Trial experience can be hard to come by, especially for a new litigation associate. As a sixth-year litigator, I have handled many aspects of day-to-day litigation, including pleadings, depositions and motions. I have even drafted and argued a number of appeals before appellate panels consisting of four or five judges. However, when my cases do go to trial, the more senior partners handle the day-to-day trials.
Luckily, the TIPS/ABOTA National Trial Academy at the National Judicial College, which I had the opportunity to experience this past April, is as close to the real thing as it gets: real judge and jury; real courtroom and issues; and real arguments, decisions and examinations of witnesses. The National Trial Academy, which is a five-day program in Reno, Nevada, enables participants like myself to take their experience to the next level, test their skills firsthand while on their feet, and ultimately taste the flavors of trial.
Going into the Trial Academy, I hoped to gain valuable trial experience, fine tune my litigation skills, learn new techniques, and, most importantly, recognize and minimize bad habits. Through individualized and daily mentoring from experienced and veteran trial counsel, I achieved just that and more.
A select number of student participants hail from across the country, ranging from newly minted associates to more polished and experienced partners across firms of varying sizes, seeking to brush up their skills. Each faculty member and student brings with them vastly different styles, showing firsthand that a successful trial attorney comes in various forms; there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Students are divided among plaintiff and defense sides for the duration of the program. Proceedings are recorded with personalized feedback throughout each step of the five-day academy.
The assigned case involved a roller coaster products liability personal injury suit based on a real-life action. I was assigned to the defense team for the amusement park. The first four days tasked students with preparing for and conducting their own openings, examinations of witnesses and experts, and closing arguments. The final day—trial day—took place before a real jury from Washoe County, Nevada. Each day leading to trial day, arguments and trial strategies are developed and refined through various strategy sessions among the larger plaintiff and defense groups, as well as smaller and more intimate subgroups.
Through constant pointers and nightly preparation, everyone involved demonstrated clear and noticeable improvement. Going through the program, I witnessed a positive change in myself in only four days, as well as in my coparticipants. By trial day, each participant was visibly more comfortable with the nature of the proceedings, as well as with presenting their arguments before the court and the jury. Later, listening to members of the jury offer feedback about our performance was a unique experience. I was honored to hear from one of the jurors (and to see other jurors nodding in agreement) when he said that my cross-examination of the plaintiff’s expert physician and direct examination of our expert engineer had resonated with him.
One of the more distinctive aspects of the Trial Academy was the ability to watch and listen to the jury deliberations at the end of the trial. This eye-opening experience offered valuable guidance and insight into the jury’s perception and understanding of the issues presented at trial. Perhaps most interesting was the jury’s appreciation for the issues that my trial team tried to emphasize. I was surprised to learn that some of the issues neither party discussed at trial played a role in the deliberations (such as assumed facts regarding the case). Luckily, the verdict returned was a win in the amusement park’s favor!
Following the trial, the presiding judge gave personalized feedback regarding my trial performance. The judge appreciated the methodical approach to my cross of plaintiff’s medical expert and my attempts with interposing questions to stop my defense witness from offering a narrative. The judge also reminded me of the importance of having a good presence and projection for all in the courtroom to hear and follow along. This feedback gave my coparticipants and me a unique window into the court’s perspective on our performance arguing motions in limine and at the trial. Further, the post-trial reactions of some adversaries on the plaintiff’s side offered yet another unique perspective into the effectiveness of my counter-arguments—especially pertaining to my re-direct of the defense expert.
The faculty at the Trial Academy offered deeper insight into the lesser recognized, but potentially equally important, aspects of a trial, such as warning against wearing a royal blue suit on trial day, depending on where the trial is being held. We learned that my royal blue suit and other nontraditional colors might do more harm than good by potentially distracting the jury from the main issues or influencing the jurors to dismiss my arguments.
Ultimately, the Trial Academy was one of the best experiences of my career. The knowledge and confidence gained in five days is unmatched. The relationships fostered by the experience are valuable. I recommend the Trial Academy to any attorney desiring to take his or her skills to the next level. I can only warn senior trial partners to look out for their rising Trial Academy–tested associates, who may soon take over the trial duties!