Pick the Right Law School for an Appellate Career

 Ilana Kowarski
  1st-Dec-2017

Aspiring lawyers who like the idea of fighting for the underdog in a legal controversy may want to consider an appellate legal career, experts say.

An appellate attorney's typical client is someone who has been negatively affected by a court's decision and wants a higher court to reverse that ruling.

In these cases, an appellate attorney's goal is to persuade a high court that the lower court's decision was incorrect, but experts say this is a difficult task.

“It’s always going to be an uphill battle because reversal rates are very low,” says Jay A. Yagoda, a Florida appellate lawyer who is an associate with the Miami division of the Stroock & Stroock & Lavan corporate law firm. “I think generally speaking, they’re lower than 20 percent.”

But Yagoda says the challenge of winning an appeal is part of what makes appellate legal jobs interesting.

“You have an ability to shape the law rather than just complying with it,” he says.

A key component to pursuing this career field is to choose a law school that will prepare you for appellate practice. Here are four aspects experts say you should look for when researching law schools.

1. High placement rates in appellate-related jobs: Experts say one key statistic to explore at target law schools is the number of recent graduates who are serving as judicial clerks and the proportion of these clerks who work in appellate courts at the state or federal level.

"Although not an absolute prerequisite to practicing appellate law, a judicial clerkship makes a young lawyer dramatically more likely to be hired to work as an appellate lawyer," Chad Ruback, a Texas-based appellate attorney and former judicial clerk at a Texas state court of appeals, said via email.Experts say one positive sign is when a law school has a high number of alumni working in either boutique law firms that specialize in appellate practice or appellate divisions at large corporate law firms. It's especially encouraging, experts say, when multiple recent graduates hold prestigious entry-level jobs that involve appellate practice, such as attorney positions in the U.S. Department of Justice's Honors Program or fellowships at the American Civil Liberties Union.

Eleanor Barrett, associate dean for legal practice skills at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, says aspiring appellate attorneys should contact the career services offices at target law schools and ask for examples of alumni who are practicing appellate law.

"If it's hard to come up with examples, that in and of itself can be quite telling," Barrett says.

2. An abundance of legal writing opportunities: Experts say law schools with top-notch legal writing programs can bolster a student's odds of getting an appellate law job.

Appellate attorneys do a significant amount of brief writing, so employers of these lawyers typically screen job candidates based on their writing skills, experts warn.

Because of the emphasis on writing in appellate law, experts say law school applicants with an interest in this field should look for a school with multiple law journals in addition to a law review.

"While most law students aspire to be 'on law review,' only a handful of students at any given law school will be selected to the school’s most prestigious law review," Ruback said. "But work as an editor of any law review or journal – even one that is not the school’s most prestigious one – can be quite helpful in securing a job as a judicial clerk and as an appellate lawyer."

3. Faculty with appellate law expertise: Experts say it's best if a law school has both clinical and doctrinal law professors with backgrounds in appellate law.

Jeffrey Fisher, a professor of law at Stanford Law School and co-director of Stanford's Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, says faculty who have practiced appellate law can offer students unique insight into Supreme Court cases by explaining the strategic choices the winning side made in those cases.

4. Appellate law courses open to all students: Experts say some law schools reserve appellate law courses for their top performers, but at other schools, anyone with an interest in this area of law can take these courses.

Sarah Schrup, director of the appellate advocacy program at Northwestern University's Pritzker School of Law, says the school's appellate-focused curriculum is open to all students and that the school even offers a concentration in appellate law that includes a series of specialized courses in this discipline.

Experts also say that a law school with a variety of appellate law clinics is highly desirable because it allows students to gain practical experience in this field.

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