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September 12, 2022

Evaluating ABA ROLI’s New Advocates for Mexican Justice Program

Eman Elshrafi, Intern for ABA ROLI's LAC Division

When Mexico amended its Constitution to implement a New Criminal Justice System (NCJS), transitioning from an inquisitorial, written-based system to an adversarial, oral-based system in 2008, the necessity of transforming the Mexican legal education model also arose.

Recognizing this need, in 2013, the United States Department of State Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL) funded the New Advocates for Mexican Justice Program (“New Advocates”), to be implemented by the American Bar Association’s Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI). The goal of this program was to support the transition to the NCJS through a focus on legal education. Specifically, New Advocates carried the the following objectives: 1) to strengthen the capacity of law schools to properly train in oral-based litigation and 2) mediation; 3) to provide law schools with mechanisms for the continuous improvement of teaching practices; and 4) to increase the accessibility of placement in government agencies involved with the criminal justice system for trained law school graduates. Activities were designed around these objectives and carried out with the ultimate purpose of inspiring the following theory of change:

IF trial advocacy trainings, including mock trial and ADR competitions, are strengthened;

THEN a cadre of law graduates with (1) attributes that are sought after by employers, both in private and public offices, and (2) capacities to represent both parties under the Mexican accusatorial system will be established;

WHICH WILL THEN RESULT IN more effective and efficient trials;

THAT IN TURN will strengthen access to justice, due process, and fair trials in Mexico.

In Fall of 2021, towards the initial expiration date of the project (the project had received an extension to continue until October 2022), ABA ROLI commissioned an external evaluation team to conduct an outcome evaluation of the New Advocates Program. The purpose of such an evaluation was to provide useful implications to support future programming in oral advocacy and mediation training. Thus, there is immense value in highlighting some of the key findings present in the assessment.

Utilizing a mixed-methods approach of data collected through online surveys, key informant interviews, and digital videos with respondents who were direct beneficiaries, the evaluation sought the answer the following questions: 1) To what extent did the capacities of trainees in the NCJS improve; 2) How have these capacity improvements helped trainees improve their job prospects and job performance; 3) How have law schools adopted and institutionalized training programs on the NCJS, and to what extent are law schools capable of sustaining these training programs; and 4) to what extend did trainees hired through the New Advocates Program meet the requirements and demands of justice sector institutions?

Under the first point of inquiry, significant improvements were reported in knowledge and skills gained through oral litigation and mediation training among 79-86% of respondents. In the same query, the most growth was seen in the ability of trainees to create a case theory, use evidence, use written pleadings in preparation for oral proceedings, and conduct closing arguments in a hearing. Notably, however, training though competitions as opposed to educational courses created the most consistent improvement. To add, other developments as a result of the competitions, include the abilities to structure legal arguments, build and understand case files, and conduct direct and cross-examinations in trial hearings. Similarly, law students reported significant skill and knowledge improvement in the knowledge of ADR mechanisms as well as the ability to narrate and identify the different interest of conflicting parties during a mediation process.

Respondents who took the restorative justice course reported improvements in knowledge about restorative justice principles, identifying and managing the emotions of parties involved in restorative justice processes, and leading meeting with parties involved in a conflict. On the other end, participating professors also responded positively, affirming a belief that their capacity to develop training materials improved as a result of ABA ROLI’s support. While the feedback overwhelmingly pointed towards significant growth, shortcomings were found in the areas of drafting reparation agreements, reconstructing facts, forensic techniques, and drafting investigation plans. Nonetheless, every cloud has a silver lining. Remarkably, unanticipated outcomes also arose, including development in the competency of participants to structure and form arguments, improvement in public speaking abilities, an increase in interest to work in the NCJS, and expanded professional networks.

Reflecting on the second question the evaluation sought to assess, a compelling number of trainees reported that participating in New Advocates improved their job prospects through the knowledge they gained, the skills they acquired, and the professional networks they created. In particular, the practical experience gained from participating in the program competitions attributed to competitive advantage. One student, for example, noted:

Participating in ABA ROLI [‘s program competition] definitely gave an added value to my CV [...] when you present a job application to any law firm or institution it is not the same to be a graduating student with no previous experience than being a student who may already know how to build or understand a case file or who understands how to handle certain specific situations of the job requirements [...]

Results further demonstrate that job performance improved as a result of participation in New Advocates with trainees reporting that they frequently use the skills learned in program courses and competitions, such as creating case theories, building case files, using ADR mechanisms, and trial preparation among others. One student described a scenario in which she was asked to explain NCJS procedures to victims, something she was able to do because of the New Advocates training. A number of trainees also indicated that they were able to utilize the ADR techniques that they learned to lead mediation processes. Professors reinforce the positive sentiment expressed by the students, iterating that their teaching improved due to the program’s emphasis on practical learning. One respondent emphasized, 

As a teacher, ABA ROLI’s courses have helped me to better communicate the content [of my classes] and to use games or dynamics to teach how to do examinations, cross-examinations and how to structure an argument [...]. For example, I have incorporated ABA ROLI’s dynamic to present evidence and also the conga game [...]

Still, despite this progress, it is important to acknowledge that a number of trainees expressed the need for more.

In terms of the third data focus, where sustainability is evaluated, it was discovered that after graduating, a number of former participants of the New Advocates program now occupy key positions in CJS state institutions or have become professors themselves. At the same time, these former participants are driving efforts to create local competitions and leading the preparation of students for those competitions. Many of these respondents credit the inclusion of teaching and pedagogical methodologies in program courses for their ability to replicate ABA ROLI’s methodology. Of significance, ABA ROLI has received requests from students and universities to mentor them in creating courses and competitions. While ABA ROLI has acted to respond to this call by creating course materials, which have become gold standard for CJS teaching, such a request further signifies the need for more.

Finally, the last query sheds light on more useful feedback. For this evaluation, employers were interviewed regarding the ability of graduates trained in the New Advocates program to meet the job requirements as well as on their performance. The responses demonstrated a number of constructive points. For instance, employers noted that they were looking for candidates who had basic knowledge about the NCJS, held practical experience, and showed problem-solving skills. These traits were all found in ABA ROLI trainees. Further, many employers also agreed that the trainees performed better than other people in their institutions. Notably, one employer described, 

In a way [ABA ROLI trainees] have something completely different to other law practitioners that have not participated in the courses or competitions because they have a much wider and better understanding of the NCJS. It is difficult to pinpoint what makes them so different, but ABA ROLI trainees are immediately noticed and they have a better job performance than their peers [...] They are independent, proactive and conscious about what they do[...]

Because of the positive perception acquired about ABA ROLI trainees alongside the fact that most existing personnel in criminal justice institutions were trained in the old CJS, some employers requested that their staff join the New Advocates Program. Again, such a response lends support to not only the value of the program, but also to the need for more.

In 2021, Mexico Evalua, a national think tank responsible for tracking the implementation of the NCJS, released a report which identified the presenting needs in the transition to the new system. Specifically, Mexico Evalua noted that unless legal professionals receive the proper training, “changing rules and norms will not in and of themselves produce a functioning NCJS” (Mexico Evalua, 2021). Thus, there is an immense necessity in the continuation of education-based programming. As found in the evaluation of New Advocates, not only do such initiatives have observable positive impact, but it is also evident that there is a need for more. Undeniably, training programs at the law school level have the potential for large-scale transformation. Therefore, it is imperative that we continue to invest in the same. After all, the results speak for themselves

The statements and analysis expressed in this paper are solely those of the authors. The Board of Governors of the American Bar Association (ABA) has neither reviewed nor sanctioned its contents. Accordingly, the views expressed herein should not be construed as representing the position or policy of the ABA. Furthermore, nothing contained in this paper is to be considered rendering legal advice for specific cases, and readers are responsible for obtaining such advice from their own legal counsel. 

Learn more about ABA ROLI’s work across Latin America and the Caribbean.