Alumni Short

New Class Takes Advocacy Skills to the Next Level

Ithaca, NEW YORK, Feb 19, 2015

There's moot court-and there's "moot court on steroids," which is how people describe a new course co-taught by John H. Blume and Hon. Richard C. Wesley '74. Formally called Federal Appellate Practice (FAP), the 3L class takes advocacy skills to the next level, culminating in oral arguments before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York City.

"It's very intense," says Blume, the Samuel F. Leibowitz Professor of Trial Techniques and Director of Clinical, Advocacy, and Skills Programs. "It's all about learning by doing, developing the skillset that would make them successful federal appellate lawyers. That's our goal, and the most exciting parts for me are working closely with students and watching them push past their comfort zone. We see who they really are, and they get a real sense of what it's like to prepare for an appeal. It's total immersion."

Federal Appellate Practice 3L class 2015

Unlike the non-steroidal version, which Blume also supervises, FAP tackles twelve cases currently on the docket of the Supreme Court, with each student taking a turn as petitioner, respondent, co-counsel, and judge, choosing between a range of cases from criminal procedure to antitrust, constitutional, election, and labor law. Toward the beginning of the course, they're given a quick exercise with a motion to file, a paragraph of facts on the case, and ten minutes to prepare their oral argument; toward the end, they're each asked to submit a written brief in a pending Supreme Court case.

"We want them to finish with a good understanding of what it takes to be an appellate litigator," says Wesley, who has been a judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit since 2003; before that, he served on the New York Court of Appeals (1997-2003, appointed by Governor George Pataki), the Supreme Court Appellate Division (1994-1997, appointed by Governor Mario Cuomo), and the New York Supreme Court (1986-1994). "We want them to think about expressing themselves clearly, both orally and in written briefs, and how to present their argument. We drive home the fact that every case is really a story about human conflict, whether it's a contract involving multinational corporations or a criminal case involving a physical assault. To make their argument compelling, they need to see the big picture and express it as a story. And they do. They really get it."

For Christopher Sanchez '15, the turning point came when he watched a video of his first oral argument. He looked nervous, his voice was too quiet, and he didn't answer all the judge's questions. By his second attempt, all that had changed, and by his third attempt, arguing before a panel of Second Circuit judges in the Thurgood Marshall U.S. Courthouse, he was ready. "I went into the Second Circuit with a lot more confidence than I had before," says Sanchez, who plans to become a public defender, and received an Exemplary Public Service Award earlier this year. "Those oral arguments had really transformed me. I knew I could do this."

The case was Warger v. Shauers, which hinged on a question of alleged misconduct by a jury foreperson: Could deliberations be admitted as evidence the foreperson had lied during selection, and had exerted "improper outside influence" to sway the verdict in Shauers' favor?

"I did a lot of research on how the rules of evidence were actually made, so I could talk about whether or not Congress had intended to block this kind of evidence," says Sanchez. "That made me much quicker on my feet. I was able to answer all the judges' questions, and by the end, one of the judges said he'd be happy to have me and my opposing counsel in his courtroom at any time, and that we'd done better than a lot of attorneys they see on a daily basis. Given where I started in the class, that was very remarkable."

"It was definitely the best class I've taken at Cornell," he continues. "It was the most difficult, but also the most rewarding."