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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.•

__________

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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  1. Call it unauthorized law if you must, a regulatory wrong, but it was fraud and theft well beyond that, a seeming crime! "In three specific cases, the hearing officer found that Westerfield did little to no work for her clients but only issued a partial refund or no refund at all." That is theft by deception, folks. "In its decision to suspend Westerfield, the Supreme Court noted that she already had a long disciplinary history dating back to 1996 and had previously been suspended in 2004 and indefinitely suspended in 2005. She was reinstated in 2009 after finally giving the commission a response to the grievance for which she was suspended in 2004." WOW -- was the Indiana Supreme Court complicit in her fraud? Talk about being on notice of a real bad actor .... "Further, the justices noted that during her testimony, Westerfield was “disingenuous and evasive” about her relationship with Tope and attempted to distance herself from him. They also wrote that other aggravating factors existed in Westerfield’s case, such as her lack of remorse." WOW, and yet she only got 18 months on the bench, and if she shows up and cries for them in a year and a half, and pays money to JLAP for group therapy ... back in to ride roughshod over hapless clients (or are they "marks") once again! Aint Hoosier lawyering a great money making adventure!!! Just live for the bucks, even if filthy lucre, and come out a-ok. ME on the other hand??? Lifetime banishment for blowing the whistle on unconstitutional governance. Yes, had I ripped off clients or had ANY disciplinary history for doing that I would have fared better, most likely, as that it would have revealed me motivated by Mammon and not Faith. Check it out if you doubt my reading of this, compare and contrast the above 18 months with my lifetime banishment from court, see appendix for Bar Examiners report which the ISC adopted without substantive review: https://www.scribd.com/doc/299040839/2016Petitionforcert-to-SCOTUS

  2. Wow, over a quarter million dollars? That is a a lot of commissary money! Over what time frame? Years I would guess. Anyone ever try to blow the whistle? Probably not, since most Hoosiers who take notice of such things realize that Hoosier whistleblowers are almost always pilloried. If someone did blow the whistle, they were likely fired. The persecution of whistleblowers is a sure sign of far too much government corruption. Details of my own personal experience at the top of Hoosier governance available upon request ... maybe a "fake news" media outlet will have the courage to tell the stories of Hoosier whistleblowers that the "real" Hoosier media (cough) will not deign to touch. (They are part of the problem.)

  3. So if I am reading it right, only if and when African American college students agree to receive checks labeling them as "Negroes" do they receive aid from the UNCF or the Quaker's Educational Fund? In other words, to borrow from the Indiana Appellate Court, "the [nonprofit] supposed to be [their] advocate, refers to [students] in a racially offensive manner. While there is no evidence that [the nonprofits] intended harm to [African American students], the harm was nonetheless inflicted. [Black students are] presented to [academia and future employers] in a racially offensive manner. For these reasons, [such] performance [is] deficient and also prejudice[ial]." Maybe even DEPLORABLE???

  4. I'm the poor soul who spent over 10 years in prison with many many other prisoners trying to kill me for being charged with a sex offense THAT I DID NOT COMMIT i was in jail for a battery charge for helping a friend leave a boyfriend who beat her I've been saying for over 28 years that i did not and would never hurt a child like that mine or anybody's child but NOBODY wants to believe that i might not be guilty of this horrible crime or think that when i say that ALL the paperwork concerning my conviction has strangely DISAPPEARED or even when the long beach judge re-sentenced me over 14 months on a already filed plea bargain out of another districts court then had it filed under a fake name so i could not find while trying to fight my conviction on appeal in a nut shell people are ALWAYS quick to believe the worst about some one well I DID NOT HURT ANY CHILD EVER IN MY LIFE AND HAVE SAID THIS FOR ALMOST 30 YEARS please if anybody can me get some kind of justice it would be greatly appreciated respectfully written wrongly accused Brian Valenti

  5. A high ranking Indiana supreme Court operative caught red handed leading a group using the uber offensive N word! She must denounce or be denounced! (Or not since she is an insider ... rules do not apply to them). Evidence here: http://m.indianacompanies.us/friends-educational-fund-for-negroes.364110.company.v2#top_info

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