From July 10 to July 14, I was fortunate to have an opportunity to participate in the Indigent Defense Services and UNC School of Government’s Defender Trial School. The program is in a “bring your own case” format; with plenary sessions where we learned general trial practice techniques as well as small group workshops where we each applied those lessons to our own individual cases.
Overall the program was excellent. My main takeaway was that it’s not enough to argue that the State hasn’t proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt. Jurors want to know, whether your client did it or not. Therefore, to win at trial, you want to be able to counter the prosecution’s story of guilt with your client’s own story of innocence (or reduced culpability).
In the plenary sessions, we covered a range of topics, with presentations on Developing a Winning Story, Demonstrative Evidence, Jury Selection, Challenges for Cause, Opening Statements, Cross Examination, Direct Examination, and Closing Arguments. Many of these are familiar law school topics but were dealt with in school at a conceptual level only. The focus of these defender trial school lectures, by contrast, was on the nuts and bolts of practice. You could say that trial school fills the gap between the knowledge you need to pass The Bar and the knowledge you need to have real, consistent success at trial. I took detailed notes, which I’m happy to share with any of my colleagues who email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In sum, if you want to be a trial lawyer, you’ve got to try cases. All of your successes or failures in the courtroom flow directly from your trial advocacy skills. If you’re serious about developing your trial advocacy skills, trial school is an excellent place to start.