Appellate litigators work on appeals in both federal and state courts. It can be difficult to build a practice that is purely appellate work, especially outside of larger markets, but many general litigators also practice at the appellate level. Purely appellate litigators do not deal with developing a factual record through document discovery or depositions, so the work is focused on legal research and writing. Appellate litigation is the most direct application of what law students learn in their 1L core curriculum. Cases tend to be much shorter in duration than those handled by general litigators and can require practitioners to delve into arcane issues. Law students interested in practicing in this area should get law review or other journal experience in law school and try to get a federal clerkship, especially at an appellate level.
In our guide, Practice Perspectives: Vault’s Guide to Legal Practice Areas, attorneys from law firms with top-ranked Appellate Litigation practices share insights about their practice, including how they chose this practice area and what kind of training they recommend to excel at their field of law. Keep reading for their insights!
How did you choose this practice area?
Antony L. Ryan, Partner—Cravath: I became a litigator because I was interested in trying cases and, more generally, presenting persuasive narratives to judges and juries. When I interviewed at law firms as a student, I would ask, “What is the most interesting matter you are working on currently?” I was drawn in by the stories that litigators told and how passionate they were about their clients’ cases. When people talked about what they did as litigators, I could imagine myself doing that work and finding it rewarding.
Daniel E. Jones, Partner—Mayer Brown: Like many appellate litigators, I was attracted to the opportunity to shape precedent and tackle legal issues of broad significance to our clients. As a law student and law clerk to an appellate judge, I thoroughly enjoyed researching and writing analyses of thorny legal issues. I was fortunate enough to land a job in Mayer Brown’s Appellate practice, which allowed me to continue that type of work professionally.
Jeffrey B. Wall, Partner—Sullivan & Cromwell: In some sense the practice area chose me. I was fortunate to clerk for two of the finest judges in the country, Judge Wilkinson and then Justice Thomas, and those clerkships pushed me away from academia and toward litigation. I then spent a few years as an associate dividing my time between brief-writing and a full range of civil litigation, including everything from document review to depositions. I particularly enjoyed the writing, and that led me to focus on appeals and to apply to the Solicitor General’s Office (OSG). Working in OSG was a true honor; it’s a special place. And it launched me down the path as an appellate lawyer.
What training, classes, experience, or skills development would you recommend to someone who wishes to enter your practice area?
Antony L. Ryan: I recommend that law students take procedural classes, which will teach them relevant skills to be a litigator: Federal Courts, Evidence, Choice of Law, Complex Civil Procedure, and similar courses. You can always learn substantive law later, but if you don’t have a strong grasp of procedure, you risk overlooking ways to present your case to the best advantage. I would also recommend moot court. I was fortunate enough to reach the final round in my own moot court experience and had the opportunity to argue before real judges—including the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It definitely gives you a little bit of confidence in your career when you already have that sort of experience.
I also strongly recommend that associates take the opportunity to clerk, especially those who want to become litigators. Clerking is a unique experience that allows you to see the lawyers’ briefs and arguments through the judge’s eyes, helps shape your understanding of what is important to the decisionmaking process, and makes you a better advocate.
Daniel E. Jones: Appellate litigation requires excellent research and writing skills, and the best way to acquire those is through practice, practice, and more practice. An appellate clerkship provides both the ideal opportunity to hone these skills and exposure to many examples of effective (and ineffective) advocacy. It is also enormously helpful to seek out feedback on your drafts from more senior associates and partners who are experienced brief writers and appellate advocates.
Jeffrey B. Wall: Doing moot court is a valuable experience and one I enjoyed as a law student. I would also encourage law students to seek out as many writing opportunities as possible. Joining a journal is a great way to do that, but any opportunities where your written work will be edited by more experienced lawyers are worthwhile. Clinics are also an excellent way to develop real-world lawyering skills; they can give you the opportunity to experience the courtroom and get on your feet.
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