He Found Himself in a ‘Hot’ Court
by Antony M. Noble
An attorney’s pro bono experience in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit.
When I signed up for the Pro Bono Mentoring Program, I was expecting to play a minor role in a couple of trials. Did I imagine that it would result in my standing at the lecturn in the Byron White Courthouse trying to persuade three judges that an incarcerated transsexual had suffered a violation of her constitutional rights? No way! But within months of offering my services, I had written two appellate briefs and presented oral argument on some fascinating issues of constitutional law.
Initially, the prospect of arguing civil rights in a federal appellate court seemed very daunting. But the great thing about the Pro Bono Mentoring Program is, well, it’s a mentoring program. Less experienced lawyers like me are paired with senior mentor attorneys who have been selected for their skill and professionalism in federal court. I was therefore able to concentrate on the substantive issues of the case, and if I ever had any questions about procedure or professional responsibility, I would get on the phone with my mentor and he would steer me in the right direction.
On the day of the hearing, my mentor also took the step of introducing me to the panel. He warned the judges that they were about to hear an English accent, explaining that I had received my legal education in London. He then reassured them, though, that despite being an Englishman, I have a good grasp of the American language. The judges smiled at this wisecrack, which indicated that my mentor had successfully paved the way for me.
So there I was, standing at the lecturn —three sets of eyes looking at me, anticipating my argument. Luckily, I had prepared thoroughly for this moment. I knew this was a "hot" court. The judges wouldn’t be interested in listening to me read a prepared script. They wouldn’t necessarily be interested in every point I wanted to make. They had their own agenda, and dozens of questions, too.
As part of my preparation, I had observed this panel in action the day before my hearing, and I saw them nail a couple of attorneys. One of the attorneys had failed to paginate his appendix—major sin. The other one had completely forgotten to file an appendix—he was doomed. These are federal judges, and they are sticklers for detail. However, with the help of my mentor, I had correctly followed all procedures. I was even wearing a white shirt, which is something that I would never have thought of. I was ready for anything they could throw at me.
Knowing that this panel would not want to listen to a flowery introduction, I launched straight into my oral argument by responding to the last point made by counsel for the appellants. Within seconds a question was fielded. This was my opportunity to demonstrate my understanding of the issues and to make points in favor of my client. Then came another question, and another, and another.
Each question asked gave me a chance to develop my argument. I had put a lot of hours into researching the legal issues, writing the briefs, and preparing for oral argument, and now I only had 15 minutes to present my conclusions to the court.
Fifteen minutes at the lecturn can pass by in a flash, unless you are being grilled about the state of your appendix (or the color of your shirt), in which case I should imagine it seems like an eternity. My time at the lecturn was over quickly, but that was because every second of it was enjoyable.
These were difficult appeals, and at the conclusion of oral argument I felt a real sense of achievement. By getting involved in the Pro Bono Mentoring Program, not only was I helping a deserving client with a legal problem, but I was also developing my brief writing and advocacy skills—and helping the federal court with its docket of pro se cases. As a result of my pro bono work, I now have two appeals and an oral argument to add to my résumé.
The Pro Bono Mentoring Program is sponsored by the Faculty of Federal Advocates and primarily appoints counsel to cases pending in the U.S. District Court. If you would like to get involved as a mentor or mentee, please call Ray Micklewright at (303) 355-2999 or Maria Seawell at (303) 986-9870.