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Monday, August 22, 2011

A student view of appearing before a Court of Criminal Appeals

The Criminal Appeals Clinic at the University of Mississippi provides third-year law students with an opportunity to appeal a “real live” client’s criminal case through the writing of an appellate brief, and to present live oral arguments before the Mississippi Court of Appeals. (See earlier 2011 article on this blog by Phil Broadhead who is the Clinic’s Director) This is a view of the clinic from a student’s perspective, one who relished the chance to help a prisoner who was, it seemed, denied a fair trial.

Buddy approach

Stepping into the clinic class on the first day we may think we know what we are getting into, but we had no idea. We were all assigned a case partner and handed a case file. Each of us wondered if our case partner will be someone with whom we will be able to get along for an entire semester, and then we asked, ‘Am I ready to have someone’s life resting on my untested legal ability to advocate for them?’

A day or two later we printed out all of the documents and found we needed a five-inch binder to hold all the papers that we must check with a fine-tooth comb, because missing one little piece of information may be the difference between a successful appeal and our client spending the remainder of his life in prison. Finally we were grateful that each of us was not solely responsible for writing an appellate brief on behalf of our client, as we recalled the horror of our first year legal writing efforts and the appellate brief we wrote at that time.

Issues and Writing

The class is structured to ensure that we had every tool to digest the myriad of documents associated with the case. After going through the case documents several times, condensing them into a narrative, identifying the best issues for appeal, and doing the necessary legal research, the brief-writing process began. The process was broken down into small, manageable sections that made the process seem effortless. By the time our brief was completed, my case partner and I looked back and wondered how we had completed an entire brief without once being stressed. 

Each section of the brief was assigned and written individually and was coupled with classroom instruction. Once a section was completed, it was edited by Professor Broadhead, and returned to us for revision. We then had plenty of time in which we compiled the brief sections as a team for a “mega-edit.” We put it together into one document and added the table of contents, table of cases, and record excerpts for filing with the Court.

Oral argument preparation

The next step in the course was to prepare the live oral arguments to be made before a panel of judges on the Mississippi Court of Appeals. Because the case we had been working on had not yet been answered by the State, we received a whole new set of documents and a brand new five-inch binder from a case prepared by the clinic students in the prior semester. The most difficult part of preparing for oral arguments was being bound by a brief that someone else wrote. At this point, we had all of the necessary skills to get through the case documents and identify all of the pertinent information in a fairly timely fashion, but if something we thought was important wasn’t included in the brief it was very frustrating to know that we had to put it out of our minds. 

Having reviewed both the documents and the applicable case law, we had two weeks of intensive oral argument preparation. The two-person oral argument team and Professor Broadhead met three to four days per week for two to three hours at each meeting, in addition to a great deal of individual preparation. Once again, there was that, “what have I gotten myself into” moment at the first meeting. And, once again, we were given all of the tools and knowledge we needed to prepare an effective oral argument outline.

The first assignment was to compose our opening or closing statement, depending on whether one was doing the initial argument or the rebuttal. Once the opening and closing statements incorporated the theory of reversal and the accompanying themes, we began to prepare the outline for the substantive argument, along with a case sheet of the controlling law in the issues to be argued.

By the end of the two-week preparation, we had a solid idea of the content of the issues, along with the elements of style in their delivery. The preparation culminated with a dress rehearsal oral argument session presided over by other professors from the law school and a member of the moot court team. This was when everyone realized there was no way to get through everything in the available time.

On our feet

The day of arguments was exciting and nerve-racking. I felt, wrongly, that I was wholly unprepared to be arguing against an assistant state attorney general. Being in the room where the arguments take place was fine until the judges came on the bench, then all of the nerves hit and I began to pray that I wouldn’t screw up. But, during the opening statement, I realized that I knew this case inside and out and was more than prepared to assert the arguments effectively on our client’s behalf. Once a judge asked the first question, a fairly decent, maybe even a great answer flowed from brain to speech, the nerves dissipated and I was in a groove. The eighteen minutes passed like eighteen seconds, and I sat down feeling pretty darned good.


The Criminal Appeals Clinic experience, or something comparable, is an experience that I would recommend to every law student. The skills or confidence this hands-on work gave me could not be gained in a traditional law school class. My participation in the clinic was the most valuable and rewarding experience I had at law school. It has given me confidence in my abilities to go into a courtroom and become an effective advocate, and has provided me with skills that will aid me throughout my future career.

This article was contributed by Katie O’Connell who was a clinic student in 2010 and recently began her career at the public defender’s office in Florida.

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