Friday 5: Lessons from the Trial Advocacy Program I Wish I Had Learned Sooner

TAP seminar

I attended the 2016 WSBA Trial Advocacy Program (TAP) one week after relocating back to my home state. I most recently was a managing attorney at a nonprofit legal aid organization in Navajo Nation. I had been promoted to this position in the same month I was sworn into the relevant bar. At TAP, I had many moments when I thought to myself, “I wish I knew this before!” Here are a few of them:

1. Become the necklace.

“I am a fake turquoise necklace. Not made from real turquoise, but from acrylic…” Sound like the practice of law? Not really. The most unique moment of TAP was taking the microphone and becoming an inanimate object – not describing it as an observer, but rather describing it as if we were it. It was completely out of my comfort zone. We were encouraged to personify objects in our opening statements to grab the jury’s attention and avoid the dull “this is a case about…” introduction. When I delivered my opening statement at the mock trial, this exercise was close in my thoughts. I didn’t become the coffee cup, car, or roadway involved in the case, but I jumped straight into an effective, compelling story that started my case on a strong note.

2. Read, read, read.

I am a hopeless bookworm; however something about law school took this out for a while. Perhaps it was all the dense reading or strict focus on the looming bar exam. Either way, my love of reading literature, memoirs, and social science nonfiction was temporarily set aside until a couple of years ago. My favorite piece of advice during TAP was simply to read. Reading expands yourself as a human being and allows you to draw on and relate to a variety of human experiences. An attorney who can do this is stronger in the courtroom and, in my opinion, a more compassionate human being.

3. Tap the power of a motion in limine.

This was one of the most undervalued topics in my legal education. Never having appeared in front of a jury before, I hadn’t given it much thought (for the record, I do now see the use in bench trials as well). Even during the sessions, the strategy of pre-admitting or excluding evidence via motions was a little abstract. I understood the concept, yet couldn’t picture how it was done. To practice the use of motions in limine was priceless. My mock-trial partner and I struggled in this part of preparation. I don’t think there was a single aspect of trial prep that was more confusing to us. The exercise highlighted two repeated themes of TAP – preparing motions in limine will set the rules of engagement for trial, and it will ensure that you know your facts inside and out. I enthusiastically recommend the optional mock trial for anyone who attends TAP in the future, even if just for the motions in limine.

4. The jury is talking about what?

During the mock trial at TAP, participants are able to listen to jury deliberations via a conference phone line. I thought that my partner and I had laid out our arguments clearly and highlighted the key takeaways for our case. We had given our proponents the tools to be advocates in the jury room. I thought I would know exactly how the conversation would unfold. While deliberating, the jury was clearly favoring our client’s position. But much of their discussion was completely unexpected; they compared the exhibits in new ways that we hadn’t even thought of and drew inferences we didn’t expect. It was a stark reminder to be clear and lay out a roadmap of the case because jurors are humans, too.

5. Find your own voice.

It’s the standard advice for almost any situation: find your voice, be yourself, speak your truth. There isn’t much I can expand on here. What I can say was how supported I felt by TAP to be the best trial attorney I can be. I was given plenty of practical information and advice from Washington’s top litigators, yet not one proscribed a strict approach to lawyering. Know the law, know the facts, and find your own voice.

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WSBA’s Trial Advocacy Program is part of WSBA’s New Lawyer Education (NLE) programing. NLE seminars and materials emphasize building a strong foundation in practice management, relationship building, interpersonal communications, work-life balance, ethics, and professionalism. NLE products are offered at a reduced rate for WSBA member attorneys who have been admitted to the Washington State Bar Association for less than five years. Find upcoming seminars and recorded products on the WSBA CLE store.