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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Thematic Foundations for Advocacy Courses

Designing an advocacy course is a challenging task. One of the panels at the recent EATS conference addressed issues of course design and implementation. The panel consisted of advocacy professors from several law schools: Chris Behan (SIU), Megan Canty (Loyola-Chicago), Rafe Foreman (UMKC), Wes Porter (Golden Gate), Adam Shlahet (Fordham), and Gwen Stern (Drexel). Wes and I were supposed to participate from San Francisco via Skype but ran into technical problems. The remaining panel members had to operate under a bit of a time crunch. Prior to the conference, however, we each prepared extensively for our presentations, developed a structure for our panel, and created handouts for distribution at the conference.

What I hope to do in the next few blog posts is to provide for our blog readership the handouts we created for our panel presentations. We built all of our presentations on the idea that there are common thematic foundations for all advocacy courses: certain elements that the course designer must include in order to be successful. There are also some common pitfalls, dangers, and trouble spots to be aware of and avoid if necessary. On that foundation, we then prepared presentations pertaining to different advocacy courses based on trial phases. In other words, we started with pretrial advocacy courses and ended with appellate advocacy courses.

There is no such thing as a "one-size-fits-all" advocacy course. To begin with, the art and science of advocacy is far too complex to be contained in a single-semester law-school advocacy course. The term "advocacy" encompasses different phases of trial: pre-trial, trial, post-trial, and appeal. In each of these phases, there are discrete tasks that an advocate must master, with a set of basic skills that are common to nearly all phases of trial. Physical resources (including courtroom and classroom space, video recording and playback equipment), time, and faculty availability also play a role in determining what can be taught in an advocacy course. Finally, individual teaching styles and philosophies inevitably help shape an advocacy course.

Following are the common thematic foundations the panel members identified as necessary for an advocacy course, as well as pitfalls and danger spots to be avoided. I invite comments and discussion on any of the thematic foundations or pitfalls we've identified.

What an Advocacy Course Must Have
  • Clearly identified course objectives
  • Fair and objective assessment standards for determining proficiency
  • A critiquing methodology that aids in performance improvement yet encourages experimentation
  • Workable faculty/student ratios (section sizes of 6-8 are ideal, 12 is workable, larger sections are difficult)
  • Emphasis on the relationship between case analysis and advocacy skills
  • Focus on preparation as the foundation for successful advocacy
  • Integration of evidentiary and procedural excellence (including objections and motions practice)
  • Development of self-analysis and independent improvement skills
  • High ethical and professionalism standards
  • Advocacy experiences that require teamwork with trial partners and professional and realistic interactions with opponents
  • Client-centered advocacy
  • Integration of storytelling skills in appropriate advocacy contexts
  • Proper balance between theory and learning by doing
Potential Pitfalls and Trouble Spots in Advocacy Courses
  • Instructors creating a "right way/wrong way" mentality in an advocacy course
  • Not permitting sufficient performance time for students to master skills
  • Self-absorbed instructors (war stories, demonstrations that make attainment of advocacy skills seem unlikely or impossible)
  • Student disengagement with lectures and demonstrations
  • Lack of mechanisms to enforce preparation and performance standards by students
  • Using same case files over and over, thereby permitting students to "borrow" work done by their forebears in earlier versions of the course
  • Students lack sufficient practical experience to understand context and importance of instruction
  • In programs with multiple instructors, inconsistent approaches or rogue instructors who work at cross-purposes with course objectives
  • Excessive focus on competition at the expense of ethics and professionalism
  • Student failure to permanently master and retain advocacy skills

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