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Friday, May 30, 2014

Basic Trial Advocacy Course Outline

The second of our course outlines (see blog post of May 28, 2014 for further explanation) is for a basic trial advocacy course. I prepared this handout.

Basic Trial Advocacy Course

1. Type of Course. A learning-by-doing trial skills course.

2. Course Learning Objectives and Primary Course Goals. Students learn the basic skills necessary to try a simple bench or jury trial: case analysis, storytelling, development of theme and theory, direct examination through non-leading questions, cross-examination through leading questions, introduction and use of exhibits, opening statements, closing arguments. The primary goal of the course is to put all this together in a final jury trial, tried with a partner.

I note that having students try a case in a basic trial course is by no means a universal approach. During our ABA site visit several years ago, the evaluators seemed surprised that the basic course included a trial. Some schools and instructors reserve the trial for an advanced course.

3. Course Structure. I have six sections of the course with eight students per section. The course is team-taught by me and by one adjunct professor per section. The students meet twice each week. On Monday morning there is a plenary session with all students present. I teach this session, in which we cover the basic skill for the week. Each section meets with its assigned adjunct professor in a two-hour “lab session” during the week. Most skills follow a two-week cycle: the first week, the students are introduced to the skill and practice it during their lab sessions, receiving feedback on how to improve; the second week, the students perform the skill for a grade.

I think it's important to note that this plenary session/lab session structure is by no means the only effective structure for a basic trial advocacy course. At many schools, the basic course is a stand-alone course in which one instructor is responsible for the entire course. Class sizes for these courses can range from 8 to 12, or more in some cases.

4. Assessment. For each skill, I give the students a separate assignment memorandum. This memorandum contains evaluation criteria. I use Charlie Rose’s Fundamental Trial Advocacy book, and most of my evaluation criteria come from his “Seven Principles of . . .” text boxes and chapter summaries. 

For the graded exercises, the students can receive one of four assessments, to which point values are assigned in advance in the syllabus: Exemplary (on par with performance of an experienced and talented attorney); Superior (noticeably and objectively better than typical student performance for this skill); Meets Standards (achieves most evaluation criteria and typical of student performance for this skill); Below Standards (doesn’t meet evaluation criteria, below performance of other students). 

Each week, students conduct a guided video self-assessment of their performance and must grade themselves. They are then allowed to compare their assessment to the instructor’s assessment. The final trial is graded using a detailed grading rubric provided to the students. I also grade the case analysis memo.

5. Lessons Learned. Must have adjunct faculty who support program structure and goals. Grading an advocacy class works much better than assessing pass/fail. Holding students to high standards results in superior performance across the board. For basic course, all instructional memos must be clear and explicit. I use one case file during the semester and separate case files for final trials. I use a separate files for the final trial because I believe it is a superior method to see how well students conduct their own case analysis and trial preparation.

6. Future. I am teaching a 12-person section of this course entirely by distance learning this summer, using Acclaim, Google Hangouts, and Youtube for student performances and assessment. The students will be required to be present in Carbondale for the final trial, which will be live and in front of a jury. Stay tuned!

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