Teaching ‘order’ in the court

Author: Gail Hinchion Mancini


Its8 a.m.on a Sunday, and theLawSchoolis submitting its students to a rigorous challenge: Pick a jury, try a civil case with the help of expert witnesses and a bona fide judge, and winall, hopefully, before lunch. After lunch, conduct a bench trial, one presented before a judge instead of a jury.

This whirlwind concludes two April weekends of mock civil and criminal trials, an approach to learning courtroom techniques called trial advocacy that has prepared Notre Dame law students for real-world practice for some 50 years. TheLawSchoolwas one of the first in the country to offer such a course, according to Prof. James Seckinger, who has conducted the program for 31 years and is founder of the National Institute for Trial Advocacy.

Seckinger took the job from Prof. Edward Barrett who, in the 1950s, pioneered trial advocacy with colleagues from Harvard and theUniversityofIllinois. Notre Dame, says Seckinger, has the one such program that is consistently rated among the nations 10 best.

Seckinger describes trial advocacy asthe art and science of presenting facts and law to persuade the decision-makerjudge, jury, or arbitratorsin favor of the lawyers clients.So it is a movement to have better trialsmore efficient and effective.

Practically speaking, that means doing your homework and keeping a straight face in the courtroom. In selecting his jury, John Fennel remains determinedly composed as he asks each juror his or her marital status. The high school and middle school students feel entitled to snicker as they reportsingle.

Anson Rhodes raises not an eyebrow as he questions potential jurors about whether they own firearms, and learns that at least four teenage jurors own guns, including hunting rifles, air rifles, a Walther and a Glock.

In the courtroom this weekend, David P. Matsey, aValparaisoattorney, serves as Judge. Seckinger is assisted by Prof. Gerald Bradley, staff members Debbie Blasko and Gloria Krull, and dozens of regional lawyers and judges who volunteer their time for the event.

The mock trials culminate an intense semesters work on courtroom skills and procedures that brought them back to campus a week before the start of spring classes to work with visiting lawyers and judges.Students try their first cases before a judge and with real-life expert witnesses before spring break.

The students in this role-playing exercise also serve as lawyers, but also as expert witnesses, forcing them to learn all the facts of the case while affording them a unique view of the lawyers questioning process.It also allows them to observe the deliberations of the jury, itself a frank appraisal of the quality of the presentations.

At weekends end,LawSchoolstudents gather to debrief and to fill in the trial notebook theyre required to keep on each phase of the process.

About 80 percent of law students take one of the trial advocacy courses, which also are taught by Prof. Gerald Braldley. The class started out as a third-year option, but has become more important to second-year students who want to sharpen their skills before summer internships.They want to analyze, look, and act like real lawyers when they hit the law firms looking for a permanent job,Seckinger says.

Volunteer jurors can be any age. If youd like to participate in the fall or spring mock trials, call the program office at 631-5867.

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