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Constructive courtroom criticism

Greetings from Philadelphia!

In one of my first blog posts for Generation J.D., I discussed the benefits of continuing legal education (CLE) and mentioned an intensive, one-week trial advocacy course for which I had registered. That course started this past week, and after having every aspect of my advocacy skills scrutinized, I am happy to report that the course has been a revelation for me (as opposed to the torture I was expecting).

My course was designed by the National Institute of Trial Advocacy (NITA) and run by a great faculty that includes a federal judge, professors from local law schools and other leading attorneys from the Philadelphia area.  The students taking the course run the gamut, but from big firm attorneys to long-time solo practitioners, we are all here to get better at what we do.

Reviewing your performance in court doesn't have to be as painful as this.

Reviewing your performance in court doesn’t have to be as painful as this.

Over the course of the week, my fellow attendees and I have absorbed two case files and spent every single day practicing direct and cross examinations, as well as opening statements and closing arguments. Each practice session is videotaped and critiqued by faculty members. I learned quickly that it is one thing to have someone point out a habit you have developed over your career, but it is a completely different thing to have that habit shown to you on videotape. (Surprisingly, it was incredibly helpful, albeit a bit awkward at first.)

I will have completed two trials by the time the course is over. We finish with a jury trial on the last day. The jury will be comprised of Philadelphia residents pulled from Craigslist and their deliberations will be videotaped. I can’t wait to hear what they say. (I think.)

Although this course has been a wonderful experience for me, it also has meant a week away from my family and the office, which is not always a possibility for young attorneys out there. (I certainly couldn’t be here without an incredibly supportive wife, mother-in-law and law firm.) That got me thinking, however, of some takeaways from my experience, which could be used by up-and-coming attorneys who want to sharpen their advocacy skills.

1. Listen to yourself in action. It can be painful (see above), but listening to yourself on tape can be incredibly helpful in becoming a better advocate. Listening to yourself examine a witness or argue to a judge allows you to recognize (quickly) whether reality aligns with your recollection of how a trial or hearing went. You can order CDs of your trials or hearings (Anne Arundel County Circuit Court charges $25 for CDs, for example) and take note of your pacing and tone, as well as the structure and form of your questions.

2. Bring someone to court with you. If you are in a firm, see if a partner or associate would be kind enough to observe you in court. If you are a solo practitioner, see if an attorney friend or mentor can do the same. Inviting constructive criticism is a great way to improve your skill set.

3. Moot Court 2.0 – Moot court doesn’t have to end with law school.  As you get closer to a trial or an oral argument, grab someone to play a witness, and try your stuff out in front of a willing colleague.  You may get some great tips in the process, as well as learn some potential weaknesses in your case.

4. Watch other attorneys – Another way to improve your skills is to watch other attorneys in court. Next time you are in court and have a few minutes to spare, check the docket and see if there are any trials happening. (There most likely will be one or two. It is court, after all.) I often ask attorneys at my firm to give me a heads up when they have interesting trials coming up. By all means, if you like an attorney’s style, use it!

My week with NITA is coming to a close, but I look forward to continuing to implement the tips and strategies I have learned as I continue my development as an attorney. Like many of the lawyers here this week, I have tried and won cases and consider myself a very good attorney, but I still want to get better. That, to me, is what CLEs are all about. What I am most looking forward to right now, however, is returning home to my wife and son (and the mounds of work that await me at the office).

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