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Federal judges dispense advice to law students

March 24, 2008

Students at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law received an informative lesson in case preparation and courtroom strategies March 6 from three judges whose bench is the last stop before the U.S. Supreme Court.

A panel from the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals took questions from students during a special sitting at the college, where it also heard oral arguments from attorneys in four cases. Judges Michael Daly Hawkins of Phoenix, Richard R. Clifton of Honolulu and Sidney R. Thomas of Billings, Mont., interacted with first-year law students and others assembled during a dean’s session.

Because the judges hear about 30 cases per month, involving up to 3,500 pages of reading, attorneys should write more succinctly, with the most important details of an argument up front, they said.

“You’re going to get us to look at the briefs, but we are human beings, and the attention span begins to wander,” Clifton said. “Be concise, don’t hide the ball. Tell me why it is that this is the right result.”

The judges said the biggest mistake lawyers make in court is not listening to judges’ questions, either because they don’t want to depart from their scripts, are attempting to hide weaknesses in their cases or are fearful they might say the wrong thing.

“Some attorneys stop listening about halfway through our questions and start to do what politicians do and form answers they want to give, not the ones to the questions that are asked,” Hawkins said. “So listen to the question, answer it directly, give a yes or no answer, or a figure or a list, if that’s what the judge is asking for. It’s the skill your mother taught you when you first went to school: listen and respond.”

Clifton said judges notice weak spots in cases and expect them to be dealt with.

“It’s not often the case where everything is pristine,” he said. “If it comes this far, there’s usually something to talk about, and you have to be prepared.”

Oral arguments don’t often change judges’ preconceptions about cases, but they represent an “intimate conversation” between a lawyer and the judges, and they help judges understand the nuances of cases, the panel members said.

“I love it when an attorney says, ‘You’re wrong, judge, and let me tell you why,’ ” Hawkins said. “That’s not a negative, that’s a positive, and I truly enjoy it.”