The Georgia Supreme Court recently held arguments on site at the law school where I teach. This was an excellent service for legal education. In class discussion afterwards, my students truly could not contain their enthusiasm for what they observed.
All of the advocates brought different strengths to the podium. One stood out for something he did when any of the justices asked a question:
He stood very still throughout his argument and maintained socially appropriate eye contact. When asked a question, he took a moment. During this moment, he did not look down at his notes or up at the sky or left or right. Throughout the pause, his body language was calm and consistent with the rest of the argument.
And—during these pauses—here is something else that stood out:
None of the other justices interrupted the advocate.
They held whatever questions they may have had as the advocate paused, considered, and then responded to their colleague on the bench’s question.
After the argument, I had the opportunity to speak with a few of the justices over lunch. I commented generally about how it’s good for law students to see that they don’t have to race to answer the question. It’s okay to pause and think.
To my delight, one justice said he noticed that too. He said that if he’d had the chance to address the audience after the arguments, that would have been the key idea he emphasized as a teaching point.
And that leads to my plea to moot court judges.
Please let the competitors pause.
Pausing to think is not a weakness. It’s a strength.
It is possible and pretty easy to grade an oral argument based on whether the advocates answer quickly without pausing. This is, frankly, an easier grading criteria than whether they give a good answer.
It’s also possible and pretty easy to interrupt when someone does pause and ask them another question. Then you can also grade their argument on whether they remember and answer two questions at once. That’s also an easier grading criteria than whether they give a good answer.
But if the goal is to help law students become effective advocates, instant responses are not the right grading criteria.
Don’t deduct points for pausing. Add points for pausing and giving thoughtful answers.
The corollary practice is this: when a competitor does pause, don’t interrupt to and add a question. That’s borderline disrespectful to your colleague on the bench who asked the first question and presumably wants to hear the answer.
Moot court judges may meet each other for the first time when they assemble to judge a competition round. But they should still model the collegiality and respect that is apparent on the bench. If a moot court judge asks a question, assume it’s important to that judge to hear the answer.
The result of allowing competitors to pause is this: Competitors’ answers will be better. The judges’ evaluation will be more accurate on the substance of the response. Speed and lack of hesitation are not an accurate proxy for substantive effectiveness—even in a competitive oral argument setting, and even by 2L and 3L students who’ve tried out and been selected to compete in moot court.
Most of all and beyond the four corners of any score sheet, competitors allowed to pause and think will become better lawyers. They will become the type of lawyer that one day could receive a compliment by a state Supreme Court Justice, for pausing and thinking.
For more information about effective—and ineffective—moot court judging, see Barbara Kritchevsky, Judging: The Missing Piece of the Moot Court Puzzle, 37 U. Mem. L. Rev. 45 (2006) (available on Lexis and Westlaw).
Also see the Legal Writing Institute’s Model Oral Argument Judging Guidelines.