The following is an excerpt from Practice Perspectives: Vault's Guide to Legal Practice Areas.
Jeff Wall is a partner in Sullivan & Cromwell’s Litigation Group and the head of its Supreme Court and Appellate practice. Mr. Wall is the former Acting Solicitor General and Principal Deputy Solicitor General of the United States. He has argued 30 cases in the Supreme Court in a number of areas, including securities, class actions, arbitration, intellectual property, taxation, labor and employment, bankruptcy, preemption, the False Claims Act, the First Amendment, and criminal law and procedure. He also has briefed and argued numerous cases before federal and state courts of appeals and administrative agencies. In addition to his appellate experience, Mr. Wall has represented clients in a range of complex civil and criminal matters at the trial level, including as lead counsel in a successful federal criminal trial. He counsels clients on strategic legal issues arising from litigation, legislation, or governmental oversight or investigation. Mr. Wall clerked for Justice Clarence Thomas and Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III.
Describe your practice area and what it entails.
The focus of our Supreme Court and Appellate practice is handling appeals, usually in the Supreme Court or the federal courts of appeal but also in some state courts. That typically involves collaborating with the trial lawyers who have been working on the case, developing a strategy and arguments for an appeal, and then briefing and arguing the appeal itself. But there is much more to the practice than that. Sometimes we embed with a trial team to help spot and preserve issues; sometimes we advise clients or other lawyers behind the scenes; and often we are asked for strategic advice before litigation is even underway. Our job is not just to be appellate lawyers—it is to be counselors to our clients. They have a range of difficult problems, and we need to help solve them with clear and creative advice.
What types of clients do you represent?
One of my favorite things about the practice is that we’re not focused on particular sectors or subject matters. This week I’m working on filings for a technology company in an IP case, an insurer in False Claims Act litigation, and an automotive manufacturer in a FOIA suit. Last week I argued a constitutional question to the Ninth Circuit, and the week before I filed a brief in the Supreme Court on a securities law issue. Next week, there will undoubtedly be something new added to the mix. I sometimes run into the misconception among law students that New York-based firms are only doing securities or banking work for financial institutions. That may be true some places, but it is not true of litigators at Sullivan & Cromwell.
What types of cases/deals do you work on?
The bread and butter of our Supreme Court and Appellate practice is advising on difficult issues and appeals around the country. But Sullivan & Cromwell has always prided itself on having a generalist mindset, so one distinctive feature of the practice is that our appellate lawyers are not siloed in their offices only writing briefs. I’m handling several appeals right now, but I also have some tricky cases in district courts and a number of other matters where I’m providing strategic advice before or outside of litigation. Our appellate lawyers have tried and arbitrated cases, handled class certification proceedings, conducted internal investigations, and even represented clients in governmental investigations. It isn’t what we spend most of our time doing, but it makes us better at working with trial teams and developing effective arguments on appeal, and it’s also a more interesting and well-rounded way to practice.
How did you choose this practice area?
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 is a typical day like and/or what are some common tasks you perform?
I spend some time nearly every day reviewing and editing briefs. I am an active editor, and it’s important to me that filings read a particular way. I also spend a lot of time discussing issues with associates, other partners, and current or prospective clients. That can take a number of different forms. For example, recently a general counsel sent me an article he’s publishing on the financial markets and asked for critical feedback. That was outside my usual zone, but it combined two things I really enjoy: thinking about new and hard questions, and being a counselor in the full sense of that word. I love the fact that nearly every day brings issues that weren’t on my radar when I woke up that morning. It keeps the job exciting and means that each day is somewhat different.
What training, classes, experience, or skills development would you recommend to someone who wishes to enter your practice area?
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.
What is the most challenging aspect of practicing in this area?
One challenge is finding argument opportunities for young lawyers. In normal civil litigation, there may be plenty of depositions, hearings, or client meetings that are chances for junior lawyers to develop their advocacy skills. But appeals may involve only brief-writing and a single argument—and for Supreme Court cases and other appeals where a lot is at stake, clients typically want experienced advocates doing the argument. That was certainly a frustration for me as a younger lawyer, and I try to be very conscious of whether associates in our practice are getting good opportunities and are happy with their professional development.
What kinds of experience can summer associates gain at this practice area at your firm?
Dating back to my time as an associate, I’ve had a policy that I would work on a writing assignment with any summer associate who wanted. We still do that now. If any summer associate wants to try her hand at appellate work, we carve off a piece of something where she can do the first draft. It can be a little daunting because my style is hands-on and the edits can be extensive, but I’ve found that it is valuable both in the short run (because of the on-the-spot, practical feedback) and the long run (because summer associates can see whether they’re bitten by the brief-writing bug).
What are some typical career paths for lawyers in this practice area?
Probably the most common path is an appellate clerkship (or two), and maybe time in both private practice and the government. We have a number of lawyers, for instance, who worked in the Solicitor General’s Office. Morgan Ratner recently joined us after several years in OSG; before that she clerked for Chief Justice Roberts and then-Judge Kavanaugh. Judd Littleton co-heads the practice, and he and Julia Malkina were Bristow Fellows in OSG before clerking for Chief Justice Roberts and Justices O’Connor and Breyer. At a more junior level, we just welcomed Leslie Arffa, Dan Richardson and Zoe Jacoby from clerkships with Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Breyer and Kavanaugh, respectively. I see or talk to most of them every day, and the diversity and energy they bring to the team is terrific.
What is your routine for preparing for oral arguments?
For me, preparing for argument is about boiling down the case. I start by reviewing the briefs and cases with a critical eye and making a list of second- and third-level questions that I might have as a judge. Answering those helps me figure out the handful of key points—both offensive and defensive—that I’d like to make during the argument. I love the anecdote, apocryphal or not, about Chief Justice Roberts as an advocate, writing key points on notecards, picking a card in response to any question, and weaving in that point to his answer. That captures the balance between being responsive to the court and being an effective advocate for your client. And of course, like most OSG alums, I always do moot courts before an argument, to vet my answers and make sure I’m sounding the right themes.