Law Students Switch Roles to Help Law School Alumnus

April 18, 2007

Twenty-four hours after the Strasburger & Price intramural moot court finals, some Baylor law students found themselves back in the Law School's Kronzer Appellate Courtroom ready for oral argument. This time, though, the roles were flipped. Instead of students arguing a mock case from a mock record with guest judges, the students were the ones in robes, helping a Baylor alumnus prepare for an approaching oral argument before a federal appeals court.

The Baylor Law Court of Appeals consisted of Matt Acosta, Janet Ayyad, Kimberly Connors, Niti Dalal and Rachael Pifer, with recent graduate Chris Fahrenthold presiding. The work for these six students began well before argument day, as the students studied not only the appellate briefing but also a 500-plus-page trial record. Also assisting were law students Nora Farah and Ryan Reneau.

Like most professional moot courts and mock trials, the exercise was a way for the attorneys to discover what issues and approaches appealed to an impartial audience. And that's not the only benefit of this unique role reversal, according to Baylor Law Professor Rory Ryan, who organized the exercise.

"There's more to an oral argument than 20 minutes in front of a judge," he said. "The first step is the briefing, and the panel of judges is not the only audience. The appellate clerks are usually the first audience. They are the ones who review the record, write the bench brief, and many times draft the opinion."

By testing their argument on some of Baylor's top law students, appellate attorneys from Fort Worth were able to obtain a more realistic take on how their case would be received by a part of the federal judiciary that is often overlooked.

For the students involved, the experience was an invaluable and eye-opening preview of what appellate practice and even trial work are like.

"In Practice Court, the professors were always stressing the importance of making a record at the trial court level," Fahrenthold said. "Actually seeing how what was preserved for appeal actually determines the direction of argument really drives that lesson home."

Other students reported being at first daunted and then exhilarated by poring over a huge record and complicated lower court order. The chance to search for and identify the important material facts that will sway an appellate decision-maker is something law students don't often get to encounter in either the classroom or a moot court tournament.

"Of course, it was also encouraging to watch two very impressive appellate lawyers, one of whom was here himself not long ago, preparing to argue before the Fifth Circuit," Fahrenthold said. "It makes you a little anxious to get there, too."

After the chief justice gaveled the proceedings to a close, the lawyers were able to have a deeper question-and-answer session with the student judges, that was recorded by the court reporter the attorneys brought with them. That give-and-take will be reviewed, along with the transcript of the judges' questions in oral argument, by lawyers at the firm as they prepare for the Fifth Circuit.

"This exercise benefited the lawyers and the students," Ryan said. "We hope to have similar interactions with the appellate bar. The availability and success of such an exercise depends, of course, upon talented and motivated students; but that's never been lacking here."

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