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State’s law schools join forces with practical approach to trial advocacy

Lawyers became actors and students became attorneys last Monday in the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law’s moot court room.

Retired Chief U.S. District Judge Frederic Smalkin portrayed a mediator in last week’s class joint trial advocacy class, offered jointly by UB Law and UM Carey Law with the assistance of the American College of Trial Lawyers.

About 16 students watched a mock mediation in a medical malpractice case unfold in an unusual trial advocacy class, which joins students from University of Baltimore School of Law and UM Carey.

Students advised the “widower” in the case, played by Kenneth L. Thompson, an attorney with Venable LLP in Baltimore.

As the students sorted through their notes to figure out the right legal procedure while consulting with their client, Thompson interrupted.

“My wife is dead!” he exclaimed, rubbing his hands over his face.

Students are put into real-life trial situations, like this mediation, in the class, which is in its second year.

Judge Frederic N. Smalkin, a professor at UB Law, and Jerome E. Deise, director of the trial advocacy program at UM Carey, teach the course together, alternating between classrooms at the two schools. Richard C. Burch, an attorney at Mudd, Harrison & Burch LLP in Towson, also helps with the course as a volunteer for the American College of Trial Lawyers.

For each session, the professors bring in attorneys who specialize in the topic of the day’s lesson.

Thompson and James R. Chason of Chason, Rosner, Leary & Marshall LLC in Towson were on hand to assist last Monday. Two students played the insurance company’s lawyers and two others acted as the widower’s attorneys.

“We talk about the lawyer’s role in a mediation and arbitration,” said Smalkin. “Arbitrations are basically unknown to these people, but in the real world, arbitration is really, really important.”

In the case, adapted from a real one, a doctor failed to discover a woman’s melanoma. Students met with their “client” for a few minutes in back rooms, then each side spoke alone with the mediator, played by Smalkin.

“The idea is for students to experience not only trial advocacy and technology at a really high level, [but] to introduce students to alternatives to trials, which are costly — emotionally and financially,” Deise said.

Smalkin first met with the insurance company’s side, who argued the victim in the case would have died even if the melanoma had been found. Smalkin then unsuccessfully tried to pry a monetary figure from them.

“The insurance representative controls the purse, but the lawyer is there to defend the doctor,” Smalkin told the class.

The widower and his attorneys came out next. Thompson took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes.

“I’m incredibly upset,” Thompson said. “I am outraged. What happened to my wife shouldn’t have happened to anyone!”

Smalkin, who took senior status from the federal bench in 2003 and retired in 2011, said Monday’s class is also a lesson in how to treat other lawyers.

“It’s an adversarial system; it doesn’t mean we have to be adversarial all the time,” Smalkin said. “They learn little touches about how things work in real life.”

Though the situations are acted out, students see the mediation process.

“It’s a very small window into what is happening at each of the stages,” said Chelsea Treadwell, a fourth-year evening student at UM Carey, who played one of the insurance company’s lawyers.

The history

The class had existed at UB Law previously with the assistance of the American College of Trial Lawyers.

The ACTL decided to reinvigorate the class a few years ago, Burch said. As part of that effort, the group brought the two law schools together and brought in Smalkin and Deise to teach.

“There are a lot of parts that had to be put together and apparently the consensus was it would be a nice, innovative program and bridge the divide between the two schools and away it went,” Burch said.

The first joint-class was held in the spring semester of 2012.

The class focuses on topics like jury selection, discovery (including electronic discovery), evidence and jury instructions.

“It turned out to be a lot more fun than I ever anticipated,” Burch said. “It’s fun to get to fraternize with the next generation.”

When crafting the curriculum, Smalkin and Deise go over what they did the previous semester and tweak what worked and what didn’t, Smalkin said.

“It’s sort of like performing surgery,” Smalkin said. “If you have great knowledge of anatomy you learn the tools of surgery. In law, if you have great knowledge of substantive law, it’s like anatomy, but you still have to know how to operate on it.”

Bridging the gaps

Will Chapman, a part-time UB Law student in his second year, said the class is a chance to see law in action, which is sometimes a challenge for him since he works nights at a newspaper in Easton.

“There’s a big gulf between law school and practice,” Chapman said. “In class we learn the nuts and bolts of litigation and how to act. You deal with a lot of legal theory.

Andrew Geraghty, a second-year UB Law student, said one of the most important lessons he has learned from the class is how to cross-examine a witness during a session earlier this year.

“The sort of courtroom demeanor is not something you always get to see,” Geraghty said.

Natalie Hynum, a third-year UB Law student, said she keeps a list of things she learned not to do from the class.

“It’s important to know what not to do and hearing that from a former federal judge is even more important,” Hynum said.

Plus, there’s the added benefit of meeting students from the state’s other law school, students said.

“We are all going to be colleagues together,” said Vincent Jackson, a third-year at UB Law, “so it’s important to get to know each other.”