Nicole E. Smith ’17
For the Plaintiffs-Appellants/Cross-Appellees
As a first-year student at Columbia Law School, Nicole E. Smith ’17 and her case partner placed third in the Frederick Douglass Moot Court national competition.
But Smith says she learned the most about oral argument the next year, when she served as a coach for ILs who followed her onto the Law School’s Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison Frederick Douglass Moot Court team.
“I learned a lot from trying to teach other people how to moot,” said Smith, who has continued to improve upon her talents, leading to her selection as one of four finalists in this year’s Harlan Fiske Stone Moot Court Competition.
One area Smith said she focused on as a coach was helping people directly answer judges’ questions. She’s incorporated that lesson into her own presentation skills, as well, trying to engage in a conversation with the panel rather than deliver a pre-planned lecture.
“It became obvious to me how important it was to follow where the judges wanted you to go with what was concerning them about your argument,” she said. “I’ve gotten better at deferring to judges. It’s a lot easier to get to the points they really care about that way.”
Smith had limited experience in public speaking before joining the Frederick Douglass team, which was, as she describes it, her “first attempt at speaking about legal issues out loud.” Now oral argument is her favorite part of the process. But it’s what she’s learned about brief writing that she’s most grateful for.
“I’ve tried to consciously become a better writer in law school,” she said. “My moot court partners have really challenged me to think about why I’m making an argument the way I am.”
Smith also had a chance to improve her writing skills as executive managing editor of the Columbia Law Review and as a research assistant for Professor Gillian Metzger ’96. She was part of a team of students who worked on an amicus brief Metzger and several other constitutional law professors submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court in the Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt case, which dealt with restrictions on the right to abortion in Texas. The professors argued the restrictions were unconstitutional. In a 5–3 opinion last year, the Supreme Court agreed.
Smith said she’s received support—in the Harlan Fiske Stone Moot Court Competition and in general—from many Columbia Law School professors, including Metzger and Olatunde Johnson, for whom Smith researched discriminatory intent in the context of voting and transgender rights.
“Columbia Law School has such incredible people who are really committed to teaching and inspiring people,” she said.
Smith, who will be arguing in the Harlan Fiske Stone Moot Court final round on behalf of domestic violence survivors with fellow finalist Nico Gurian ’17, said her goal is to fairly present the law to the judges in a way that makes it possible for them to rule in her clients’ favor.
“I’ve learned to be comfortable with the weaknesses in an argument and not to let something that is legally weak feel like a fatal flaw,” she said. “It’s forced me to think critically about whether that’s the way the law should be, and, if not, how do we use the existing framework to get relief for the client.”
Next year, Smith will join Kirkland & Ellis before clerking with Judge Rosemary S. Pooler of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit.