‘Learning to Think Like a Lawyer’: 2L Christensen Reflects on Experiences in College of Law’s Appellate Clinic

Jeremy-Christianson2L Jeremy Christensen first became involved with the appellate clinic at the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law in May 2012.  In the short time since, he has had opportunities to help draft appellate briefs in six different federal circuits.

In the interview below, Christensen discusses his experiences in the clinic working alongside Professor Paul Cassell, a former federal judge, as well as his interest in appellate practice and how the clinic has taught him to “think like a lawyer.”

You began working with Professor Cassell in the appellate clinic as a 1L. How did the clinic prepare you to brief appellate cases? 

I think that the clinic has taught me a great deal about briefing appellate cases. We represent crime victims, and because of the peculiarities of that position, I’ve written on briefs where we are essentially the appellant, where we are essentially the appellee, and where we don’t fit into either of those categories as neatly. I’ve read through dozens of briefs written by experienced appellate practitioners in nearly every federal circuit court in the country. I’ve read good briefs and not-so-good briefs. The feedback from both Professor Cassell (a very experienced appellate attorney) and the other attorneys on the team has been great and really helped me to think much more strategically about the way I write. The breadth of the experience has been great; I’ve helped draft appellate briefs in the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth Circuit Courts of Appeals. I’ve done opening briefs, response briefs, reply briefs, and supplemental briefs (called Rule 28(j) letters) to the courts. And now I’m getting to learn about Supreme Court practice.

What are you currently working on?  

Currently, I am drafting a Petition for a Writ of Certiorari to the United States Supreme Court for a case from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

You recently joined Professor Cassell when he argued a child pornography case before the Seventh Circuit in Indiana.  What was that experience like?   Have there been any other particularly memorable experiences? 

The opportunity to travel to South Bend for the Seventh Circuit argument was, hands down, the most valuable experience I’ve had in law school. Oral argument in many appellate cases is becoming more of a rarity, so, just to go see it was great in and of itself. Adding to that was the distinguished nature of the panel hearing the case. Being able to see Judge Ann Claire Williams, Judge Diana Sykes, and Judge Richard Posner was educational to say the least. Observing the way top-tier appellate judges grill practitioners drove home the maxim, “an ounce of common-sense is worth a pound of logic.” Additionally, Professor Cassell is a very talented appellate attorney, both in written and oral advocacy. Seeing him handle, in some instances, very difficult questions from the judges taught me a lot. The oral argument ended up being unusually dramatic because another case that was extremely important in the Fifth Circuit came down in our favor about seven minutes before Professor Cassell got up to argue. That decision changed the face of the argument and the feeling in the courtroom. Obviously those situations are outliers in legal practice, its not common for those Perry-Mason-esque moments to occur, but the fact that one did was pretty cool. I think what really made it memorable, though, was not just that we had won the case in the Fifth Circuit and that it might influence the court we were before, but for what it represented for the clients. They are real people, with real problems, and I’m happy to give my time to help out some particularly disadvantaged individuals who are all but completely forgotten in our legal system–crime victims.

 Has working on these appellate matters influenced your career objectives after graduation?  

This clinic has solidified what I thought I really knew coming in — that I want to be an appellate practitioner. I came to law school to be involved in appeals. This experience has just made me more sure that this is what I want to do with my career. No doubt, appellate practice is a very niche market and difficult to get into, but gaining experience is the best way to get there.

How did your education at the College of Law prepared you?

 As cliche as it sounds, learning to “think like a lawyer” is just what my time at S.J. Quinney has done for me. That skill is crucial for appellate practice. Appellate judges generally care about different things than do trial judges and they ask different questions than do trial court judges. In fact, the questions appellate court judges routinely ask in oral argument, for example, are indistinguishable from the types of questions my professors have been asking me in class since I got here.

What are your plans after graduation? 

I think, foremost, my plans are to keep learning. If I have learned anything thus far, its that I know very little. As far as my professional plans, I would like to spend a couple of years doing appellate judicial clerkships before returning to Salt Lake to try and build up an appellate practice. I worked last summer at a local law firm, and I will be returning there this upcoming summer.