an opportunity to network with contacts who can send you work (e.g., trial litigators and in-house counsel).

Most appellate courts have formal or informal procedures for appointing counsel to handle appeals pro bono. Join the pro bono rosters in your jurisdictions. These appointments often come with the guarantee of oral argument, which will give you an opportunity to gain some invaluable experience while also serving the underprivileged community.

A little luck may be required to break into and grow an appellate practice, but remember: Luck is simply the meeting of preparation and opportunity. Following the advice above should go a long way in preparing you to become a successful appellate lawyer.