We had what is known in legal lexicon as a “hot bench.”
The term refers to a judicial panel that peppers an appellate attorney with overlapping questions, interrupting her carefully calibrated roadmap for a detour into rocky hypothetical terrain and then dumping her back on the highway with a flat stare.
When it was over, I sat down and glanced across the aisle at opposing counsel, who flashed an encouraging thumbs-up sign. The judges were bent over their scoring sheets, writing and writing and writing. I looked down at my four-page argument with its color-coded bullet points, fabulous points asserted with authority in a practice setting and then desperately abandoned in the heat of inquisition. Eyes back to the bench. God, please make them stop writing.
“Lose the pen,” one advised. “It’s distracting.”
“When your time is up, stop talking.”
“Less swaying at podium,” wrote another.
This third criticism I’d heard once before, from the third-year student who presided over our practice round last week. I like the podium. I feel it anchors me. By all accounts, however, all I’m missing is the pianist and the three-quarter time.
Oral-argument day is a milestone for first-year law students. The psychological pressure to perform well is wholly out of proportion to its pass-fail worth, but the idea is to expose students to a setting that mirrors the environment in which they would argue on behalf of real clients with real liberty and prosperity at stake. For purposes of this exercise, we were advocating for the parties to a fictitious stalemate in which we have invested months of labor and which formed the basis of a brief that accounts for 70 percent of one’s final grade in Basic Legal Skills. For our clients, the whole thing ends with a question mark. For us, it’s an exclamation point.
My opposing counsel and I were assigned to what we later learned were three of the more heavily credentialed panelists of the day, their resumes thick with achievements in oral advocacy, and I’m glad it worked out that way. A hot bench can expose your weaknesses, but tearing tissue is what builds muscle. And it’s valuable instruction for someone whose traditional approach to argumentation is a three-step process that goes something like this: 1) prop feet on nearest table, 2) roll eyes at opponent’s ridiculous position, and, 3) cut opponent off at knees with sarcasm. You have to presume that judges who find ballpoint pens distracting will not take kindly to that sort of thing.
For good or ill, Basic Legal Skills is finished. The only thing standing between me and my yet-to-be-secured summer employment is a month of lockdown studying for five final exams.