Moot Court Advocacy Series – Season II: ‘Oral Advocacy’, Episode IX: ‘The Essentials of Time Management’

Time is money. I learnt it the hard way when my team competed in the VIS Moot. During the round of 32 we pleaded against another very good team. I imagine it must have been extremely difficult for the tribunal to decide who was better in terms of merits and advocacy skills. What they looked at instead was time management. Since the other team was slightly better at it, they won.

Both in real life and during a moot court you will have a limited amount of time for every part of the hearing. You must have full control over it or otherwise, you risk missing important points due to time constrains. That’s why in the last episode I mentioned that a stopwatch or a cell phone is indispensable on your desk for the purpose of timekeeping. But control over the time means much more than just watching how it runs out.

During a moot court you are given a very short amount of time (usually between 15 and 25 minutes per speaker) to present several arguments pertaining to two or three issues. Even though it sounds like eternity, many people do not make it in time, especially if they are asked a lot of questions. Tribunals do not tend to rudely interrupt and order counsels to finish when their time is up (though judges and arbitrators have the right to do it and some are very strict about it). They probably will not notice if you speak for additional ten or fifteen seconds. However, a thirty-second-long extension may already sound the alarm and force the panel to remind you that your time has elapsed. It is always an embarrassing sign that you lost control over your own pleading.

The consequences of bad time management vary. Minor mistakes probably will not hurt that much. However, most rules oblige the tribunal to penalize teams which go over the time they requested or were given by the tribunal. Sometimes in case you speak for too long arbitrators may decide to reduce the amount of time your co-counsel will have. Finally, when two very good teams compete, judges are often unable to decide who was the best based on slightly subjective criteria like persuasiveness of arguments or advocacy style. They might turn to something more measurable, namely, time management.

To have full control over your time and be rewarded, no penalized for it, follow these six rules:

  1. Create a system

To be able to control the time you need a clear, intuitive system. In my opinion the best way is to set up a timer on a phone (of course, after switching off sound and vibration entirely) and, depending on your preference, have it running either forwards (so that you can see how long you talk) or backwards (so that you can see how much time is left). If using phones is forbidden, use a regular stopwatch.

Some people decide to keep track of the time on their own. I strongly discourage it if you can count on your co-counsel’s help. If someone can take care of timekeeping, you can direct your attention elsewhere and be more focused on the tribunal and its questions. Not to mention you often score additional points for teamwork! Apart from a timer, you also need to choose a way of communicating to your co-counsel how much time is left. Colourful stickers, small cards with a number of minutes left written on them or a timesheet where your co-counsel can cross off a box representing e.g. two minutes of the pleading each time they pass will work just fine. Make sure it is visible enough for both speakers to be aware how much time they still have, but not too distracting both for the counsels and the tribunal.

  1. Always finish within your time limit

Once you have the necessary ‘infrastructure’ you become able to control the time.  And the first rule is: finish your pleading within the time you reserved. Not too soon and not too late. It is possible to achieve if you learn your arguments very well, analyze questions that they can provoke and then plead in a flexible way, taking into account what your tribunal is like.

Sometimes you will plead in front of a ‘cold bench’, a tribunal which asks almost no questions. In this case, it is up to you to maintain the pace of the pleading and select arguments. From my experience people tend to finish too early when confronted with a cold bench, since they are usually accustomed to judges who ask a fair amount of questions. Their uninterrupted pleading turns out to be too short, what may be considered a mistake. For sure, it is a wasted opportunity to add an additional interesting argument or two which are normally omitted due to judges’ questions.

A different situation occurs when you are in front of a ‘hot bench’ – a tribunal consisting of active judges who ask plenty of questions. Many mooties struggle to finish in time in these circumstances, because the panel interrupts them, takes over the pleadings and can even drift far away from the main issues. It is the counsels’ job to answer in a concise manner, make sure the discussion remains relevant to the case and choose when to move forward to another issue. However, regardless of everyone’s best efforts, you will often notice that the last issue in every pleading is omitted or addressed in a cursory way due to time constrains. That’s why it is useful to learn how to address every issue you plan to cover during your pleading in one or two minutes, so that you do not have to skip it or abandon it half-way through if you run out of time. Remember – there is no need to be stressed that you did not manage to elaborate on each and every argument. The panel cannot read your thoughts. They will never learn that you failed to make a point due to time constraints unless you let them know. If you omit something, they will simply assume that was your intention from the beginning and even appreciate that you chose to focus on the essentials.

In my opinion finishing your pleading exactly within the time that you initially requested is very professional and gives an impression you are perfectly prepared and organized. However, in the majority of moot courts it is perfectly fine to ask for additional time – you only have to learn how to do it properly. So…

  1. If you need more time, always ask for it

‘A I see my time is elapsing, may I ask for one additional minute to conclude my submission?’ is likely the most oft-heard question during moot courts. I believe that the best moment to ask it is when you see that you have 30-45 seconds left and already know that you will not be able to wrap up the point you are making or present another argument, critical for your success on a particular issue. You should never ask for additional time once your time has already elapsed, since it makes an impression you lack control over the pleading and it is far more likely the tribunal will deny your request. Moreover, always ask for a specific amount of time, usually one minute. Do not worry – if you ask for too much, they tribunal will just grant you less time. If you are asked a question shortly before your time elapses and you feel you will run out of it before you finish your answer it is usually a good idea to ask for additional time as well. You flag that you are aware of time constrains and avoid being penalized by a less attentive judge for exceeding your time limit due to the fact you had to answer a question.

  1. Once granted additional time, never extend it further

The additional minute or two you get is a gift from the tribunal – a gift you may not always receive. For this reason you should always finish your submission within the requested period. It is not only about being professional and in control of your own argumentation. Bottom line is, lengthy pleadings can disrupt the schedule of the competition, make arbitrators (and teams) arrive late to consecutive rounds and in general – make everyone unhappy. And making people unhappy has nothing to do with scoring high during a moot.

  1. If you exceed your time limit, just finish your last thought and rest your case

Every pleading is a stressful situation and not everyone is able to focus on more than one thing at the same time. You might simply not notice that your time has run out while you are in the middle of a heated debate with the tribunal or your co-counsel might fall asleep and notify you of it too late. There is no need to panic – the best thing you can do is finish. Forget about conclusions and elaborate closing statement. Just wrap up the argument you were making so that it makes sense and remark that since your time has elapsed, what you have just said concludes your submission. I believe that panels appreciate this respect for their time. Sometimes it happens while answering to the question asked by one of the judges. The rule is the same – just wrap up your answer and finish pleading.

  1. Never waste additional time for conclusions and repetitions

You ask for additional time in order to bring additional value: finish an argument that would not make sense if interrupted, make a final point or deliver a punch line that will be remembered. It is useless to request two additional minutes only to repeat an argument that you have already made or give a lengthy, general conclusion. Instead of stating again what you have just said, use the opportunity that comes with additional time to give the tribunal a puzzle piece they might be missing and ensure that they understand your final point.

If you follow these rules you should avoid being penalized for bad time management!

All the best,

Marek

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