06/28/2010 11:41 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Murder Boards

The Senate Judiciary Committee begins hearings today on President Obama's second nominee for the Supreme Court, Elena Kagan. Just as the first nominee, Sonia Sotomayor, and both of President George W. Bush's nominees, John G. Roberts and Samuel Alito, and all the previous nominees of all the previous presidents, Ms. Kagan will be grilled mercilessly by the senators, particularly those of the opposition. All's fair in politics and the party out of power wants to do everything it can to make the sitting president--and that president's choices--look bad.


In preparation for the grilling, Ms. Kagan spent long hours in mock sessions called "Murder Boards." This intense practice process, which includes everything from re-creating the setting in the senate chamber to anticipating the worst case questions from the senators, was described in a post on by Julie Hirschfeld Davis. One particular item in the article that deserves your attention comes from Rachel Brand, an attorney who helped prepare Justices Roberts and Alito for their confirmation hearings. Ms. Brand said that the purpose of the Murder Boards "is to ask those hard questions in the nastiest conceivable way, over and over and over."

The triple iteration of "over" is the operative point. Verbalization is the process of rehearsing your presentation aloud as you would to an actual audience; that same practice is just as, if not more important, in handling tough questions. It may seem sufficient to list the anticipated challenging questions and to craft an answer for each of them, but that is not enough. It is far more effective to have someone fire those questions at you, and to speak your answers aloud. And you must do it over and over and over. The dynamics of the repeated interchanges in practice will make your responses in real time crisp and assertive.

The Murder Boards for Ms. Kagan did it right. According to the article, the questions fired at her came from "About 20 members of President Barack Obama's team...Kagan's pals from academia as well as White House and Justice Department lawyers." They made the mock practice more real.