What to Bring to Oral Argument

I’ve been helping a few friends prep for their first oral arguments recently. It’s been a mutually beneficial exercise, because (1) it has forced me to think about what I do to prepare and why I do it, and (2) it reassured them that, if I can do this stuff, then anyone can.

Looking back on those conversations, though, I realized that I’d forgotten to give my friends one of the most useful pieces of information: What they should actually bring with them to the argument.

You see, if you argue enough appeals, you will eventually suffer every conceivable embarrassment and deprivation at the lectern. And you will learn from those experiences. As a result, I’ve come to stock my argument briefcase like a disaster-preparedness kit. Here’s what it usually contains:

  • Argument Binder, with various outlines, modules, summaries, and questions.
  • Joint Appendix
  • Briefs
  • 3 pens–one blue, one black, and one red. I like to take notes in different colors, and you never know when one of the pens will run dry or explode.
  • Two notepads: One to record the court’s questions and the Other Guy’s answers, and one to make notes for my own argument.
  • Key statutes, cases, and rules.
  • If I’m in the Fourth Circuit, a binder with my notes on the judges (because there are a lot of them, and you don’t find out who will be on your panel before the day of argument).
  • Sticky notes
  • Hard candy
  • Adhesive bandages. Because one time at the Fourth Circuit I needed a Band-Aid® and didn’t have any handy. (Pro tip: there’s a CVS across the street from the Fourth Circuit and convenient to the Supreme Court of VA.)
  • Ibuprofen. Because one time at the Fourth Circuit, I did something to a nerve in my neck the night before an argument and couldn’t turn my head to the right without excruciating pain. This required me to adopt some downright Karloffian body language when addressing the judge on my right–a suboptimal persuasive technique, as his dissent proved. So, use what works for you.
  • Lip balm. Because one time at the Fourth Circuit . . .
  • Glasses. I use contacts in real life, but too much can go wrong on the day of argument. I’d probably swallow one while shaving and spend the whole argument squinting at the panel in monocular distress. Plus, I gain 10 IQ points and 5 years of gravitas when I wear glasses. So I go with them, and if you’ve read this far you’ve gotten the sense that I wouldn’t risk bringing just one pair. They might be stolen by beavers on the way to court.

So that’s what I bring to court. I could certainly get by with less, but why risk it? This helps me sleep at night. And lest you think I’m some kind of OCD outlier, David Frederick has a handy checklist in Supreme Court and Appellate Advocacy that includes most of these items, and some others as well.

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