We are frequently approached by law students and aspiring law students for advice. Of course, we advise that they should make good grades and not borrow one penny more than needed. That is common sense. What we also advise, and what is not common sense, is that for aspiring litigators, participate in moot court.
Like many others, the aspiring law student enters law school with visions of Perry Mason courtroom moments and dramatic cross examinations. Until recent decades, expectations were pretty close to reality. Now, though, as various outlets have recently reported, very few civil cases go to trial compared to those in the past. However, some cases still make it to a jury, and one must be prepared to try those cases when they do. And if a trial doesn’t go your way, you may need to appeal. If most cases settle before trial, it goes without saying that there are fewer appeals, as well. To further complicate matters, in order to be adequately prepared to try a case or argue an appeal, one probably needs courtroom experience. So how does one obtain trial or appellate experience if cases rarely go to trial? One answer is moot court.
This author was fortunate to have participated in a well-organized, well-run moot court program that involved appellate court competitions with real appellate judges, trial competitions with real juries and trial judges, and various other simulated courtroom experiences that were as close to real life as you can get without someone’s real life or real money being on the line. This author spent the second and third year of law school participating in every appellate and trial competition that the team would allow. And for each competition, there were dozens of practices during which lawyers from the community watched and provided criticism. The result was that, when this author transitioned from law school to firm life, he had hundreds of trial and appellate experiences under his belt. As a result, the “first time” he was asked to argue a motion or try the case, it was not nearly as terrifying a proposition as it could have been otherwise. Where some people would need to overcome the initial fear of the unknown, and ascertain the basics of how the courtroom worked, he was able to focus on the merits of the argument, trial, et cetera, and walk into the courtroom with confidence.
This post is not meant to downplay the importance of learning legal principles in the classroom or the importance of learning how to write briefs. The point, though, is that there is no shortage of brief writing experience to be had for law firm associates, and unless you practice criminal law, you will need to learn the law in your practice area when you transition to firm life anyway. For aspiring litigators, the most important thing you can do in law school is to devour as many appellate and trial experiences as you can in the short amount of time you are in law school. You will be glad you did the first time a partner hands you a file and tells you the case is up for trial in a week. Additionally, for firms like ours who pride themselves in being trial ready on every case, the trial is the end goal, and if the litigator understands the end goal, it will help to focus all of the legal research and fact finding efforts on what is important.