By: Robert Glueck
On August 10-12, prior to the start of classes, 179 3L students participated in the National Institute for Trial Advocacy and Persuasion Training Program sponsored by Vinson and Elkins. Dominic Gianna and Lisa Marcy, the program’s directors, emphasize a “learn by doing” approach which calls for students to develop their oral advocacy skills by performing various phases of a typical trial in front of judges and attorneys from across the country.
During the program, the 3L students were divided into groups of approximately 20 students and 5 practicing attorneys who served as the group’s faculty members. Each day of the program was devoted to certain trial or pre-trial phases. The faculty of judges and attorneys began by demonstrating each phase and providing some preemptive advice while the students observed. The students then performed each phase on their own in front of a video camera and received feedback from the faculty both immediately after performing each phase and during one-on-one video review sessions.
On the first day, students practiced examining witnesses through direct and cross examination in addition to laying a foundation while questioning witnesses and discussing when and how to raise objections at trial. On the second day, students focused on impeachment and redirect examination along with motion practice and jury selection. On the final day, students concluded the program by performing opening and closing statements and mock depositions.
In addition to practicing trial advocacy skills, students could attend optional seminars conducted by faculty members. These seminars included the art of persuasion, how to deliver opening statements, workplace confidence for women, and how to effectively handle finances after law school. The program also provided a networking opportunity for students through the faculty-student reception on Tuesday evening in the Student Lounge.
Although attendance was mandatory, the program is a graduation requirement for LSU law students, the program provided many benefits for aspiring trial attorneys. As noted by LaToya Jordan, an associate at Long Law Firm in Baton Rouge who served as one of the program’s faculty members, aspiring transactional attorneys can benefit from the program as well.
“The program provides future attorneys with the tools to develop a winning case theory and the skills to effectively persuade any listener, whether they aspire to be a trial lawyer or a transactional attorney who will never set foot into a courtroom,” says Jordan.
In addition to 3L students and faculty participants, 2L students were also allowed to participate in the program as student volunteers. These students coordinated the videotaping and video review portions of program and also recognized the program’s benefits. As observed by Sam Kennedy, a 2L student volunteer, “From a 2L perspective, it was beneficial seeing everyone perform and hearing discussions on the various topics. It was also a great opportunity to speak with the judges one-on-one and get real life experiences and ask questions without the stigma of sounding stupid.”
Acknowledging that many of the 3L students may not have participated in Trial Advocacy or Moot Court Competitions, Kennedy also notes, “The program was an opportunity to practice skills which many have probably not done since 1L year legal writing.”
The program also provided benefits outside the courtroom context. Based on his observations, Kennedy believes that the program allowed the students to not only develop a courtroom presence but also to improve their public speaking skills in general. “It allowed [the 3L students] to get up in front of legal professionals and their peers and talk and gain confidence,” says Kennedy. Kennedy adds that the opportunity to see oneself on video “made it possible to point out everyone’s ticks and nervous habits that we may not know we have.”
Although the program’s benefits seemed obvious to both the faculty members and student volunteers, for the 3L students participating, the feedback was mixed. Alex Vozzella prefers transactional work over litigation. She recognized that the program has the potential to be helpful for those who have no desire to be trial lawyers. However, she considered the constant critiques counterproductive at times.
“The problem is that when you have a bunch of different people critiquing you, and they aren’t all doing it in the same room, many times you’ll get conflicting advice,” says Vozzella.
Many 3L students shared these same concerns and added that they were less than thrilled with having to essentially start school a week early. Despite this inconvenience, Albert Adams, a member of the Trial Advocacy Board who is already well-versed in trial advocacy, found that all in all the program was effective.
“Although we did have to come to school a week early, the program did provide us with the opportunity to really take our trial advocacy skills to the next level. It basically allowed us to take advantage of opportunities that would have otherwise been unavailable,” said Adams.
Despite mixed reviews, the faculty was quick to note that many of the students made significant strides by the conclusion of the program. A consensus among the attorneys was that the students improved their public speaking skills and grew more confident as they spoke in front of the attorneys and their classmates.
Although Gianna and Marcy are constantly searching for ways to improve, overall, their “learn by doing” approach appears to have been effective. Regardless of their views on the NITA program, the 3L students are now one step closer to graduation. As for the 2L students, hopefully this article will be a preparation tool for next year. 1L students, make sure to read for Torts. Church doesn’t like it when you don’t read.