On June 9, four days before he graduated from the University of Chicago Law School, Addison Bennett put on a suit for the first time in months, set up his laptop in the home office in his parents’ Greenwich, Connecticut, home, and delivered an oral argument to a three-judge panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.
It wasn’t what he had imagined for his first court argument: federal appellate judges on a Zoom screen, a laptop perched on boxes to keep the webcam eye level, his parents at the other end of the house guarding the doorbell and keeping the family pug, Captain, quiet.
“It was surreal—I was standing in the house I grew up in, talking to the Seventh Circuit,” said Bennett, JD’20, who was arguing an appeal in a prisoner’s rights case he had worked on for most of his final year at the Law School as part of the Jenner & Block Supreme Court and Appellate Clinic.
Six days earlier, in Norfolk, Virginia, Deanna Hall, JD’20, had a similar experience—except her Seventh Circuit oral argument was via iPhone from her childhood bedroom. She wore a black dress even though nobody could see her, and she sat at her desk so she could access the files on her laptop as needed. Her parents, who before the pandemic had planned to visit Chicago for the hearing, listened to the livestream audio via the Seventh Circuit’s YouTube channel, although they did so outside the house to avoid distracting their daughter.
“It was poetic, actually, to be able to practice law in my hometown,” said Hall, who argued an appeal in a religious accommodation case for the Employment Law Clinic, which is part of the Law School’s Mandel Legal Aid Clinic. “My parents were able to be a part of it and help me through the preparation process. They listened to moot arguments, and it was helpful to explain the case to people who weren’t familiar with it.”
For both recent graduates, the proceedings represented an additional twist in a quarter that will be remembered, at least in part, for all the milestones they experienced remotely—and the speed at which they learned to switch gears.
“First of all, delivering any oral argument in the Seventh Circuit is very challenging for students: It is often their first argument, and someone’s rights will depend on the outcome of the case,” said Randall D. Schmidt, the director of the Employment Law Clinic, who supervised Hall.
Few law students deliver oral arguments in a U.S. court of appeals, and the opportunity arises most commonly from clinic work. To appear on behalf of a client in any court in Illinois, students must have a “Rule 711” student license and be accompanied by a supervising attorney, almost always a clinical professor. Typically, the students spend months briefing the case with classmates and then weeks practicing their arguments with professors and classmates. When the big day arrives, they sit beside their supervisors in the courtroom, and the panel of judges—and their nameplates—are in full view.
“When you’re in person, you can see the judges right in front of you. It’s easier to read how they’re responding, and at a minimum you can tell who’s speaking,” said Clinical Prof. Sarah Konsky, a director of the Jenner & Block Supreme Court and Appellate Clinic, who supervised Bennett. “With Zoom—or with phone—it’s all very different.”
Audio lags can lead to crosstalk, and arguing into a phone or webcam can feel awkward and unsettling.
Preparing with help from Schmidt, Konsky and others, Bennett and Hall had to train themselves to pause regularly so they wouldn’t speak over one of the judges or miss the beginning of a question.
“A lot of the prep was geared toward getting Addison ready for the Zoom technology,” said Konsky, who was on the Zoom call and was able to communicate with Bennett by text in between the opening and the rebuttal. “You have to wait a second or two to be sure somebody isn’t trying to jump in.”
Hall had listened to audio recordings of previous phone hearings to familiarize herself with the process, but she, too, had to navigate the novel experience more or less on her own: Schmidt emailed her during the proceeding—he was also on the call—but he was miles away in Chicago. She couldn’t pull the phone away from her ear, so texting wasn’t an option.
“Usually, we’d go to the courtroom early, see the panel, read the nameplates, and talk a little about the judges,” Schmidt said. “We knew who the judges were because they were posted before the argument, but Deanna had to figure out how to recognize the voices, which was hard.”
Bennett wondered whether he should watch the judges’ faces on his screen or focus his gaze on the webcam.
“I wanted to look at the judges to get a sense for what they were thinking—to see their expressions or whether they were leaning forward or getting ready to ask a question—but moving your eyes to a different box on a Zoom call takes an extra step,” said Bennett, who argued on behalf of the plaintiff-appellant in Shaffer v. Lashbrook before Judges Diane Sykes, Michael S. Kanne and Michael D. Brennan. “I was so wrapped up in my argument that I wasn’t able to do much of that, so I ended up staring straight ahead at the camera and trying to simulate eye contact.”
Unexpected distractions, bad connections and technological mishaps were sources of concern, too. Bennett worried that his dog would bark or the doorbell would ring; Hall hoped that nobody would be cutting the grass near her home. And neither knew whether they would argue by phone or Zoom until a week or two before their court date.
Hall, who argued as amicus curiae on behalf of the plaintiff-appellant in Mohammed Mahran v. Advocate Christ Medical Center, et al. before Judges Sykes, Amy J. St. Eve and William J. Bauer, experienced one glitch: For about five seconds at the beginning of her three-minute rebuttal, her phone was muted.
“There was unusual silence on the other end, and just as I realized what had happened and was unmuting myself, one of the judges asked if I was still there,” Hall said. “But I came back to it and everything was fine.”
For Schmidt, the brief silence “seemed like a lifetime.”
“I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, her phone has been disconnected. She’s lost the call,’” he said. “There had been all these emails (from the court): ‘If you’re disconnected, call back at this number, and if you can’t get through, try this number.’ And then we were on the call, and there was this silence. I was thinking, ‘Do I now step in and do this rebuttal?’ My mind was racing.”
Both Hall and Bennett performed well despite the pressure and unusual circumstances, their professors said.
“Addison was fantastic,” said Konsky.
“She did a really wonderful job,” Schmidt said of Hall.
The court ultimately ruled against Bennett’s client, holding that the district court had not abused its discretion in dismissing the case. The court hadn’t ruled in Mahran as of July.
Hall is now working in the investment funds group at the Los Angeles office of the law firm Paul Hastings, while Bennett is clerking for Judge Andrew D. Hurwitz on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Both were thrilled to have had the experience of arguing their cases—as unusual as the process was.
“It was nerve-racking, but I knew our briefing was solid thanks to everybody’s hard work, and I felt so incredibly supported by the team of students and faculty that helped prepare me,” Bennett said. “It was absolutely the highlight of law school.”