Let’s face it: If you want to be a lawyer, there’s a significant chance that you spend much of your time thinking about how you’re right and everyone around you is wrong. Well, there’s some good news for you – there’s a whole area of law in which you get to tell everyone else how wrong they were and how right you are, and it’s called appellate law!
Let’s say Joe Schmoe goes to court and loses, but he’s pretty sure he actually should’ve won, and he files an appeal. Joe’s case is going to head to an appellate court – maybe even, eventually, a state or federal Supreme Court. And Joe needs a lawyer who can provide “grounds for appeal,” other than Joe’s mom saying that he’s always a winner in her book. That lawyer is called an appellate attorney.
Unlike trial attorneys, appellate attorneys typically write legal briefs and argue before judges rather than juries. Appellate attorneys aren’t trying to convince the appeals court that one side is correct; instead, they’re trying to convince the judge that the law was misapplied or misinterpreted by the lower court. Making a convincing argument requires picking apart the trial court’s decision, as well as an extensive knowledge of case law.
Since appellate lawyers aren’t involved in the day-to-day drudgery of building a case, but rather are looking at cases that have already been argued and thinking about how the law should be applied, in some ways they sit in the ivory towers of the legal world. Appellate law may be similar to what you pictured when you thought about practicing law: Research! Writing! Sitting around in closed rooms (probably while wearing monocles and puffing on pipes, one must assume) talking about how laws should be interpreted and applied!
And as if telling everyone else why they’re wrong weren’t satisfying enough, if you’re an appellate lawyer, you may even get a chance to tell the Supreme Court what they should do. Appellate attorneys are often the ones filing amicus briefs pointing out factors the SCOTUS judges may not have considered when determining whether to overturn a ruling. In other words: They get (some of) the bragging rights associated with arguing a case in front of the Supreme Court, and they don’t even have to put on a suit to do it.
Getting into appellate law isn’t easy – getting a judicial clerkship at an appeals court will help, but as it just so happens, those clerkships are pretty darn competitive. Even after that, you’ll probably need to practice another type of law for a while to build experience. But for those who love correcting others’ mistakes, research, and nerdy discussions about case law, being an appellate attorney could be a pretty great fit.