How to Analyze Competing Arguments

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By Emily Thompson ’23

I want to begin by thanking the University at Buffalo School of Law Summer Public Interest Funding & Fellowship Program and Francis M. and Cindy Abbott Letro. Their generous fellowship made this experience possible. 

I spent my summer serving as a judicial intern for the Honorable Jeremiah J. McCarthy, Magistrate Judge, in the United States District Court for the Western District of New York. There, I observed civil and criminal cases at every stage, from the more routine (but important!) scheduling conferences to the more electrifying discovery disputes, evidentiary hearings, and oral arguments. The observations were informative. I saw interesting, nuanced legal arguments from advocates. Equally important, I saw how advocates interact with each other and with the Judge. But the real business in chambers is research and writing.

Some of the writing executed in chambers is similar to what is covered in my 1L Legal Analysis, Writing, and Research (LAWR) class at the University at Buffalo School of Law. The skills required to conduct thorough research and to draft a memo will transfer. However, advocacy writing has no place in chambers. To draft a brief, you gather the relevant law and the facts. They act as your guardrails. Next, you march forward and make the best arguments possible for the client. 

In chambers, often the task is to analyze competing arguments to reach a conclusion. This is its own skill. It has a different form and feel from the writing performed in LAWR. I am not an expert, but I will do my best to explain the process. 

Generally, there are five steps:

1. Identify the moving party’s goal and their argument in support of that goal. 

2. Identify the opposing party’s argument. 

3. State the law. 

4. Apply the law to the parties’ arguments and the facts. 

5. Conclude. 

In reality, there is no clear distinction between these five steps, but we have to start somewhere. To change things up, when I was producing a preliminary draft, sometimes I put step three at the top. Wild, I know.  

The first and second steps can be a bear. There are several factors that make identifying a party’s argument difficult: (1) you’re not an expert in the relevant area of the law, (2) the law is unclear where the parties are fighting, or (3) a party fails to clearly identify what they want and why they should get it. The second factor can be particularly frustrating. When the law is unclear it feels like you are drilling down into nothing but mud. My only advice here is to cling to what the parties argue.  Let them hold you afloat if they can. As you can see, the steps are already blending together. 

The third step is familiar: write a “Rule” section. Typically, legal databases such as Westlaw or LEXIS will have plenty of examples and you just need to check the citations. Stay vigilant, the law is always evolving. 

I found myself bouncing between the fourth and fifth steps as my opinion changed. These steps feel vaguely familiar. In a 1L legal memo, there is an application and conclusion section, but the steps feel different in chambers. Lawyers are not fools; they do not waste time arguing a non-issue with a one in a million chance. Cases are often a close call and there is a lot of pressure to get it right. 

The work is challenging but well worth the effort. If you get the chance to intern in a judge’s chambers, take it. You will learn how the court operates. Beyond that, you will learn what makes a clear and effective legal argument. Both skills will translate to your future legal positions. 

I cannot thank Judge McCarthy, Matthew Yusick, Joanna Dickinson, and Eric Glynn enough for the experience I received this summer. They were four of the nicest people you will ever meet, and brilliant lawyers as well. I learned so much from them, and I will carry the lessons I learned this summer for the rest of my career. I am grateful for the opportunity to have had this experience.

Name: Emily Thompson ‘23

Name of Fellowship: Francis M. Letro ’79 & Cindy Abbott Letro Fellowship

Placement: Honorable Jeremiah J. McCarthy, Magistrate Judge, United States District Court for the Western District of New York 

Location: Buffalo, NY

One important lesson I have learned from this fellowship: “The work is challenging but well worth the effort. If you get the chance to intern in a judge’s chambers, take it. You will learn how the court operates.”