[Posted August 26, 2010] The Court of Appeals has taken the week off from handing down published opinions, so I’ll discuss something I’ve been meaning to mention for a while now.

Just two years ago, if a Virginia attorney wanted to join a group devoted to appellate practice, his or her choices were pretty slim. But the recent development of an identifiable Virginia appellate bar has led to a comparable rise in the number of associations of appellate lawyers. Here’s a look at what’s out there right now:

Virginia State Bar Appellate Practice Committee
A segment of the VSB’s Litigation Section, this is the oldest of the Virginia appellate institutions, going back at least to the early 1990s and probably much earlier. It’s open to all Virginia lawyers (since they’re already members of the State Bar), and I think it’s still free to join. Back in 2005, you could count the number of members on the fingers of one hand, but by now it’s a vibrant organization under the leadership of Monica Monday in Roanoke. The committee sponsors recurring appellate symposia, a wonderful mechanism for in-depth learning on narrow appellate-practice topics. The chief limitation of this organization is its inability to lobby for legislative or rules-based change (since the State Bar is an arm of Virginia government), but don’t let that stop you from joining.

American Academy of Appellate Lawyers
Founded in 1990, this is the most exclusive of all appellate-practice professional organizations. Membership is by invitation only, and is limited to attorneys who have devoted at least 15 years to handling appeals. There are fewer than 300 fellows across the nation, of which only six (including one sitting circuit-court judge, one law professor, and the Solicitor General of the Commonwealth) live in Virginia. If you’re an appellate lawyer and you really, really want to join this organization, all I can advise you to do is to be patient.

American Bar Association groups
The ABA has two groups dedicated to appellate practice. Within the Litigation Section, there’s an Appellate Practice Committee; it publishes an excellent newsletter (called simply Appellate Practice) and regularly sponsors advanced CLE programs at the ABA’s annual meetings. There’s a separate group, positioned (oddly enough) within the Judicial Division, called the Council of Appellate Lawyers. The two groups operate on more or less parallel tracks, as far as I can tell, but CAL works closely with the Judicial Division in things like the ABA Appellate Summit each autumn. One notable advantage of CAL over the APC is the opportunity to interact with appellate jurists in addition to other appellate practitioners. There’s a small charge, on top of regular ABA membership dues, to join each group.

Virginia Bar Association Appellate Practice Section
Two statewide appellate organizations have sprung up in the past year and a half, starting with the VBA’s entry, which was founded at the beginning of 2009. Membership is now approaching 50 lawyers. The section published its first semiannual newsletter (On Appeal) this summer, and co-sponsored an excellent program at the VBA’s summer meeting, a retrospective look at the just-completed October 2009 Term of the US Supreme Court. Section dues for VBA members are $25 per year.

Virginia Trial Lawyers Association Appellate Practice Section
The VTLA created an appellate section several months ago to assist its members with appellate issues, and to foster advancement of appellate skills for those VTLA members who want to carry their practices into the appellate courts. Section dues are nominal – also $25, I think, on top of VTLA membership. (As far as I can tell, the VTLA’s opposite number, the Virginia Association of Defense Attorneys, has yet to commit to creating an appellate group. Perhaps they’re pondering doing so as I type this.)

There are several advantages to joining one or more of the above groups. The opportunity to get appellate training is perhaps the most obvious, but in my mind the most valuable is the camaraderie you’ll enjoy. One of the best ways to become a more effective appellate advocate is to hang out with effective advocates, and pay attention to what they’re saying and doing. The Virginia appellate bar is, as I have written elsewhere, small and extraordinarily collegial; regardless of which side of the litigation aisle we occupy, we’re all friends and we enjoy each other’s company. You could do worse.