The American Association for Justice runs the National Student Trial Advocacy Competition, also known as STAC, every year, and always needs volunteer lawyers to act as judges.
I would have done it without the added benefit of 3 points of CLE (continuing legal education), but it added to the enticement. And so last Friday, I headed down to Kings County Supreme Court, in Brooklyn, for an evening of watching law students mixing it up in a realistic setting, using realistic case materials. We even had a realistic judge overseeing our round–Justice Ellen Spodek, who presides over the medical malpractice readiness part in Kings County. My role, as it turned out, was twofold: I was to act as a juror, but to also score the students on each major task. Another volunteer lawyer had the same assignment.
It was a Dram Shop Act case, in which bars can be held liable for injuries to a third party that stem from the intoxication of an individual served by the bar. The plaintiff was the young person injured when a patron of the bar crashed his car into hers. The defendant was the bar. One school represented the plaintiff, and the other represented the defendant. Each team made an opening statement; did a direct exam of its lay witness and expert witness; crossed their opponent’s lay witness and expert witness; and delivered summations. I had to grade each team’s attorney on each task performed, on a scale of 1-10, and monitor the time of the side to which I was assigned–the defendant–as each team had 80 minutes in total to present its case. Each team had two lawyers, and two witnesses attached to it.
As in all good trial advocacy fact patterns, there was an equal amount of material available to be used persuasively for both sides, and all four students tapped into it enthusiastically. They had been working on their materials for four to six months, and had, uniformly, an excellent command of the facts. They spoke, for the most part, without notes. They made, and failed to make, objections. They showed passion for their cause, and used logical thinking on the fly. And though things got spirited at times, they were always civil to one another, and to Judge Spodek. In short, they were impressive.
Both schools were NYC based, and in the end, one outshone the other. That will be evident in the scoring kept by my fellow volunteer lawyer and me. But the students left no doubt as to how dedicated they were to the experience, and to excelling at it, and that made me feel great about having participated, for a few reasons. There has been so much negative press about law students: they are mired in debt to finance their education; they are having real difficulty finding appropriate employment after graduating; some have sued their law schools for misrepresenting what a law school education would provide. To me, these students were not burdened by those kinds of thoughts. At least, they didn’t show it. They tried the heck out of their cases, and were justifiably proud.
But also, not so long ago, I was like them, and for me, the stakes were high. By the time I was able to sign up for the three-week long Intensive Trial Advocacy Program (ITAP) at my law school, Cardozo, during my second year, I was ready to leave school. The cold academics of my classes had disappointed me, and I found it hard to imagine being motivated to work as a lawyer. But getting thrown into the trial advocacy program, which aimed to replicate the intensity of being on trial, lit a spark. Working hard to prepare the materials, and then standing up to deliver an opening, or to cross-examine a witness, was amazingly invigorating, and motivated me to finish law school and become a trial lawyer. I saw that spark in a couple of the competition’s students, and I’ll bet it stays with them for the length of a career.