If there's an advocacy topic you want to see discussed, or about which you wish to contribute, contact one of the blog administrators - see the list on the right side of this page. Lonely thinking changes nothing, sharing your thoughts may start a trend.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

“I got to get on the good foot…..” or Suggestions for Your Initial Class Session

Judge Bob McGahey guest blogs for us from time to time. He converted his presentation from EATS 2013 to a blog. For those others of you who presented, this is how it's done!

“I got to get on the good foot…..”


Suggestions for a Your Initial Class Session


Hon. Robert L. McGahey, Jr.

At the recent EATS Conference, I was assigned, along with Gillian Moore and Jude Borque, the topic of “Teaching in the Moment: Developing Your Critiquing Methodology.”  We were the last presentation of the second day – and I also ended up going after both Gillian and Jude.  No pressure, right?

Gillian and Jude were their usual brilliant selves, and I ended up using some of what they both said as a jumping off point.  I found myself talking about the kinds of things I do one the first night of class. In this post, I’ll try to summarize some of what I discussed. (And since I’m a child of the ‘60’s, who better to steal a title from than James Brown?)

Here’s the picture: it’s the first night of Basic Trial Practice. You look out at twelve eager faces. Well, some are eager.  Perhaps more are scared or trying hard not to look scared. Just as with a jury at the start of voir dire, you have to connect with them right away.  How? Well, like voir dire, you should think this out beforehand, and prepare.
First, establish your credibility.  This doesn’t mean you spend vast amount of time recounting your exploits in the courtroom.  Try to avoid telling them what a great teacher you are. (Although, as Dizzy Dean said: “It ain’t braggin’ if you can do it.”) Rather, give them a matter of fact, brief, history of what you’ve done in court and in class. Establish that you can teach them to be trial lawyers.

Next, establish your concern. As we all know, there’s a lot of fear in that room; you can smell it sometimes.  You need to find out what the students – each of them – are afraid of. Recognize that there’s likely to be some difference between what the students need to get out of the class and what they want to get out of it. You will determine the former, but it should, indeed must, be informed by the latter. They need to know that you care about them as people, that you want them to learn and to succeed.

Finally, establish your professionalism. For most of these students, you may be the first “real” lawyer they will see on a frequent basis. You need to make sure they understand from the get-go that being a trial lawyer is not a job, it’s a profession. That someday they will stand up in a real courtroom and words will come out of their mouths that will make a difference in the lives of the real people they represent in real cases. You want them to start to love this stuff as much as you do – and for the right reasons.

In my classes, I start out with an exercise, which I model for them.  In my Basic class, I ask them to tell us something about themselves and their background.  I also have them answer some questions: why are you taking trial practice, why are you taking this section of trial practice, what do you expect to get out of the class. Then I ask them to do something silly (or that they think is silly): I ask them what their theme song would be if they had a theme song. The reason for this last question: watch for the frozen look of panic on some faces.  Then remind them that there’s no right or wrong answer to the question. I mean, how the hell will I know? The point is that not everything here in an advocacy class is as black and white as they may have been taught in some of their doctrinal courses. And yes, I have a theme song.)

When this is finished, I ask them what they just did.  I point out that they just stood up, talked to a group, tried to relate to that group and tried to be persuasive.  They had to deal with information they already knew, organizing and presenting it, but they also had to respond to a request for something they didn’t expect.  Sound like something we all know and love?

I will also play “the inference game”, which is designed to create confidence.  I have one student, who will be the witness, leave the room.  Then I show the remaining students (the lawyers) a random object, which I place in the podium, out of sight of the witness.  The lawyers have to make single fact statements, one person at a time, about the object (without specifically identifying it) until the witness can tell them what it is. For example, I start with a yellow Lego building block; the lawyers can’t say it’s a Lego, or yellow, or a building block.  We change witnesses after each object is guessed. I make the objects more difficult as we go along: one of my grandson’s Matchbox cars, an invitation to my 40th high school reunion, a losing South Dakota lottery ticket. I finish with a battery-powered hamster, wearing karate clothes, swinging nunchucks and singing “Kung Fu Fighting.” Imagine the feeling of confidence in the room when they get the witness to say that! But then I hold up the last object and say: “This is not a battery-powered hamster, wearing karate clothes, swinging nunchucks and singing “Kung Fu Fighting.” This is whether or not your client gets parenting time with her child.  This is whether your client’s business succeeds or fails.  This may be, under certain circumstances, whether your client lives or dies.  We’ll have fun in this class, but never forget the seriousness of what we actually do in a courtroom.  I’ll see you next time.”

As the semester goes forward, we will give these students their initial grounding in a role that we regard as sacred. After all, the word “advocate” comes from the Latin “to be called to speak for.” We promise them that we will do this for them and we must keep that promise.  We will, at times, push them to go farther out on the wire than they want to go.  With each skill, we must make them do it, but we also must let them do it. That requires that they trust us and that we trust them.

Make sure that you get on the good foot right from the beginning.

No comments:

Post a Comment