Top Ten Lessons Learned in the Appellate Clinic

by Claire Wheeler JD ’15 and Danny Yates JD ’15 

Danny Yates is a 3L from Richmond, VA. He attended William & Mary for undergrad, and next year Danny will be clerking for Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons on the Supreme Court of Virginia.  Afterward, he will working at a large law firm in Richmond.

Claire Wheeler is from Silver Spring, Maryland. She earned her B.A. from Harvard College. In addition to being a member of the Appellate & Supreme Court Clinic, Claire is a member of the Public Service Fund Board, the Alternative Dispute Resolution competitive team, Environmental Law & Policy Review, and has served on both the Executive Board and as Chair of Undergraduate Recruitment for the Black Law Student Association. Claire will begin working as an Associate at Venable LLP in Washington, DC in the fall of 2015.  

wheeler yatesWe first heard about the William & Mary Appellate Clinic last year when a friend from the 3L class said that she would be arguing before the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.  Oral argument before a three-judge panel of federal appellate judges is an experience that only a small handful of litigators enjoy, and is an even rarer occurrence for law students.  After observing intense oral arguments before a panel of Fourth Circuit judges in William & Mary’s McGlothlin Courtroom, we found the opportunities the Clinic provides to be even more enticing (and slightly terrifying).  A few months later, we were impressed upon discovering that the Fourth Circuit panel unanimously agreed with our friend–and the Clinic had won its appeal!

The Appellate and Supreme Court Clinic is one of nine clinical programs offered at William & Mary Law School.  These clinics allow law students, under the supervision of practicing attorneys, to represent real clients in legal disputes involving everything from veterans’ benefits to coastal policy to domestic violence.  Specifically, the Appellate Clinic provides pro bono representation in federal courts of appeals and before the Supreme Court.  Our cases typically address constitutional questions and our clients have ranged from convicted felons to small business owners.

The past two and a half years at W&M Law have been a constant cycle of reading cases, analyzing statutes, and discussing policy issues.  However, the Appellate Clinic has revealed to us what it really means to be a good lawyer.  As members of the Clinic, we’ve had the opportunity to learn the basics of appellate advocacy as well as the intricacies involved in representing clients on appeal.  From teamwork, to brief writing, to mooting for oral argument, we could not imagine better preparation as we move closer to trading in our backpacks for briefcases.

Below are the top ten lessons learned in the Appellate Clinic:

10. When drafting a brief, headings are extremely important.

Although it may be hard to believe, judges, just like law students, sometime resort to skimming a brief.

9. Put two spaces after every period.

We must admit that we are not sure whether there should be one or two spaces following a period at the end of a sentence; however, under the guidance and instruction of our professor, Tillman J. Breckenridge, an expert appellate lawyer at the international law firm of Reed Smith LLP, the answer is always put two spaces.

8. Do not use the phrase “begs the question” unless the point you are making actually raises a question.

This may be just another “pet-peeve” of our professor, but his underlying message is to write in a clear and concise manner.  Lawyers have a tendency to be verbose, and Professor Breckenridge is conscientiously making us more persuasive writers.

7. The statement of facts is the most critical section of any appellate brief.

It’s human nature to want to know who should win right off the bat, and it’s easier to win hearts if you’ve already won judges’ minds.

6. Technology is supposed to make our lives easier, but somehow brief writing is never complete without formatting issues and computer glitches.

We have encountered our fair share of “technical difficulties” over the past few months as we worked to draft briefs, respond to motions, and compile appendices.  Often we found that formatting can be the most time-consuming aspect of the brief-writing process.  Nothing is more frustrating than spending hours working away on filing just to have your word processor freeze up and cause you to lose everything!  Both of our computers have crashed at various points in the past few months–making us true believers in the saying that you should always “back up your back up.”

5. It is “darn near impossible to win a case at oral argument, but it is easy to lose one.”

In class, we regularly listen to and critique oral arguments with the goal of improving our own oral advocacy skills.  Professor Breckenridge taught us that oral argument is not something to just “get through.”  Rather, use your few minutes at the podium to “move the ball forward.”  Oral argument requires extensive preparation.  You must know the record cold, and you must try to anticipate every question the judges might ask.  At the end of the day, appellate advocates often describe three arguments: the argument you plan to make, the argument you actually made, and the argument you wished you made.  However, the most important thing to remember is to answer questions clearly, honestly, and with a thought as to how our case fits into the overarching law.

4. Sometimes your client can make your job a lot tougher.

Sometimes clients can be demanding or have unrealistic expectations.  We’ve learned that it helps to put yourself in their shoes, and to strive to communicate clearly.

3. Cooperation and teamwork are best for your client and your sanity.

Although our workload for the Clinic can be intense, we are fortunate to be paired with terrific partners.  Unlike most other law school classes where group work is virtually nonexistent, the Clinic relies on a team-oriented structure.  We are eight third-year students, paired into four sets of partners.  We comb through federal dockets for cases presenting constitutional issues or civil rights violations, and then decide as a group which ones to take on.  Casework is divided among the partner groups, and all brief writing is a two-person effort.  Teamwork is an integral part of our daily work in the Clinic, and it demands flexibility in accommodating different stylistic preferences, organizational methods, and personalities.

2. Credibility is your most important tool as a lawyer.

You spend years building it, but it can be lost very easily.  In just a few short months, Professor Breckenridge has taught us many nuances of appellate advocacy–from brief writing techniques to oral argument advice to general practice tips through his weekly “musings on professionalism.”  However, the advice always comes back to the importance of credibility and character.

1. If you don’t enjoy the work you’re doing, you’ll burn out quickly.

At times, our participation in the Clinic has required us to burn the midnight oil and make some sacrifices.  We spent part of Thanksgiving Break compiling a brief on the merits of a client’s First Amendment challenge to alcohol advertising regulations.  Additionally, on the first day of Christmas break, the two of us drafted an emergency motion in a federal criminal case involving an illegal search and seizure.


Nonetheless, these experiences have sharpened our time management skills.  As Professor Breckenridge constantly reminds us, “once you graduate and start practicing, you will never again have as much free time as you did in law school.”  As we head into the new year, and our final semester of law school, we are thrilled to continue with the Clinic.  We look forward to putting into practice many of the skills we have learned over the past six months as we zealously represent future clients.

This blog post is part of a series featuring student experiences in William & Mary Law School’s nine clinics. To view more clinic posts, click here.