March 21, 2003
YLS Students to Compete in Finals of National Appellate Advocacy Competition
A late-night dash to two Federal Express offices not only kept Travis LeBlanc '03, Kimberly Zelnick '03, and Jonathan Kravis '04 in the ABA's National Appellate Advocacy Competition, but resulted in their having a decisive edge. They had spent the day putting finishing touches on their written brief for the competition, stitching together the sections that they each had composed separately, and narrowly beat the deadline for submission.
The NAAC draws competitors from law schools around the country, with over 130 teams participating this year. All contestants' briefs were scored in preparation for the oral competition on a 100-point scale. In each round of the competition, this score accounts for a third of the team's total, while the remaining two thirds are based on how well they argue in front of a bank of mock judges. The YLS team's brief received the highest score at the New York City Regional Competition, March 6-8--one of four regional tournaments--meaning that they entered each round with an edge over their adversaries. It also won them the Best Brief prize.
The regional competition began with three round-robin matches. The sixteen teams with the best records in these matches moved on to two elimination rounds. The four teams remaining after both elimination rounds qualified for the national finals to be held in Chicago on April 3-5. LeBlanc, Zelnick, and Kravis went undefeated in New York, and are now preparing for a trip to Chicago.
In some ways the team was surprised by the New York competition. "When you get there, it's kind of this weird varsity sport," says LeBlanc. "People had coaches, they had entourages." The YLS team had gotten advice on their brief from Robert Harrison, lecturer in legal method, and Kate Stith, Lafayette S. Foster Professor of Law, but they didn't have anyone coach them for the oral arguments.
Zelnick adds, "We were nervous because we didn't know what to expect at all, having never done it. And it's very different from how we do moot court at Yale." The competition used a hypothetical case with two central questions; the first a Sixth Amendment effectiveness of counsel issue and the second a Fourth Amendment search and seizure issue. Though the team wrote a brief on only one side of the case, they had to argue as both petitioner and respondent in competition. "We're not used to arguing both sides of an issue," says Zelnick. "At the moot court here, you really start to believe your side of the issue. . . . It is difficult to have to swing so quickly from one side of an issue to another."
Other teams at the New York competition brought a diversity of styles to their arguments. Some spoke slowly, some quickly; some were relaxed, some intense. While the YLS team tried to work on their style, they felt that their success was grounded in the work they did beforehand. Kravis says, "In most of the rounds, our greatest advantage was that we seemed to be really well prepared. . . . Not only did we know an answer, but we knew the best answer."
Nonetheless, the process of an oral argument is inherently dynamic and surprising. "We have done this argument amongst ourselves about eight million times, and then we've done it in a competition setting five different times, and every time someone has asked a question that no one has heard before." Kravis adds, "So much of oral argument at the end of the day is about how you interact with the judges on the bench."
Zelnick agrees, "You have to read your bench, and what they're buying, and what they're not. We've had people love particular arguments and then other people tell us to lose them." LeBlanc, always alert to an opportunity to help the team, adds, "You can also learn good arguments from the judges' questions themselves."
Only two members of the three-person team could argue in each match, so they alternated acting as bailiff. Zelnick argued both sides of the Sixth Amendment issue, while Kravis specialized in the Fourth Amendment issue. LeBlanc was a switch hitter. "I am pretty sure from talking to everyone else at the tournament that Travis [LeBlanc] was the only one who did all four sides," says Zelnick, "which was really great in the last round. Travis got up to do rebuttal as petitioner and he had argued a Sixth Amendment issue. He got up there and they started firing all these Fourth Amendment questions at him. . . . But Travis was able to just demolish the questions, and I think that really impressed the judges."
Zelnick says it was hard to watch and not be able to participate when she sat out a round. "I know they're going to come up with the right answer," she says. But there are tense moments. "Travis likes to take with one hand and give with the other. So he'll start by conceding something small and then using that to get two steps forward, and I'll be sitting there thinking 'Don't say that.'"
In addition to the Best Brief prize, Kravis received eighth place in Best Speaker, and LeBlanc received ninth. A second YLS team at the competition, made up of Thomas Lehrman '04 and Michael Morley '03, reached the first elimination round and had the fourth best brief. Morley also took the fifth place in Best Speaker.
The six rounds of the regional competition stretched over three days, which Kravis says was exhausting. "Just about every waking moment we spent in New York we spent either working on our presentation, or working on the issues, or debriefing how our rounds went. . . . It's a nerve-wracking experience, because when there are only three preliminary rounds and two elimination rounds, the margin for error is relatively small. I just remember feeling tremendously relieved when it was over, and then waking up the next day and feeling nervous for Chicago already "
Asked what were their most effective arguments, LeBlanc won't let anyone speak. There's still more competition for them, and they don't want any of the other national finalists to get a jump on them. They'll spend time over the next couple weeks (after catching up on school work) reviewing the other competitors' briefs and refining their own thinking. "Hopefully we'll have some new arguments that we'll come up with to save for the later rounds," says LeBlanc. "As it gets harder and harder, we'll start to bring out a couple new things."
The brief that won LeBlanc, Zelnick, and Kravis the prize at the regional competition will also be used in the finals, although it will be re-scored by a new set of judges. The team still doesn't have a coach to accompany them to Chicago, but they do have one advantage: All of their mothers plan to attend.
(We will update this page with results from the NAAC Finals shortly after April 5. The team will even reveal their best arguments. "You can give away all our secrets then," says LeBlanc.)