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Competition for top legal talent is fierce in this nation. Big law firms scramble to woo top law school graduates with competitive salaries and perks such as lawyer retreats, gym memberships, laptops and BlackBerries. While recruiting the best talent is important, developing those first-year associates into skilled lawyers is what makes the investment worth the results. New associates arrive at their first law firm with considerable skills developed through countless hours of studying, memorizing cases and acing exams, but what they don’t arrive with are basic trial skills and practical exposure to how the courtroom works. Given that, it’s not uncommon for young attorneys to fear walking into a courtroom for the first time. There are many important lessons to teach a first-year associate, including good research technique, persuasive argument and proper use of law firm resources such as the library, secretaries, firm software, etc. While these are sufficient building blocks, firms that use them to create a viable mock trial program are the ones that will best prepare their young trial lawyers. In essence, a properly designed mock trial program allows young lawyers to expand their skills in something of a legal laboratory, without suffering any real-world consequences should their experiments go awry. Many firms have developed mock trial programs, but the programs that work best are most often ones that involve not just the new associates but the entire firm in the process. In this model, senior trial attorneys are called upon to add their knowledge, experience and practical skills to the teaching mix. Giving first-year associates the chance to experience the true nature of what goes on in the courtroom through the eyes of actual trial attorneys also allows the senior attorneys a chance to interact with and educate one of the firm’s most important assets-the young attorneys. A solid mock trial program should cover all the components of a case including voir dire, opening statements, direct examination, cross-examination, court’s charge and closing arguments. The program should take associates through the trial process and dedicate ample time to each of these phases, giving new associates the chance to observe, learn and present cases. They also get to be critiqued by their fellow associates as well as senior trial attorneys in the firm. Integral to this process is teaching first-year associates the writing skills needed both in the office and in court. One approach is to divide the mock trial program into monthly modules; January would cover voir dire, February opening statements and so on, until finally, the young lawyers are actually involved in a mock trial that puts these skills to use. This training approach gives greater emphasis to each trial phase and keeps associates from becoming overburdened with the process. Associates get a chance to do their homework, and senior attorneys are better able to fit the program into their busy schedules. Mock trial programs are best executed with a solid case scenario that will cover various plaintiffs’ and defense issues and force the associates to use all of their training-writing, argument, review, case-building, legal analysis-to try the case. A good source for mock trial cases is the National Institute for Trial Advocacy, www.nita.org/. In any good training program, teamwork should be a major component of the learning process. Whether this is done through assigning teams of first-year associates to the defense and plaintiffs’ cases or through holding seminars that teach multiple first-year associates at once, the important element is that they work in a team environment, learning from each other as they also learn from the senior trial attorneys. Part of the training in a mock trial program should emphasize presentation, followed by an analysis or question-and-answer session. If the associate is presenting on the court’s charge, for example, the presiding “judge” or the senior attorneys observing the mock trial should be prepared to ask the associate several questions regarding preparation such as, “What answers do you need to get from the jurors? What facts are relevant to your case and what facts are immaterial?” Taking the time to listen to an associate’s arguments and asking about the logic behind those arguments will give the associate a chance to sharpen his or her advocacy skills. One of the more important elements is to put the training to use in an actual mock trial setting complete with a real jury. This is effectively done by bringing in outside observers or at least noninvolved listeners, such as law firm support staff or law school students who will hear the case for the first time. Facing a real jury lends credibility to the program and inspires the associates to use their newly acquired trial skills just as they would in facing a jury in a real trial. With an increasing number of settlements and the rise of tort reform, there just aren’t that many cases being tried today. Young lawyers need the kind of experience they’ll get in a solid mock trial program. This in-depth professional development helps the associate fresh out of law school make the transition to life as a lawyer and it bonds him or her to the firm. Another positive outcome of a good mock trial program is the alternative service it provides to clients. Litigation is extremely expensive. Mock trial programs can prepare associates to try some of the lower-risk cases, thereby reducing a client’s legal fees. Working with young lawyers can be one of the most rewarding professional experiences in an attorney’s life. Teaching lawyers how to practice trial law and sharing courtroom experiences through a good mock trial program will lead to informed, prepared and motivated new associates and will enrich the entire firm as it fosters learning and teamwork. John L. Hill Jr. is former chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, former Texas attorney general and former Texas secretary of state. He has practiced law for more than 50 years in Texas. He spent his first 19 years as a trial lawyer and argued seven cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. Hill is now a shareholder in the Houston office of Dallas’ Winstead Sechrest & Minick.

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