Field Trip

By: Mike Garrigan, WFU Law ’19

When I was eight years old, I went on my first field trip. The entire third grade class traveled in five yellow school buses from Fort Sam Houston to the Capitol Building in Austin, Texas. Earlier that month our classroom lessons had showcased state government civics. Now at the Capitol, we enjoyed a tour and got to see where the Texas legislature did its work. While eight-year-old minds aren’t known for expansive abstract thinking, seeing the concepts we learned in class come to life made those civics’ lessons stick.

On September 20, 2017, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (“Fourth Circuit”) held oral argument at the Worrell Professional Center at Wake Forest University. The Fourth Circuit brought the “field” to us. Seeing the Fourth Circuit in action was a valuable learning experience.

Observing real-life appellate advocacy contextualized many of the legal concepts we have been learning in the classroom. During the appellate session, we heard the panel consider standards of review, relevance, summary judgment, factual bases, and jurisdiction. While these theories sometimes comprise several weeks over the course of a given semester, in the appellate session, the judges and advocates tossed these terms effortlessly like masters of a once obscure second language. While we learn the law in slow motion, its concepts play out in court quickly. This experience taught me that mastery of the law is a prerequisite for competent advocacy.

The appellate session further showcased diverse advocacy styles. In Legal Writing, we learn how to speak clearly, reason persuasively, and advocate effectively. As students, most of us only exhibit basic oral competency. But these masters of the craft elevated advocacy to an art form. One lawyer used shock-and-awe to close his case, while another exemplified humble professionalism. One stressed legal authority, while another presented a creative, persuasive argument. While we students stick to the basics, in real life, advocacy is not homogenous. This experience reinforced what my professors have stressed all along — that no single advocacy style is categorically superior to another. Advocates must be authentic.

In addition to observing, students also enjoyed a unique opportunity to ask questions of the panel after the session concluded. We received valuable practice pointers and learned that most judges are interested in having a pleasant conversation, not a hostile debate, about the law. They want to know what each party wants the court to do and why the court should do it. They stressed the importance of listening to the panel, answering the questions asked, and being respectful.

Like my childhood field trip to the Capitol, the Fourth Circuit visit made clear that whether studying rudimentary civics or Nicomachean Ethics, experiential learning brings abstract concepts to life.

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