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The Difference Between Trial and Appellate Practice

By Craig LaChance

Suppose you have a case that went to trial, and you are facing an appeal. Either you lost and want to appeal the decision, or you won, but your opponent has vowed to appeal. In any event, the case is going to the next level. Should your trial lawyer handle the appeal? After all, your trial lawyer has worked on the case for months, perhaps years, and will know the facts and law intimately. In fact, your trial lawyer probably crafted many of the arguments that may be raised on appeal. What is more, having gone to battle with your trial counsel, you’re comfortable with them and trust their judgment. If your trial counsel has appellate experience, then having them handle the appeal may be advisable.[1]

But if they don’t do appeals, you want to consider counsel who specializes in them. Trial and appellate work are quite different. Being a great trial lawyer does not make one a great appellate advocate. As federal appellate judge Ruggero J. Aldisert notes, a successful trial lawyer is a salesperson whose objective is to persuade a panel of lay jurors that their client’s witnesses are credible and that the facts favor their side.[2] Trial advocacy typically involves more than legal argument; it often involves emotional appeals to create a sense of righteousness. Much trial advocacy is verbal. Thus, argument is more fluid, organic, and less focused on analysis of legal concepts.
Always Be Closing
“The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell.” Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman.

An appellate lawyer, on the other hand, “is still a salesperson, but the lawyer carries a different sample case.”[3] Instead of juries, the audience in an appeal is a panel of professional judges. Also, while trial argument is primarily verbal, appellate advocacy is generally written. Where a trial brief is typically less than 10 pages, appellate briefs often run to 30 pages or more. As Judge Aldisert notes, appellate advocacy is really a dialogue between professional writers (appellate attorneys) and professional readers (judges). To be sure, appellate lawyers present oral arguments, but these arguments are extremely circumscribed, often only 15 to 20 minutes; compare this with the days or even weeks a trial lawyer gets to make their case. Additionally, appellate work focuses on the law rather than facts. This results in often abstract arguments concerning policy, history, legislative intent and the analysis of legal concepts. Good appellate attorneys are often reflective, analytical and introverted—traits that are not often associated with the fireworks of a trial courtroom.

This is not to say that trial lawyers are not thoughtful or that appellate attorneys are shut-ins. Nor is it that trial lawyers cannot be successful appellate attorneys, or vice versa. Indeed, there is quite a bit of overlap in trial and appellate skills. The point is that the differences between trial and appellate practice are important and are a factor in successful appeals.

 


Footnotes

[1]  See Michael J. Meehan, “Appellate Advocacy,” in Arizona Appellate Handbook, vol. 1, §2.3, 2-4 (4th ed. 2010) (“If at all possible, every appeal should be done by a lawyer with appellate practice experience”).

[2]  Ruggero J. Aldisert, Winning on Appeal, 4 (NITA 1996).

[3]  Id. at 5.