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Dean's Desk: Law students benefit from alumni's professional experience

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dean-newton-notre-dameOne of the benefits of writing this column is that it gives me time to reflect on aspects of Notre Dame Law School that are known and appreciated in South Bend and among our graduates, but are perhaps not as well known to the Indiana bench and bar.

A full week before the official beginning of the semester last month, our school’s common areas were already resonating with the buzz of students conferring and debating. In the hallways, seminar rooms and classrooms, nationally known trial lawyers and judges were observing student pre-trial performances and asking penetrating questions. The semester break had another week to go, yet the student adrenalin was flowing.

This has been the new normal ever since the Notre Dame Intensive Trial Advocacy Program began in the spring of 2004. ITA students and faculty return to school a week early each semester so that they can dedicate themselves to their trial workshops all day, every day, without distraction.

The formal program goes from 7:30 a.m. until 6:30 p.m. Many students continue working long into the evening. These weeklong pre-semester workshops are then followed by continued training and simulated trials throughout the rest of the semester.

Not all of the rising 2Ls and 3Ls who take this course want to be litigators. As professor James Seckinger, the program director, has explained, “The program is valuable for students who want to enhance their ability to analyze facts critically, understand the relationship between the facts and what the client wants to achieve, and then communicate clearly to the decision-maker. The skills learned here are useful for every lawyer.”

There are a number of remarkable things about this program. The intensity with which the students practice their skills sets the entire law school abuzz with energy. Even more surprising, however, is that most of the faculty – over 40 each semester – travel to South Bend on their own time and dime to make this endeavor possible. The number of students in the ITA program is roughly the same as the number of volunteers, providing a one-to-one student-teacher ratio. Often three or four volunteers will observe and critique each student performance. Our contribution is to put them up at the university’s Morris Inn and to provide pizza for lunch at the law school’s Crossings Café, but a number of the NDLS grads insist on paying for it all.

The guest faculty who are not from Notre Dame tell us they volunteer because they see the program as a chance to give back to their profession by mentoring the next generation of attorneys and to hone their own advocacy skills by spending a week focusing on nothing but the elements of their craft. The Notre Dame grads who return as visiting faculty usually also add their desire to give back to NDLS as a strong motivation. I suspect also that the opportunity for fellowship with skilled trial advocates and often old friends from around the country is another motivating factor in bringing these talented volunteers back each year.

Seckinger, who created the program, is one of the nation’s outstanding trial-advocacy teachers. A member of the Notre Dame law faculty since 1974, he first joined the National Institute for Trial Advocacy faculty in 1973 and went on to serve as its director from 1979 to 1994. Since 1994, he has continued teaching trial advocacy at NDLS.

I asked Jim how the program reached its current size. Jim reported that at its inception, he was assisted by a few local attorneys and judges, including adjunct professors Jeanne Jourdan and Tom Singer. Then a Notre Dame Law School alumnus from Chicago, Tim Nickels, volunteered. Soon, several more Chicago lawyers heard about the program and got involved. NDLS grads in the military became interested in participating, other military lawyers volunteered, and fairly quickly trial attorneys from all over the U.S. and even from Canada signed up. It helps, of course, that Jim seems to know almost every trial lawyer in the country from his many years at NITA.

As I know all of my fellow Indiana deans agree, the legal skills required of entry-level lawyers in the new legal job market have increased substantially over the past decade, and trial skills are but a piece of the larger puzzle that includes appellate advocacy, mediation, negotiation and transactional skills. The ITA program is one of a number of litigation training opportunities at NDLS: the Comprehensive Trial Advocacy course, taught by local judges and lawyers, which covers a broad range of trial skills and allows students to conduct simulated trials; highly regarded courses in deposition skills, typically taught in four sections each semester; and the Moot Court Trial course, which is an advanced litigation training program for members of the NDLS trial teams who will participate in the National Trial Competition and the American Association for Justice mock trial competitions.

After the quiet break, walking into the law school a week before the semester as the ITA program is in high gear and being greeted by a cacophony of well-suited students arguing fine points of law is always a high point for me, signaling the beginning of the new semester with all its promise for our students’ futures.•

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Nell Jessup Newton is The Joseph A. Matson Dean and Professor of Law at Notre Dame Law School. She has served as dean since 2009. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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