The author of this piece has never worked on a farm. His knowledge and familiarity with the rigors of agricultural undertakings derive largely from cultural depictions – books, movies, and TV. With that caveat, farming undeniably has certain associated features, traits, characteristics, etc. In those cultural depictions, common themes emerge. Early mornings, late nights, sweat-soaked brows, earth-stained denim, calluses, beasts of burden, back-breaking work, all aimed towards reaping a successful harvest. Farmers may work on their own but oftentimes they are members of teams or groups of individuals motivated to strive towards that common goal.
The International Association of Defense’s Counsel Trial Academy, from this young lawyer’s perspective, is an exercise not too dissimilar from farming. I had the privilege of attending the 49th annual Trial Academy this August, which took place at Stanford University Law School. Stanford is a fitting location for the week, not only because of its status as a prestigious educational institution. But also because of its history. In 1885, Leland and Jane Stanford founded the school that bears their name (in honor of their only child who died at a young age the previous year), situated on their farm in Palo Alto, California. Since that founding, Stanford has been affectionately referred to as “The Farm.”
While the physical exertion might have been lesser, the IADC Trial Academy places incredible demands on its faculty instructors and its students through a grueling workshop on every stage of a trial. Early morning, late nights, coffee-stained legal pads, hopefully-not-too-wrinkled courtroom dress, cramped feet, laptops low on battery, and an endless consumption of information, all aimed towards a common goal.
The harvest of Trial Academy is the formation and strengthening of personal and professional bonds among its attendees, simulation of the rigors of a “typical” week trying a case, and cultivation of foundational civil trial skills (pun very much intended). From voir dire, through opening statements, direct and cross-examinations of lay and expert witnesses, through closing arguments, faculty and students learn from each other and are fully immersed in the experience. It is a physical and mental examination for the seven days of the Academy’s duration.
So while the faculty and students traded in their ploughs, sickles, and overalls for PowerPoint, outlines, and business formal attire, the experience was more similar than one might think. At the end, there was a consensus about the great benefit reaped by faculty and students alike from their attendance. An experience that was exhilarating, exhausting, and rewarding from start to finish.
Some additional takeaways:
Newer lawyers crave more trial experience. Civil cases very rarely go to trial. Civil litigation is a story of time-consuming discovery, almost always followed by dispositive motion practice and settlement. This is exacerbated in the post-COVID (ish) world, where court dockets are backlogged and trial dates are only available years into the future, which makes the possibility of pre-trial settlement even more likely. The days of lawyers trying multiple cases in the same week and having hundreds of jury verdicts under their belt appears to be becoming a vestige of the past.
Newer lawyers are desperate to get more hands-on experience. This eagerness was universal among the Trial Academy students. The Trial Academy reinvigorated the students, both those who had never spoken in front of a jury and those with prior experience but wanted to put their newly developed skills to the test. But the harsh reality is that newer lawyers have less and less opportunity to cut their trial teeth in today’s practice.
Whether the scarcity of trial work is problematic on its own, the profession would certainly benefit from a broad spectrum of lawyers getting the chance to show off their courtroom skills and grown into stronger advocates.
There is no substitute for in-person and practical training. Being in person has immeasurable benefits for the social and substantive areas of practice. The increasing use of videoconferencing has been a silver lining arising from the pandemic. Remote attendance for court status conferences and other routine matters has saved time and expense. But it also has its limits. There is no replacement for the genuine personal and professional connections that are made in person, as opposed to through a computer screen.
At Trial Academy, the collegiality of the bar was readily apparent. While faculty and students were stretched thin and stressed out at numerous points through the week, everyone was truly rooting for one another and rowing in the same direction. There was a diversity of practice areas, geographic location, and other demographics among attendees, and there was a palpable sense community and togetherness throughout the week.
Advocacy skills can also be blunted when practicing remotely. Watching back my videotape of my opening statement at Trial Academy reinforced this message. I was speaking with my hands and arms more than anything, gesticulating in an erratic way that would have distracted any juror. When appearing before the Court in a remote proceeding, lawyers are generally sitting at a desk and sitting (sometimes literally on their hands). Not having the experience of being in front of a judge or jury impedes development of those skills.
Part of a trial lawyer’s job is to be an effective storyteller.
It is hard to tell an effective story when you are not accustomed to being on your feet and moving about the courtroom. With some more experience, I will no longer deal with the plight once faced by legendary racer, Ricky Bobby – “I don’t know what to do with my hands.”
Technological advances, at trial and elsewhere, must be embraced. Because we are living in an age of information overload and short attention spans, trial lawyers must be prepared to effectively use technology to capture and retain the interest of jurors. There is sizable research and literature on the impact that Gen Z jurors are playing in reshaping jury pools. If razzle-dazzle PowerPoint presentations and other technologies will do a better job of keeping them engaged and more likely to favor your version of the case, a lawyer is doing a disservice by not incorporating some technological flair to their trial presentation.
Also, one has to suspect that a lawyer’s seamless use of trial technology boosts the merits of their case in the eyes of the jury. (If this lawyer has a master of the iPad, graphics, and other technology, then surely they must be right on the law and facts of the case).
Upon returning to the East Coast following my week at Stanford, I was physically and mentally relieved to be back home, to catch up on sleep, and to patiently peruse my overflowing inbox. But I was also energized and motivated to apply the lessons and skills learned at Trial Academy. And to become a stronger lawyer. Endless thanks to the sponsors, organizers, and faculty who made it a wonderful experience.