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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Great Advocacy Teachers: what we are looking for.

Mark Caldwell, NITA's Director of Specialty Programs, has kindly agreed to a multi-part guest-blog on selecting and managing faculty for advocacy courses.

I have been asked to share my thoughts on recruiting, grooming, and maintaining program teaching teams. Every NITA Program Director has their own thoughts on how to best staff and run their program. I do not speak for NITA in my comments but share what has been successful for me in my thirty plus years of leading programs. Commenting on all aspects of creating and leading a faculty team would make for a piece that is far too long for one single bite. Let me break my thoughts into three separate topics. I’ll begin with my thoughts on what makes a good learning-by-doing instructor - someone I would actively recruit to a teaching team.

It’s pretty obvious that knowledge of the subject is the foundation of good teaching. However, in today’s world of trial it is not as easy to find new instructors with large amounts of trial experience. Cases settle or the senior lawyers prefer to work the cases that actually go forward. For most civil practitioners there are relatively few opportunities to get trial experience. The conundrum for those recruiting trial teachers is finding the next generation of advocacy teachers. How can you find younger trial lawyers with sufficient experience to meet the credibility threshold?

In that same vein, those with substantial trial experience are not always good teachers. Just because someone is successful at persuading juries and judges does not make them an equally successful teacher. How can you tell if a good trial lawyer will make a good teacher?

Here are a few characteristics I look for in recruiting new instructors:

1. You have to be a student of advocacy to teach advocacy. The best teachers are those who self reflect on what they do to be successful, break their actions into component pieces, and then accurately describe what they do so others understand. In addition, they study others - both those who teach and the students/participants - to absorb successful techniques, turns of phrases, and engaging case stories. There are few truly new ideas in advocacy teaching. The best teachers I know take ideas from others and make them part of their own skill set. Applying the successful ideas of others to impart knowledge is not a sin - as long as you give attribution.

2. Focus always needs to be student centered. Great teachers recognize why everyone is in the classroom - to help the students improve and not pontificate. War stories, personal opinions on case theories, and long winded comments or answers to questions do not help people improve their skills. Ego and personal self aggrandizement do not belong in a successful classroom. The best teachers acknowledge that performance, not comments, is what helps people improve.

3. Knowing when to break the rules as well as when to follow them is a characteristic of an excellent teacher. Lock step adherence to the four part model used in many systems is not the sign of a great teacher. There are times when a coaching model is more appropriate and effective. When following the four part model the best teachers are consistent in their delivery. Failing to include examples or providing a reason for changing behavior as part of comments for improvement leaves students/participants without a complete picture. Good teachers adapt to fit the situation, using techniques that fit the specific situation.

4. The best teachers know that less is more. Limiting comments to one learning point per performance helps students digest and retain ideas compared to being inundated by multiple suggestions. Effective teachers recognize you can cover the same amount of material offering a different point to each student instead of repeating concepts multiple times. In the same vein, good teachers understand that making use of small goals with more repetition increases the chances of retention and success.

5. A sense of time is essential. Every student needs to perform - at least once if not two or three times in each workshop. Managing the clock so there is equity in performance time lets every student know he or she is important. Limiting the time the instructor speaks instead of the students is equally essential. Starting and ending on time sends important messages about professionalism and the value of other portions of the program. Stealing time from breaks and demonstrations is unfair to both students and teaching colleagues. Being late for faculty meetings or the start of class sessions devalues both. Failing to end on time at the end of the day or class session is not just impolite but adds inappropriate emotional and, sometimes, economic penalties to students.

6. Seeing the big picture as well as the immediate goals of each workshop helps successful teachers. By making connections between skills and connecting them for students a teacher helps budding trial lawyers appreciate the process at a far deeper level. For example, showing how you argue facts in closing argument ties into witness examination. Information gather in discovery may not generate the right information if a student fails to appreciate how the information will be used at trial. If you teach each in a vacuum participants fail to appreciate the most effective ways to structure a trial and lay out their case story. By teaching in building blocks the best teachers prepare students to work cases most efficiently.

7. Effective teachers are team players. They attend the presentations of their colleagues on the teaching team and then refer to those presentations in performance groups and their own presentations. They get on board with program schedules and teaching models so there is consistency in programs. There is always room for debate before a program but during a program the best teachers are not rugged individualists.

The list could go on but as I think about the very best teachers I know - the ones that I always want to teach at my programs - these are the Seven Traits of Highly Effective Teachers.


  1. Mark's thoughtful piece on what makes a great advocacy teacher shows why he is one of the very best program managers in the country. He does a terrific job.

  2. There is so much that I could share about Mark Caldwell and his opinions - the fact that he is blogging for us to share his wealth of knowledge is just a small example of the depth and breadth of both his knowledge and his heart. I think the best way to express what I mean is to share with you the following comments that appear in the soon to be released second edition of my trial advocacy book:

    Each summer for the last four years I have taken a trip to Louisville Colorado to teach at one of NITA’s public service programs. NITA’s executive director John Baker is true gentleman and his vision for NITA is an exciting step in that storied institution’s growth. The program director of the public service programs, Mark Caldwell, is a kind spirit, dear friend, and one of the most gifted advocacy teachers that I know. He thinks deeply and completely about how to share this skill with others. He empowers both his students and faculty to explore areas of our craft that are not always developed. The time that I have spent with the fine NITA teachers Mark brings together have been some of the most special of my teaching career. I spend a great deal of time taking notes and thinking in new ways about how to truly empower this next generation of advocates. Every single person with whom I have taught in this program has enriched my life and I am grateful for the experiences we have shared.

    Mark represents all the best that NITA has to offer. Well done my friend, well done.

  3. I agree with everything that Mark has penned, but I'd add another
    essential trait: responding to, and listening to what the student/s have
    to say. This can be seen as one facet of 'responsiveness to students' that Mark identifies. One sided didacticism doesn't go down well with today's
    learners. Moreover, by inviting the students to reflect, and then
    listening carefully to the students we instructors learn also. One might say that much good can come from some selfishness...