Whether performing in an improv comedy troupe or presenting oral argument before a panel of judges, University of Virginia School of Law student Riley Segars ’23 is known for thinking on his feet.
Set to graduate from the Law School on May 21, Segars was executive editor of the Virginia Law Review, treasurer of the Latin American Law Organization, a three-year senator for the Class of 2023 with the Student Bar Association and a student representative on the Faculty Curriculum Committee. He won first place in the Solicitor General Toby J. Heytens Trial Advocacy Tournament and was a finalist in the William Minor Lile Moot Court Competition. He was also a research assistant for Professors Michael G. Collins and Saikrishna Prakash.
A native of Montgomery, Alabama, Segars earned a bachelor’s degree in international studies and Spanish from the University of Oklahoma.
In our occasional series “Star Witness,” Segars discussed his interest in learning Spanish, his path to law school and how improv helped him fine-tune his advocacy skills.
Tell us something about your life before law school.
I’ve always been fascinated by linguistics and learning foreign languages. Like a lot of students, I’d taken Spanish classes throughout elementary school and middle school, and I’d always loved it. But it took on a completely new dimension in high school and college when I started volunteering at a local church and a local library to teach English as a second language to people who had just recently immigrated to the United States.
Because I had some experience with Spanish, I was put in the “pre-beginner” class, where most of the students had little to no experience at all with English and much of the instruction occurred in Spanish. In addition to being a great way for me to practice my own language skills and to help many of Montgomery’s newest residents adjust to life in the United States, the experience made me realize just how important language proficiency and cultural competence really is. Their stories were amazing stories of inspiration and courage, but without being able to effectively communicate, I never would have gotten to learn their stories or help them learn to share their stories with others.
There is just something different about speaking to people in their own language — it lets you build a stronger connection and trust. Those experiences inspired me to keep up my language education throughout high school and college, where I majored in international relations and Spanish with a minor in French, and did my best to stay plugged in to the international student community and to keep teaching English.
Why law school?
Law school was definitely not a lifetime goal of mine. I don’t have any lawyers in my family, so it was never really anything I had on my radar growing up. And to be honest, I didn’t even really consider going to law school strongly until my sophomore or junior year.
At the University of Oklahoma, I always really enjoyed the classes that focused either on domestic or international law. The systems that structure how countries interact with each other on the world stage were super fascinating. I loved classes on the United Nations, international cooperation and development, and global governance. Additionally, many of my classes were really small, where discussion was the primary method of instruction. I found I really enjoyed getting to discuss these issues with classmates in a collaborative environment where people didn’t always agree but where people were always seeking to work together to reach a resolution.
After many meetings with career services and speaking with my parents, I realized that a lot of those interests and skills were a large part of legal education and the legal field. So I decided to roll the dice and apply to law school, hoping it wasn’t as scary as it looked in some of the movies. That was definitely one of the better decisions I’ve made in my life.
Describe your most interesting law school experience.
I think working in the Appellate Litigation Clinic has been the most interesting, challenging and rewarding part of my time here at UVA Law. At the beginning of last semester, the 12 of us were split into six teams of two and assigned a real case that we would be completely in charge of during the entire appellate phase of the case. That means writing the initial brief and reply briefs, and even arguing the case in front of whichever federal circuit court the case was in. Most of the cases are habeas corpus matters, but I got lucky and was assigned to a direct criminal appeal in the Sixth Circuit.
Without going in to too much detail (since the matter is still ongoing), my partner Ciara Barone and I really had to get down in the dirt, wading through all of the transcripts, motions and orders from the trial below to figure out the issues needing focus and how to argue our case. Of course, clinic director Scott Ballenger and [lecturer] Cate Stetson have been amazing resources and guides throughout the entire process. It has been a great way to get a glimpse into what appellate practice looks like in the real world.
How have your experiences at center stage, from improv to moot court, honed your advocacy skills?
I think flexibility and adaptability really are key to effective oral advocacy. My friends tease me relentlessly about my time as the director of my college improv troupe, but it really helped teach me to think on my feet and I think this was a big advantage during the Lile Moot Court Competition. Before you get in front of your panel, be it students, professors, practitioners or actual judges, you hope you have prepared for every question they could possibly ask. But, at least in this point of our legal careers, that likely just isn’t possible. The judge is always going to think about an issue in a way you haven’t and will ask a question you might not have focused on, but you can’t freeze up. You need to be able to trust your preparation and respond in a way that both satisfies the judge and allows you to refocus the argument on the issues most critical for you as an advocate.
Taking suggestions from the audience and acting silly on stage with my friends was the perfect way to build up those skills. Improv taught me to be comfortable going out on a limb and answering a question I wasn’t entirely expecting, and it taught me about keeping the bigger picture in mind. Everything you say can and will be used against you if possible — you have to be cognizant of how what you say will be perceived and how it might impact other parts of your argument. Just like in improv, where you don’t want to throw your troupe-mates under the bus because of an idea that came to you in a flash of inspiration, you don’t want to throw the rest of your argument away in response to one unexpected question.
What’s next for you?
Next year, I will be moving to Columbia, South Carolina, to clerk for Judge Julius N. Richardson on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. After that, I’ll clerk for Judge Timothy J. Kelly on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Then, I hope to stay in D.C. and work in private practice.
Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.