A working mother's 32-step guide to preparing for oral arguments
Sarah Gerwig-Moore. Photo from the Mercer University School of Law.
Appellate oral arguments are exciting, exhilarating and challenging. I’ve been presenting oral arguments since I was sworn into the bar; after 20 years in practice (first as a public defender and then as a law school clinic director), my arguments tally has almost reached the triple digits. It’s possible that my clinic, the Habeas Project at the Mercer University School of Law, holds the record in the Supreme Court of Georgia for the most cases heard in one day—three in a row on Cinco de Mayo in 2009.
I enjoy the refined conversations with the justices, helping to tell clients’ stories (which have mostly not been fully shared before), and carefully and thoughtfully assisting the court as it wrestles with questions of interpretation and policy. But of course, a professional and competent oral argument requires a good deal of preparation.
As a woman—and a working, divorced mother—the kind of effort required (total immersion in a case) is often difficult to balance with the kind of mothering my sons require (total immersion in their lives). There are also concerns women lawyers face that men do not wrestle with in quite the same ways: questions of dress, appearance, optics, tone. I do my best to rise to these challenges, though I’m sure I often fall short.
In spring 2019, our law clinic handled a case in the Supreme Court of Georgia that would decide an important question regarding the scope of issues cognizable in habeas corpus proceedings. The oral argument coincided with a truly insane week or two of sports and other obligations for my sons. After the dust settled, I reflected on what that week had been like. Sometimes you just have to laugh to keep from crying. And—just as in baseball—there’s no crying in court.
My oral argument preparation:
Reread all briefs and entire case record, making notes and highlighting.
Reread all laws cited. Realize you might need the full 150-year history of the statute—ask team to track that down. As they’re researching this, realize the milk in your refrigerator might be 150 years old.
Reread every case cited in all briefs and make notes. Ask your team to create charts of cases and facts so you can see each one at a glance. Make sure to ask very nicely.
Slice up your brief for the first draft of an outline.
Slicing up the brief reminds you to slice up food. Your children need to eat. Cook dinner! Leave dishes in the sink.
Question absolutely everything—even your own name. Stay up too late.
Wake up too early. Wonder if dark circles under your eyes make you look too shrill. Consider buying undereye concealer.
Decide on a few key record items you will need to memorize. Make breakfast for children while reciting these. Scowl when sons remark that this isn’t fun. Consider smiling more with record recitations. Scowl again.
Let at least three people down. (These are likely to be close friends or family members.)
Anticipate questions from the bench. Arrange mock arguments with colleagues who don’t mind insulting you. Consider inviting archrivals, too. Or your teenage offspring. They’ll definitely insult you.
Feed pets. Feed children. Eat leftovers. Deposit dishes in the sink.
Moot the argument. Send follow-up assignments to team. Thank team! Donuts are a good way to thank people! Consider bringing some donuts to work but then forget.
Consider wardrobe. Pantsuit? Skirt suit? Dress? Clothes should be flattering—but not too flattering. It should be comfortable—but not too comfortable. Assess work shoes to decide which will help you see over the podium but not actually tip you over in court. Don’t even get started on all the ways you can mess up your hairstyle strategy.
Simultaneously wish you were both much, much taller and much, much smaller (see musing above re: shoes).
Hem your suit—and I am not making this up—while on a conference call, while sitting in your car watching your son play lacrosse.
As you are sewing, notice your nails haven’t been done in months. Wonder how many people will actually notice your hands. Resolve not to be too demonstrative with hands while in court.
Do all your other work and errands and at least one ridiculous extra thing (can you say “homemade” cookies for your kid’s class, anyone?) you committed to months ago.
Try to see the case from opposing counsel’s perspective. Consider adopting this tactic with your children, but then (metaphorically) hit them with the ol’ “Because I said so.”
Check in with client.
Buy the best lipstick your credit card can handle. This is unquestionably Pirate by Chanel. Case closed. (See what you did there?)
Be serious but not too serious. Be confident but not too confident. Be yourself but not too much of that either (e.g., suit sleeves should cover your justice tattoos).
Eat one vegetable. Make children eat two vegetables. Pat self on back for being health guru.
Reread everything. Condense argument down to a one-pager.
Ponder a twist on the Dorothy Parker classic: Justice makes spectacles of women in spectacles (which cause issues with limited peripheral vision). Decide to wear contact lenses.
Read notes from team. Wax philosophical on the notion that all team members are working with the same richness of the experience of your work.
Whiten teeth. Sharpen fangs. Consider optics of fangs. Stow them in a tiny pocket right next to your heart.
Decide you hate your suit. Wish that suits of armor were still a thing.
Breathe. No—not sigh—breathe.
Reread everything. Boil down outline to one word and the dancing woman emoji.
Set four alarm clocks. Or is it alarms clock?
As a postscript, the argument went very well. The opposing counsel conceded during the argument—but the court still overruled existing caselaw to rule against our client’s case. While I was in court, my younger son broke his wrist at Field Day (which, of course, I missed), and my father took him to the emergency room without telling me—until after the argument was finished so I wouldn’t be worried. And that’s the true story of how to present an appellate oral argument while womaning.
Sarah Gerwig-Moore teaches criminal law, law and literature and clinical courses at the Mercer University School of Law and has previously been the associate dean for academic affairs. She is a fellow with Emory University’s Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Religion, and in addition to her many academic articles, book chapters and essays, she is the author of What Brings You Here Today? An Introduction to Client Counseling. Gerwig-Moore lives with her family in Macon, Georgia. In her spare time, she sings, tends her garden and keeps bees.
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