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Appellate Litigation

Overview

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.

Featured Q&A's
Get an insider's view on working in Appellate Litigation from real lawyers in the practice area.
Sally Pei, Partner • Andrew Tutt, Counsel—Appellate & Supreme Court and Commercial Litigation
Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP

Describe your practice area and what it entails.

Sally: Appellate litigation involves advising and representing clients in connection with proceedings in courts of appeals—either challenging or defending a decision made by a lower court. The work of an appellate advocate often begins long before the appeal. Appellate litigators help clients identify, frame, and preserve legal issues early in the life cycle of a case in anticipation of later appellate proceedings. 

In addition to strategic thinking, appellate litigation involves digesting and synthesizing complex information and communicating it in a straightforward and concise fashion, both in written briefs and at oral argument. Appellate judges hear cases on an endless variety of matters, and appellate litigators must be able to function as generalists who can present arguments to non-specialist judges in a persuasive way.

Andrew: My practice as an appellate and Supreme Court advocate involves aiding clients in navigating all aspects of the appellate review of lower-court decisions. When cases are still pending in the lower courts, that can involve counseling clients about how best to preserve issues for appellate review or to ensure that issues favorably resolved in the lower court are insulated from later attack on appellate review. When cases reach the appellate courts, my practice involves crafting persuasive legal arguments that help clients win their appeals. 

What types of clients do you represent?

Sally: I represent a wide range of clients, including individuals, businesses, and governments. 

Andrew: As an appellate lawyer, my clients can be anyone who needs help navigating an appeal. I represent clients across the spectrum, including companies, victims of civil rights abuses, non-profit organizations, criminal defendants, prisoners, and more.

What types of cases/deals do you work on?

Sally: My practice has spanned a broad range of subject areas, but I focus in particular on representing clients in disputes with an international dimension. I frequently represent clients in cross-border civil litigation, including foreign sovereign clients in cases raising questions of foreign sovereign immunity.

Andrew: Many of the cases that I work on, especially those at the Supreme Court, involve nationally important legal issues with important consequences for companies, individuals, and the legal system. A recent case established that Congress has the constitutional authority to override state sovereign immunity to authorize soldiers to bring lawsuits against the states under USERRA. Another established that there is a First Amendment right to film police officers performing their duties in public. Another established a landmark interpretation of the reach of the general federal civil rights cause of action in 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

How did you choose this practice area?

Sally: I have always enjoyed researching, writing, and crafting legal arguments, all of which form the core of an appellate practice. I also was attracted to the generalist nature of appellate practice and the constant intellectual challenge. Each case presents a new issue and fact pattern and new puzzles to think through.

Andrew: I always knew that I wanted to be an appellate lawyer. I enjoyed figuring out how to make compelling legal arguments based on text, precedent, and history more than I liked the drama of trials or the nitty-gritty work of investigations and discovery. Being an appellate lawyer has not disappointed. I still think working on an appeal is the most fun you can have in the law.

What is a typical day like and/or what are some common tasks you perform?

Sally: I spend a lot of time reading, analyzing cases and authorities, and drafting and editing motions and briefs. A typical day also often will include meetings (whether with colleagues at the firm or with the client) to discuss case strategy.

Andrew: More than anything else, I find that it is my job to know the law. I spend a lot of my time researching—reading legal cases, precedents, and other materials that help me to understand the law in a particular area and what arguments are available to make about it. I also spend a lot of my time writing, teaching the law to others, explaining the arguments that are available and unavailable, and ultimately drafting briefs and motions that present those arguments to courts and other tribunals.

What training, classes, experience, or skills development would you recommend to someone who wishes to enter your practice area?

Sally: Strong legal research, analytical, and writing skills are extremely important assets for anyone wishing to practice appellate litigation. Clerking, particularly on a court of appeals, is also a very valuable experience. Learning firsthand how judges think about and decide cases, and gaining exposure to a wide range of written and oral advocacy styles, provides an excellent foundation for appellate practitioners.

Andrew: As for specific classes, if you want to go into appellate law, you cannot go wrong paying special attention in classes like civil procedure, federal courts, and statutory interpretation. But the best preparation for appellate law—regardless of the specific classes you take—is to be curious and read a lot. You want to be curious and willing to question why a legal rule is one way and not another, and to always be thinking about what arguments could be made to challenge it. 

What are some typical tasks that a junior lawyer would perform in this practice area? 

Sally: Junior lawyers in the appellate group at Arnold & Porter are given as much responsibility as they can handle. Typical tasks include conducting legal research; drafting and editing memos, motions, and briefs; and helping colleagues prepare for oral arguments. Junior lawyers at Arnold & Porter are also encouraged to get experience arguing cases themselves. The appellate group is very supportive of associates leading and arguing appeals.

Andrew: Junior lawyers in the appellate practice group are asked to take on large amounts of responsibility and take on tasks very similar to the tasks performed by the most senior lawyers in the practice. Junior lawyers are asked to research legal issues; draft analytical memos; and draft petitions for review, merits briefs, and motions. They are also expected to be able to read and edit the legal writing of others, and to think creatively and devise strategies for winning complex and high-stakes legal cases.

How do you see this practice area evolving in the future?

Andrew: I expect that appellate law will continue to become more data-driven in its approach across every dimension. In the use of legal sources, we will continue to gain greater access to relevant sources like historical documents and relevant precedents. Indeed, with ever more legal reading happening on a computer (rather than a printed sheet of paper), we may increasingly see courts require hyperlinks to sources and record cites in legal filings. With respect to legal decision makers, we will continue to obtain more relevant information that we can use to craft legal arguments that will be persuasive to them. And in the art and craft of legal rhetoric, we will likely continue to benefit from more advanced tools that will aid us in writing clearer, more persuasive briefs and motions.

What are some typical career paths for lawyers in this practice area?

Sally: Many appellate lawyers work in private practice, but there are also excellent opportunities in government (both federal and state). Some appellate lawyers go on to become judges.

Andrew: Appellate lawyers often remain at law firms and become partners who practice in the area of appellate law. Appellate lawyers also frequently become judges on courts of appeals and law professors. 

What is your routine for preparing for oral arguments?

Sally: I refamiliarize myself with every page of the briefs and all the evidence in the record. I also compile a list of the hardest questions I expect to receive, and prepare and practice answers to each of them. In this respect, moot arguments are a critical part of the process because they help identify the aspects of the case that are the most difficult or vulnerable.

Andrew: In preparing for an important oral argument, I will often hold multiple moot courts to try to get a sense of what folks think is strong and weak about our cases and to get a sense of the questions that the judges might ask. In Supreme Court cases, I will try to write down, to the word, the answers that I plan to give to the most important questions I expect to get, and have those answers in front of me ready to read at the oral argument (…if not memorized to deliver!). My goal in preparing for a high-stakes argument is to be absolutely confident that everything I say at the argument is something that was thought about beforehand, intentional, and helpful to our case.

Sally Pei's practice spans a broad range of subject areas, with a particular focus on transnational disputes and foreign sovereign immunity. Sally has been the principal brief writer in numerous federal and state court cases, including before the U.S. Supreme Court. She has argued before the Sixth and Ninth Circuits. In addition to her U.S. litigation practice, Sally advises clients in international arbitration proceedings and maintains an active pro bono practice, with an emphasis on matters relating to immigrants' rights. Sally was a law clerk to the Honorable William A. Fletcher of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and a Legal Adviser to Judge O. Thomas Johnson at the Iran-United States Claims Tribunal. 

Andrew Tutt focuses on Supreme Court, appellate, and complex litigation. He has won cases in federal courts across a broad cross-section of subjects, with particular experience in administrative law, intellectual property law, and civil rights law. He has argued and won three cases in the United States Supreme Court, led appeals in the First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Ninth, Tenth, and DC Circuits, and led the strategy, briefing, and argument in complex cases in federal district courts nationwide. Andrew served as an Attorney-Adviser in the Office of Legal Counsel at the U.S. Department of Justice, as a law clerk for Judge Cornelia T.L. Pillard of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, and as an associate at a large international Washington, DC law firm. He is the author of numerous law review articles on constitutional and administrative law. His seminal article, “An FDA for Algorithms,” remains a widely-cited contribution to the still-developing law of algorithmic regulation.

Antony L. Ryan, Partner—Litigation
Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP

Describe your practice area and what it entails.

Cravath does not have practice groups within the Litigation Department. Our clients hire us because we are well-rounded litigators and they trust us to handle every stage of their cases. We handle all phases of litigation—including the appeals—ourselves, which is increasingly unusual among firms. To that end, appellate litigation is an important part of my practice and is integrated into every step of the case strategy I develop for our clients. I think having a general litigation practice is the best path for those who may be interested in eventually specializing in appellate litigation—training as a great generalist lawyer gives you the skillset and relevant experience needed to handle appeals and the breadth of experience that will make you a better appellate litigator.

As the firm’s pro bono partner, I also spend time overseeing associates’ work on their cases, alongside the cases I am handling. We staff every pro bono matter the same way we do for paid client work, and I encourage our associates to become involved early and often.

What types of clients do you represent?

I represent a varied set of clients. I enjoy representing accounting firms, and I have argued Second Circuit appeals for both Deloitte and PwC in recent years. I was also part of the team that represented Qualcomm, a wireless technology company, in a major antitrust action brought by the Federal Trade Commission, which we won on appeal at the Ninth Circuit in 2020. Another recent client matter is the firm’s representation of Epic Games in its antitrust lawsuit against Apple. I was not involved in the trial, but am a part of the team working on the current appeal.

What types of cases/deals do you work on?

I would loosely group my practice into three areas, with the first being securities cases. Some current examples include representing a financial services company in its “meme” stocks litigation and working on a crypto asset securities litigation. Over the years, I’ve tended to work on securities matters involving complex financial and accounting issues, both in litigation and in response to government investigations. The second category is Delaware M&A litigation, one example of which is a case for Williams Companies in which our client is seeking a breakup fee for a failed merger. We tried the case by Zoom in May 2021, and are awaiting a decision. A Zoom trial was a new experience for me, which presented its own challenges, particularly in cross-examination, but went more smoothly than I expected. The third category, I would say, is antitrust litigation, as illustrated by the recent FTC v. Qualcomm case.

As I mentioned earlier, pro bono is a large part of my practice and also an integral part of the firm. One matter I am currently supervising is a Second Circuit appeal one of our associates is arguing in January, involving an important issue concerning Section 1983 liability for unjustified mental-health commitments.

How did you choose this practice area?

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.

What is a typical day like and/or what are some common tasks you perform?

There really is no typical day. Sometimes I am in a conference room all day taking a deposition, or there are times when I am at my desk editing a brief most of the day, or I have an appearance in court. Day-to-day life as a litigator is incredibly varied, and the more senior you get, the more multitasking is involved. One thing I am able to do with consistency, however, is interact with the associates on my team. They know they can drop by my office or give me a call whenever they want so that we can talk and bounce around ideas. Our daily interactions are also a way for me to provide consistent feedback and keep an eye on their development as lawyers. Because Cravath tends to staff our matters leanly, everyone on the team is able to contribute in a meaningful way and develop close working relationships.

What training, classes, experience, or skills development would you recommend to someone who wishes to enter your practice area?

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 decision-making process, and makes you a better advocate.


What do you like best about your practice area?

I love the challenge of litigation. Consistent with helping the client reach its goals, I want to see a case all the way through to a win. The appeal is an integral part of the strategy we develop for the case. Often I will have already worked on a case for years once it reaches the appellate stage—at which point, you write one or two briefs and get a single argument in front of the judges. At this stage, there is a premium on the ability to figure out how to identify the issues that matter the most.

One point that struck me when I was clerking is that lawyers sometimes have great trouble seeing the forest for the trees. My job as a litigator is to figure out how to help appellate judges pinpoint the issues that will affect the outcome. That means you have to be prepared to be ruthless and cut out ancillary points that are unlikely to move the needle. At most law firms, the partner handling the case will hand off appellate litigation to someone else at their firm or perhaps a specialty appellate firm. Cravath is unique because our clients trust us with their appeals, too; we are not just trial lawyers.

What misconceptions exist about your practice area?

I think one misconception is the idea that appellate litigation is an overly intellectualized practice area. Nothing could be farther from the truth. What you’re really trying to do as an appellate litigator is convince judges. You need the same powers of persuasion as a trial lawyer, but there is a greater premium on distilling your arguments to what you really need to explain your case. You have to get to the point quickly, in a common-sense way that resonates with an appeals court judge coming fresh to the case.

What kinds of experience can summer associates gain at this practice area at your firm?

Cravath’s summer program is unique in that we staff summer associates the same way as our full-time associates—they get to dive into cases and see firsthand how their work product is put to use. They aren’t just writing research memos. They are drafting sections of briefs and deposition outlines and similar tasks while receiving direct feedback from the partner whose team they’re on, as well as from more senior associates. They are part of the team working consistently on cases over the course of their summer experience, which means they get to see how their work product is put to use in the case. That’s a key part of learning to be an effective lawyer. Our summers get true hands-on experience, and by the end of their time here, they have a real sense of what working as a first-year associate is like if they decide to return to the firm.

What is your routine for preparing for oral arguments?

I start by writing out the affirmative presentation and answers to anticipated questions. Then, I ask my associates what they might ask if they were a judge and take all these difficult questions and draft more answers. My goal is to get the substance down—I don’t try to learn everything by heart, but rather, practice talking through the issues and breaking them down into modules.
By spending time saying these things out loud, I become comfortable in formulating ideas and expressing myself in a natural way while also being precise. I practice those answers in random sequence so that they sound like unforced language, instead of a script. If something isn’t working well, I rethink the approach.
After that process, I go into the argument with the written script and answers, although my goal is never to refer to it. By the end, my thinking is that if you are well prepared for argument, the words will already be in your head and should come naturally.

Antony L. Ryan is a partner in Cravath’s Litigation Department. He handles a wide variety of litigation matters, focusing on complex securities litigation, accountants’ liability, antitrust law and M&A litigation. Antony has extensive appellate experience, representing clients in appeals to the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the Second, Third, Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh and Federal Circuits. He has also appeared before numerous state appellate courts, including in California, Delaware, Georgia and New York. He maintains an active pro bono practice and is the firm’s pro bono partner. He is a member of the Board of Directors of Volunteers of Legal Service, for which he serves as President, and of The Legal Aid Society. 

Antony received a B.A. summa cum laude from Yale University in 1992, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. He received a J.D. magna cum laude from Harvard University in 1995, where he was Supervising Editor of the Law Review, and oralist on the winning team in the Ames Moot Court Competition. Antony joined Cravath in 1996 and was elected a partner in 2002. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and four children.

Daniel E. Jones, Partner • Daniel Queen, Partner—Litigation
Mayer Brown LLP

Describe your practice area and what it entails.

Jones: My practice focuses on defending class actions at the appellate and trial levels and providing strategic counseling to clients. I am responsible for crafting persuasive appellate briefs, as well as district court briefs on dispositive motions, motions to compel arbitration, and oppositions to class certification.

Queen: I handle pre-trial, trial, and appellate work in state and federal courts. I work on a wide variety of commercial litigation disputes, though I have a heavy focus on financial disputes, technology-related issues, and consumer class action litigations.

What types of clients do you represent?

Jones: I principally represent technology and telecommunications clients. I also frequently represent business associations. In my pro bono work, I principally represent individuals in civil rights litigation.

Queen: Many of my clients are financial institutions or technology companies, but I also have clients in various other fields—including real estate companies, insurers, and food manufacturers, just to name a few examples. On the pro bono side, I have worked with nonprofits and individual clients both in and out of the appellate context.

What types of cases/deals do you work on?

Jones: Almost all of my paid cases involve defending corporate clients in class actions, but they cover a broad array of issues, including Article III standing, personal jurisdiction, arbitration and interpretation of the Federal Arbitration Act, and application of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23. The appeals I litigate frequently present cutting-edge issues and provide the opportunity to shape these important areas of the law.

Queen: I handle class action litigations arising from a variety of claims, such as false advertising, labor and employment issues, and violations of the Fair Credit Reporting Act. I also handle non-class cases, including commercial disputes, trade secrets and intellectual property litigation, and real estate matters.

How did you choose this practice area?

Jones: 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.

Queen: I am not solely an appellate litigator, but I am drawn to the appellate side of our cases out of a love of writing and conceptual thinking. Appellate litigation provides a unique opportunity to influence the law while advocating for our clients. And the caliber of attorneys and judges at the appellate level is unparalleled.

What is a typical day like and/or what are some common tasks you perform? 

Jones: My practice principally involves developing and discussing legal strategies with clients and colleagues and drafting, reviewing, and editing appellate briefs and critical trial motions.
I also spend time monitoring class action cases of interest to clients and reporting on significant legal developments.

Queen: One of the great benefits of my practice is that every day is different. I lead the briefing team on most of my cases, so I spend much of my time writing. I also spend a good chunk of the day discussing legal strategies with my colleagues and clients. But you also could find me handling discovery issues, negotiating with opposing parties, preparing agreements, or working on any number of other projects.

What training, classes, experience, or skills development would you recommend to someone who wishes to enter your practice area?

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.

Queen: To be an effective appellate attorney, the single most important skill is writing. As a law student, you should take classes and participate in extracurricular activities that give you more opportunities to write and to hone your legal research skills. After law school, consider a clerkship, which will train you to write more effectively and better analyze competing legal positions. Once you join a firm, embrace every writing opportunity you can get—briefs, memos, articles, and anything else you can get your hands on.

What do you like best about your practice area?

Jones: There is a unique and powerful satisfaction that comes from influencing the development of the law at the appellate level, yielding results that benefit not only our client in a particular case, but also other clients in future cases. It is also a privilege to get to work each day with incredibly smart and thoughtful colleagues to come up with convincing answers to difficult legal questions.

Queen: I enjoy the long-term strategic thinking required for cases involving appellate issues. Rather than focus just on the day to day, you need to lay the groundwork for the appellate record, focus on the issues that will draw an appellate court’s attention, and consider the broader impact of an appellate decision on your client.

What is unique about your practice area at your firm?

Jones: Mayer Brown has a tremendously deep bench of appellate litigators, as opposed to a figurehead practice where the majority of the work flows through a single senior partner. This model results in a diverse array of appellate matters and, because the work is spread around, increased appellate opportunities for junior lawyers.

Queen: At many firms, appellate litigators would not necessarily touch a case before it is appealed. That’s not true here, where our appellate litigators are often intimately involved at the trial level, particularly in high-stakes cases. Likewise, many of our litigators who focus more on pretrial and trial work are attuned to potential appellate issues from the outset of the case, and they are intimately involved in the appeal if there is one.

What are some typical tasks that a junior lawyer would perform in this practice area?

Jones: Junior associates in Mayer Brown’s Appellate practice have opportunities to take very hands-on roles in our matters. They are tasked with drafting all, or sections of, appellate briefs and dispositive district court motions. Other common tasks include in-depth research support for briefs and drafting substantive memos for clients. Through our pro bono program, junior associates can brief and argue entire appeals as early as their first year or two at the firm.

Queen: As Dan said, junior associates will be responsible for drafting briefs, preparing memos, and developing strategies right out of the gate. We love junior lawyers who have a passion for the law and a willingness to learn, and we give them as many opportunities as we can.

What are some typical career paths for lawyers in this practice area?

Jones: Appellate lawyers tend to be passionate about briefs, oral arguments, and legal theory. Those skills lend themselves  not only to private practice, but also litigation careers at the government and in the nonprofit sector. Some attorneys begin their practice at private firms and then transition into public interest fields, and we also have attorneys who joined the firm after working for the Department of Justice and other federal and state agencies. Other well-rounded litigators ultimately transition from private practice to in-house litigation positions.

Queen: Appellate lawyers tend to be passionate about briefs, oral arguments, and legal theory. Those skills lend themselves not only to private practice, but also litigation careers at the government and in the nonprofit sector. Some attorneys begin their practice at private firms and then transition into public interest fields, and we also have attorneys who joined the firm after working for the Department of Justice and other federal and state agencies. Other well-rounded litigators ultimately transition from private practice to in-house litigation positions.

 

Daniel (Dan) E. Jones is a partner in the Washington, DC, office and a member of the firm’s Consumer Litigation & Class Actions and Supreme Court & Appellate practices. Dan has authored numerous briefs in the U.S. Supreme Court, federal and state appellate courts, and trial courts around the country, with a focus on arbitration and class action issues. Prior to rejoining Mayer Brown, Dan clerked for the Honorable Stanley Marcus on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. Dan graduated with honors from the University of Chicago Law School, where he served as the executive topics and comments editor on the University of Chicago Law Review. Dan received his B.A. from Amherst College, where he majored in English and mathematics.

Daniel (Dan) Queen is a partner in Mayer Brown’s Los Angeles office, where he focuses on litigation and dispute resolution. Dan has extensive experience litigating cases in federal and state courts at the trial and appellate levels, as well as conducting internal investigations and defending regulatory inquiries. Dan received his J.D. and LL.M., magna cum laude, Order of the Coif, from Duke University School of Law in 2010, and he received a B.A. in Government and International Relations, magna cum laude, from the College of William and Mary in 2005.

Jeffrey B. Wall, Partner
Sullivan & Cromwell LLP

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. 

Jeffrey B. Wall, Partner—Litigation (2022)

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.

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