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Monday, June 2, 2014

Suparna Malempati on The EATS Experience

Suparna Malempati is an Associate Professor of Law and the Director of Advocacy Programs at Atlanta's John Marshall Law School. She is also a regular contributor to the Advocacy Teaching Blog. The following blog post is about her recent experience at the Educating Advocacy Teachers (EATS) conference this past May.

In May, St. Petersburg, Florida, is gorgeous – sunny but not too hot, a slight breeze blowing occasionally, the air becoming cooler in the evenings – perfect weather. And Stetson University College of Law is a lovely school with absolutely beautiful courtrooms. Add to the mix, Charlie Rose, a self-described “bear of a man” (actually, I would say more of a charming teddy bear, although I have never been in his classroom). Charlie is a tried and true advocate. He also has an uncanny ability to bring people together and create an atmosphere of collegiality, cooperation, and inspiration.

I recently attended the Educating Advocacy Teachers (EATS) conference for the third time. Each time I attend, I learn new ideas, I meet new people, and I leave feeling excited to be part of a special group - advocacy teachers. This year, the conference focused on advocacy programs in the current climate of change within the legal academy. Presenters and participants from across the country attended. The group included full-time faculty, part-time faculty, practitioners, judges, and competition team coaches. The discussions covered a range of topics, including building and sustaining advocacy programs, storytelling, coaching teams, and scholarly writing. All the presentations were engaging and informative, but the special part of EATS is the sharing of ideas and experiences.

Whether in teaching trial advocacy courses or coaching teams, the dedication to advocacy as an art and science was apparent among all who attended. Teaching advocacy skills is a complex process, one which requires enormous patience, empathy for students’ particular needs and vulnerabilities, and the ability to effectively critique performance. Not all great trial lawyers are great educators. Being good at the skill and being able to teach others to be good at the skill are two very different abilities.

Additionally, teaching legal skills is different from (some would say more difficult than) teaching substantive law. Teaching advocacy skills is also different from teaching writing skills. When a professor reviews a written assignment or exam, she can take the time to think and formulate a written critique. When a professor observes a student perform a closing argument, she must immediately identify the problematic area and provide oral feedback. To do so, she must, in a matter of minutes or seconds, make a determination about which portion of the presentation to critique and the manner of critique that will most assist the individual student in improving his performance. Advocacy teachers must necessarily grasp the substantive law, the evidentiary issues, the specific facts, the theory and strategy that will most likely succeed, and the psychology of the individual student. The teacher must also address comments to the performing student in front of an entire class and therefore, must tailor the critique such that the entire class benefits from it. The job of teaching advocacy skills is certainly not simple.

Equally challenging is the task of coaching competition teams in law schools. Competitions provide invaluable opportunities to law students to learn practical aspects of lawyering, substantive law, evidence, procedure, and professional responsibility. Preparation for competition requires a tremendous time commitment on the part of students and coaches. Coaches bear the responsibility to inspire the students to work hard and do their best while at the same time continuously providing constructive criticism. Coaches must point out deficiencies and weaknesses without destroying fragile egos. It is a tricky shoal to navigate. For me, it was reassuring and motivating to hear the experiences of coaches at other institutions. Although no two experiences are exactly the same, it is nice to know that I am not along in dealing with the myriad of issues that arise in organizing and preparing competition teams. Again, the dedication to advocacy was the overriding theme.

Through EATS, Charlie Rose provides an opportunity for advocacy educators to gather and discuss the issues they face in their professional role. Charlie also welcomes a diverse range of advocacy teachers to the podium. I am grateful to him for providing such a forum and for allowing me the opportunity to share my thoughts and gain insights from others who face similar challenges in the advocacy field. And I certainly know where I will be next May.

--Suparna Malempati

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