'Big Trial' Equals Big Challenge For Baylor Law Students

News Photo 1084
Judge Trenton Hood voices an opinion to plaintiff's attorney Caleb Rawls, left, and defendant's attorneys Sarah Cardwell and Brian Tully.
Feb. 8, 2003

by Alan Hunt

They call it "Big Trial" - and with good reason. It represents one of the biggest challenges faced by Baylor law students during training for their chosen profession. Big Trial, a week-long program of hotly contested courtroom battles, throws the students "in at the deep end." After months of preparing their cases for trial, it puts them in front of a judge and a jury, where they are expected to conduct themselves in a full trial process, defending or prosecuting, analyzing, and making convincing speeches to juries. At the end of the day, they either celebrate victory - or show grace in defeat.

Big Trial probably is the closest law students will come to the "real world" they ultimately will face in the legal profession. In fact, many seasoned trial lawyers make the point that they have faced nothing as arduous during their career that compares with the Practice Court sessions they endured as Baylor law students.

Baylor's nationally renowned Practice Court is one of the best in the country. The school's reputation for advocacy training has spread far and wide - and the trophies its students have won in major nationwide contests attest to their courtroom skills. Many other schools have modeled their advocacy program on Baylor's. The prestigious American College of Trial Lawyers recognized Baylor for excellence in the teaching of trial advocacy by awarding the school its prestigious Emil Gumpert Award. The editor of the American Bar Association's Litigation News declared that, "...Baylor law students get a degree of trial advocacy training unusual among the nation's law schools." And the U.S. News & World Report rated Baylor Law School among the top trial advocacy programs in the nation in its "2003 Best Graduate School" rankings.

The Practice Court program, a six-month course required of every third-year student, has been the bedrock of Baylor advocacy training has since 1922. This 10-hour course was devised by the late Chief Justice James P. Alexander to bridge the gap between the student's academic training and the problems of actual practice. Practice Court is dedicated to rigorous instruction in procedure and trial advocacy skills. Students study procedural law in great depth, developing an appreciation for the kind of precision essential to a skilled lawyer. Students also learn fundamental techniques for the trial of a jury case, direct and cross examination of witnesses, jury argument, evidence skills, voir dire examination, and jury selection.

Dean Brad Toben says nowhere is the Baylor emphasis on lawyering skills more apparent than in its advocacy program. "Students are taught, from the first day of law school, not only substantive law, but also procedural law and the strategic and tactical application of the law. Law students should be prepared to meet the realities and demands of practice, and Baylor lawyers enjoy a time-honored tradition in that regard. Our carefully structured courses introduce and teach students the skills necessary for them to be successful trial lawyers, along with their responsibilities to clients, courts, and society"

The Practice Court instructor is Professor William D. Underwood, the Leon Jaworski Professor of Practice and Procedure.. Working with him is Professor Gerald R. Powell, the Abner V. McCall Professor of Evidence, and Professor Mark W. Osler, assistant professor of law. Underwood says the course is designed to fill a twofold need: the in-depth training of the student in the problems of procedure; and second, the training of the student for the actual trial of lawsuits. Students undergo extensive exercises in voir dire, opening statements, examinations of witnesses, and closing arguments, he says. Each student is required, under rules closely correlated with Texas practice, either to prosecute or defend four or five suits.

Underwood says while one mission of the Practice Court program is to prepare students for litigation and trial practice, the program's broader mission is to prepare each student to be a competent, responsible, and ethical lawyer and human being, whether the student ever sees the inside of a courtroom or not. "Our students develop an appreciation for attention to detail, for precision in analysis, thought, expression, and communication." He says these skills are invaluable to all students, regardless of what field of legal practice the student chooses to enter.

Big Trial represents the pinnacle of the Practice Court program. It pitches the students into all manner of cases that run the spectrum, from personal injury suits, breach of contract matters, to medical malpractice and toxic waste disputes, to name but a few. Evidence is offered by "witnesses," many of them law students; the cases are heard by members of a "jury" - again mostly law students; and presided over by "judges," who also happen to be law students. To all intents and purposes the cases are exactly the same as would be heard in a normal courtroom. In fact, most are cases that have previously been heard in court somewhere in Texas. Underwood, Powell, and Osler make the rounds of the five courtrooms hosting Big Trial on the second floor of the Sheila and Walter Umphrey Law Center. They carefully observe the proceedings and offer their critiques of the students' performance. All three are experienced trial lawyers and ably demonstrate to the students the skills necessary for courtroom success.

Baylor Law School has long had the reputation for producing "crack" trial lawyers. The challenges of Big Trial and a tough Practice Court program serve to enhance that reputation, year after year, in the legal profession. Little wonder that, 20 years ago, the late Chief Justice Warren E. Burger in a keynote speech to a judicial conference pointed to Baylor as one of the few law schools in the nation offering "innovative programs on trial advocacy."

"No law school in Texas has had greater success in preparing its students to take the bar examination, and few schools in the United States can equal Baylor's reputation for providing graduates with competent courtroom abilities upon graduation," Toben said.

Our photo feature shows a glimpse of this month's Big Trial action at Baylor Law School.

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