Five Reasons to Hire an Appellate Attorney


Following a loss at trial, the first question a client is likely to ask is “can we appeal?” Answering that question requires a careful analysis of both the facts of the case and the relevant law, as well as an understanding of the procedural requirements for bringing an appeal in the client’s jurisdiction. Knowledge of the particular appellate court and its judges should also be brought to bear on the decision whether an appeal is likely to succeed. While some trial lawyers may be tempted to handle the client’s appeal themselves, there are many reasons to hire an appellate attorney to prepare your appeal. Here are my Top Five.

Appellate Lawyers and Trial Lawyers Have Different Skill Sets

While trial attorneys and appellate practitioners share many of the same attributes — they are inquisitive, organized and detail-oriented, and are good communicators and problem solvers — the skills needed for a successful appeal are very different from those required for a trial. A trial involves questioning witnesses, introducing evidence, and arguing the case to the fact finder, whether it be a jury or a judge. Trial lawyers must be skilled at cross-examining witnesses and adept at making complex facts seem simple, especially in front of a lay jury. Trials are mostly about facts, and the job of a trial lawyer is to convince the jury or judge (in the case of a bench trial) that his or her version of the facts is the right one.

 
Appellate brief writing is a specific skill in which an often voluminous trial record must be distilled down to a concise presentation.
 

An appeal is mostly about how the law was applied to the facts, and involves an entirely different process. The trial record must be carefully reviewed and analyzed for errors. The primary job of an appellate attorney is to prepare a comprehensive brief, setting forth a persuasive legal argument, well-supported by case law and the applicable statutory or regulatory framework. Most appeals are won or lost “on the briefs,” so an appellate lawyer must be, first and foremost, a skilled writer. By contrast, few trial lawyers are likely to attribute their success at trial to their writing ability. Furthermore, appellate brief writing is a specific skill in which an often voluminous trial record must be distilled down to a concise presentation.

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Unlike trial, the focus on appeal shifts from developing and presenting facts to:

  • Mastering the record;

  • Researching legal principles, both procedural and substantive;

  • Understanding subtle legal distinctions and emerging legal trends;

  • Exploring creative analogies; and

  • Guiding policy considerations to shape or change law.

Because appellate practice and trial practice require different skills, you should consider hiring an appellate attorney to handle your appeal.

Appellate Lawyers Bring Fresh Perspective to a Case

If your case has reached the stage where you are considering an appeal, chances are you have been eating, breathing, and sleeping the case for many months or even years. As a result, you may have “tunnel vision” and the best thing you can do for your client is to bring in a fresh set of eyes. Trial lawyers approach their cases a certain way. They develop and communicate a core theory to the fact-finder. This makes for a strong case, but invariably results in other potential theories or issues being missed or given little attention. This can be problematic for a trial attorney on appeal, because the judges reviewing the case may be more interested in an entirely different theory than what was relied on at trial. The trial attorney may be unprepared to address the “new” theory, having ignored it at trial.

Appellate lawyers bring a new perspective to a case, one informed by experience searching the trial record for any and all potential errors or issues to appeal. They are likely to see things in the record that trial attorneys are unable to see because they are too close to or too vested in the case, and, unlike experienced appellate attorneys, may not even know what to look for in analyzing a record. What is more, your client will likely receive a more objective assessment of the merits of an appeal from an appellate attorney who has not lived through the case like you have.

Trial Lawyers and Appellate Lawyers Have Different Audiences

Arguing a case before a jury is very different from arguing a case before a panel of appellate judges. Arguments that might persuade a lay jury have little relevance in an appellate court. Rather than arguing factual matters and credibility determinations, as is the case during trial, appellate advocacy involves presenting specific legal arguments concerning rulings made by the trial judge, the jury instructions, and other questions of law. The outcome of an appeal will be a determination as to whether the law was applied correctly during trial or in a dispositive motion.

Because appellate courts focus on questions of law, not on questions of fact like the trial courts, the arguments an appellate attorney presents in the brief, and in oral argument where permitted, will be very different than those made during trial. During oral argument before a panel of judges, appellate attorneys are often called open to address hypotheticals, distinguish cases, respond to intricate statutory or contract construction inquires, and discuss broad public policy issues. Sometimes judges ask questions that seem out of left field. Preparing for an appellate argument is very different from preparing for trial. No one asks questions during your opening arguments or your summations.

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Trial Lawyers are Busy

Most trial attorneys have busy schedules, often going from one trial to the next, with court appearances, depositions, discovery, client meetings and travel scheduled in between. This can leave little time for the thoughtful reflection, exhaustive research, and precise, persuasive writing that effective appellate representation demands. Mounting an appeal is a multi-step process, comprised of:

  • Timely filing a Notice of Appeal or Notice of Discretionary Review;

  • Compiling and scrutinizing the record for potential appellate issues;

  • Researching and writing the appellate brief; and

  • Preparing for oral argument, if necessary.

Bringing in appellate counsel to handle your appeal will serve your client well. You will be able to do what you do best as a trial lawyer, while we can do what we do best as appellate counsel. Of course your insight from the trial is invaluable, so appellate attorneys expect to work with you to identify potential errors, and keep you involved in the appellate process as much or as little as you want to be. At the end of the day they are your clients, and we are always mindful of that.

Appellate Attorneys are Familiar with Appellate Courts and Knowledgeable on Appellate Law

To bring an appeal, a practitioner must be well-versed in the local rules of appellate procedure. There are important deadlines and specific requirements for appellate filings, that can be fatal to an appeal if missed. Experienced appellate attorneys have been through what is often a lengthy process many times, and can walk your client through the various steps of an appeal and answer any questions they have along the way. A successful appeal also requires knowledge of:

  • The relevant standard of review on appeal;

  • Appellate law, both procedural and substantive; and

  • Backgrounds and personalities of the appellate judges who will hear the case, including how they have ruled on cases similar to yours and whether the court is a “hot bench” that will pepper counsel with questions.

How i Can Help You

If these reasons to hire an appellate attorney have made you think twice about handling an appeal on your own, I welcome you to contact me. I have extensive experience handling appeals in state and federal courts throughout Washington State and can assist you if you are contemplating an appeal following a loss at trial or on a dispositive motion.

Email H. Lee Lewis or call (509) 662-3685 for an appellate consultation.