Traffic Court puts 1L in fast lane to litigation experience

KU Law student Ian Patterson represents the University of Kansas in a Traffic Court case

I’ll tell you right now, your first year of law school is a lot of reading and writing. Although reading and writing will be a large part of any attorney’s job, other skills like client communication, oral argumentation, and basic courtroom etiquette are equally essential. One of the coolest things I’ve experienced here at KU Law is the opportunity to get involved in low-stakes litigation as a first-year student.

With that lead in, let’s talk about something near and dear to my heart: Traffic Court. The University of Kansas is large, with a correspondingly large number of parking lots. When people get parking tickets on campus, they have the opportunity to appeal to the KU Court of Parking Appeals, which is staffed by none other than the students of KU Law. The first-year students get to serve as attorneys, and the second- and third-year students serve as judges.

Your case

One of the coolest things about Traffic Court is that in September of your first year of law school, you can be representing clients. Although the appeals are for parking tickets, I assure you, the clients are very real. They have a story, agenda, and stake in the outcome of your performance. Being a lawyer requires a “bedside manner” of sorts, and there is no substitute for experience. Being able to represent clients right out of the shoot makes you feel like a lawyer, act like a lawyer, and improve as a lawyer.

Your research

Once you have a client and understand his or her case, the next step is to begin to research arguments to support your client’s position. Traffic Court is unique in that it has a narrow body of case law created and followed exclusively by the KU Court of Parking Appeals. It is the responsibility of the attorneys to look at prior Traffic Court cases and make comparisons and distinctions with the ultimate aim of forming a coherent argument in favor of your client. As a practicing attorney this is exactly the kind of thing you will be doing on a regular basis. Getting familiar with the process early is immensely beneficial to you and your clients.

Your argument

This is the fun part. Now that you’ve researched the relevant cases and formed an argument, its time to take it for a test drive. Traffic Court normally gives each side seven minutes for oral arguments with the defense attorney going first. My favorite part of oral argument is that it very rapidly turns into a discussion. The justices are interested in probing the limits of your argument, clarifying your facts, and testing the practical application of your legal theory. They do this by interrupting you with questions. As frustrating as this can be, it is once again an example of something you will have to do in practice.

Your experience

At the conclusion of your arguments, the justices critique the attorneys for both sides. They suggest alternative arguments, way to improve your presentation, and pointers on courtroom etiquette. I can tell you first hand that each time you go into Traffic Court you will do better than your previous performance, and you will be improved when you leave. Law is a practice because there is no substitute for experience. That fact that you can start gaining that experience in September of your first year is an unbeatable opportunity.

Furthermore, the structure of Traffic Court speaks to the collaborative community at KU Law my fellow bloggers have pointed out. Traffic Court is entirely student driven. You are getting feedback from your peers, and those peers want to see you succeed. They also want to see you improve and will let you know where that can happen.

I’ll leave you with this final thought: There are few things more satisfying than standing in the KU Law courtroom as a 1L and saying, “Your Honor, the University appears by Ian Patterson, prosecuting attorney, KU Court of Parking Appeals.”

Then again, I did write an entire blog about it, so maybe I’m biased.

— Ian Patterson is a first-year law student and KU Law Student Ambassador from Minneapolis, Minn.