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YLS Students Go Undefeated and Win National Appellate Advocacy Competition

On April 5, 2003, the two finalists in the American Bar Association's National Appellate Advocacy Competition faced off in Illinois Supreme Court in Chicago. They were Team 76 from Yale Law School and Team 192 from the University of Texas School of Law, the only survivors after ten rounds of competition.

The Yale team was composed of Travis LeBlanc '03, Kimberly Zelnick '03, and Jonathan Kravis '04. They spoke first, acting as petitioner in the hypothetical case. Jonathan Kravis rose to face a bench of five distinguished attorneys, including a former governor of Illinois. "That moment was the most nervous that I had ever been in my entire life," says Kravis. "I had to pause in my sentences because I couldn't catch my breath."

Kravis had been through the case dozens of times, between competition and practice rounds. He opened with a point he had led with throughout the competition, even though it had had only mixed success so far. The case devised by the ABA had two questions. The first was a Fourth Amendment issue, centering on whether the government needs a warrant to conduct a search outside the country for intelligence purposes. Kravis says, "We were, so far as we know, the only team in the country . . . to make the argument that the defendant didn't have standing to challenge the search in the case. When we would make this argument in the regional competition, people would look at us like we were from Mars." But Kravis stuck with it, convinced that "this was how a real court would decide the case."

The judges didn't question Kravis about standing, and he got through the rest of his time smoothly.

Travis LeBlanc '03 spoke next, addressing the Sixth Amendment question of whether the defendant in the case had received adequate representation. He enjoyed the exchange he had with the judges. "They were not just questioning you about things to trap you, but questioning you about real concerns they had with the case."

Between the regional competition and the finals, the team had spent time refining their arguments, practicing them over and over, and researching their competitors. They became immersed in the case. "On the plane coming to Chicago," says LeBlanc, "Kim and I got into an argument on something that was really tangential. We both took our positions, and we were both adamant about our positions. The stewardess reminded us that there were other people on the plane, and in the same breath, she asked us if we were lawyers. . . . But in the final round, I was asked a question where that conversation became the heart of my answer."

They had learned throughout the tournament, adjusting their approach based on their observations of the other teams and feedback from judges. The advice ranged from the trivial (they were told to always keep their coats buttoned) to the fundamental (treat the argument as a conversation not a lecture). "The whole thing was a very rich and layered experience in the sense that we were learning from each other, from other teams, from judges," says Kravis. "But we were also learning more substance as time went by." Within each match, they tailored their arguments to what the judges seemed interested in.

The Yale team did have one constant advantage from round to round. Their written brief received the highest score in the competition, meaning that they entered each match a few points ahead. Kravis called it "the gift that keeps on giving." In the quarterfinals, however, the gift almost turned against them. One judge marked their score for the oral component of the competition drastically lower than any of his benchmates. Zelnick explains what happened: "[The judge] thought the competition should be about the oral component and not the brief. Consequently he felt when he was judging teams he wanted to make the distinction very, very clear." The Yale team won anyway, though by less than half a point, and advanced to the semifinals.

"This is when we started to realize the institution that is the National Appellate Advocacy Competition," says LeBlanc. "It was three Texas teams and us." The team learned by looking at the trophies and plaques listing past winners that Texas teams have been dominating for years.

Yale beat Baylor on April 4 to move on to the final round on April 5. The evening in between turned into one more opportunity to prepare. "Jon and I were exhausted," says LeBlanc. "We wanted to go to bed, and Kim was not letting us. . . . We were going to research those judges. Once we researched those judges, we were going to read the Texas brief. And then we were going to print out any important cases, just to refresh our memory."

Zelnick stayed up late that night working on refocusing their arguments based on what had and hadn't worked in earlier rounds. "That morning, bright and early," recalls LeBlanc, "Kim just storms into our room . . . and she says, 'I figured it out.' And she's got these notepads, and she's got notes written on them. And she says, 'You're going to say this, and you're gong to say this.'"

The final round was judged on the oral component alone; the brief could no longer help them. All three members of the team were able to sit at the same table for the first time. Although only Kravis and LeBlanc actually spoke, the three exchanged notes and plotted their argument.

Shortly after the Texas team began to present the respondent's side, Kravis saw what he called the "vindication" of the standing argument he had been making throughout the tournament. He says, "The first question the judges asked her was, 'Does your client have standing?' And they gave her about two and a half minutes of questions on standing."

The Texas team had some trouble responding to Yale's unique argument. "Everyone felt that Texas was the best team that we had seen," says Zelnick. "We hadn't heard a team make such solid arguments or have that kind of presence. . . . But they managed to go down some primrose paths that turned out not to be the correct place to go."

While Texas spoke, the Yale team listened and planned their short rebuttal, which would be their last chance to impress their most important points on the judges. Zelnick sketched out a Sixth Amendment argument for LeBlanc to deliver. They wanted to distinguish between two standards for what constitutes inadequate representation, and show that this case fell under the stricter one. In addition to making this technical point, they aimed to get the judges thinking about hypotheticals favorable to their side.

Zelnick recalls, "Travis got up there to do the rebuttal and that's when I felt it all came together in a really great way. We were able to really make our points, and I felt that the judges were listening and they were responding."

The final decision of the five judges came down in Yale's favor. Zelnick says that the fact that their brief didn't help them at all in the final round was "especially gratifying." They made it through the tournament undefeated.

Kravis adds, "The finals was the moment when our substantive preparation paid off the most. . . . We had gone down all the dark side alleys of the case and found the tangential cases and the things that fill in the background picture of the law surrounding the case."

"Yale Law School" will now be inscribed on the trophy for NAAC winner, as well as for winner of the Best Brief award. Some of the trophies will reside at the Law School for the next year, but there will still be plenty of memorabilia for the team to hold onto. "We received a lot of trophies and books, and when I say a lot I mean on the order of thirty," says LeBlanc.

After eleven intense rounds of competition in addition to hours of practice, Kravis and Zelnick say they are relieved never to have to argue this hypothetical case again. But LeBlanc adds, "They're a lot less tolerant of it than I am. I'll argue it again."