Baylor Law School places as quarterfinalist at National Trial Competition finals

Although the crime is fictitious and the attorneys, witnesses, jurors, and judges are acting, the courtroom drama at the annual National Trial Competition is very real to the law students navigating what will soon become an integral part of their careers.

The students, who play either the role of prosecuting attorney or defense attorney, have learned trial technique and strategy from their law school classes and have developed their skills through practice and training from professors and attorney coaches. This year’s National Trial Competition had more than 315 participating teams from 160-plus law schools competing in 14 regional tournaments across the country, with the top two teams from each region advancing to the national finals in Texas from March 11-15. Chicago-Kent College of Law took home first prize as the 2015 National Champion Team, while Baylor Law School placed as a quarterfinalist.

The national tournament, hosted by the Texas Young Lawyers Association and the American College of Trial Lawyers, seeks to prepare future attorneys to successfully complete a trial from beginning to end—an especially important endeavor considering the declining rates of jury trials and resulting decrease in numbers of attorneys with this essential experience.

“The National Trial Competition was established to encourage and strengthen law students’ advocacy skills through quality competition and valuable interaction with members of the bench and bar,” said Zeke Fortenberry, tournament chairman and a TYLA director. “The program is designed to expose law students to the nature of trial practice and to serve as a supplement to their education.”

This year, the National Trial Competition returned to Houston, the city where it began 40 years ago after being co-founded by TYLA and ACTL in 1975. Preliminary rounds, which had more than 200 volunteers taking on various roles, took place at the Harris County Civil Courthouse. Final rounds were held at the federal courthouse in Houston.

“The students are nervous because this mock trial tournament is unlike any other—we have random volunteers playing witnesses that competitors meet just 15 minutes before the round begins, so you never know what the witness will say on the stand,” said Fortenberry. “Also, the judges are fellows of the American College of Trial Lawyers as well as local attorneys, so the students are excited to try a case in front of the distinguished attorneys.”

Lessons and impressions from 50 years of practicing law

By James Boanerges

When I was attending Lamar High School in Houston, a lawyer and an accountant came to campus one day to address the student body. The first speaker, famous criminal defense attorney Percy Foreman, made a huge impression with his booming voice and engaging smile. The accountant, a mild-mannered, nondescript fellow, simply could not compete. Several years later, working as an attorney, I was taking a tour of students around the courthouse. While we were waiting for the elevators in the basement of the criminal courts building, Foreman walked up. I proudly introduced him to the group, and he graciously beamed out to the kids as he had to me. One of those students may have written his or her account of becoming a lawyer as a result of that experience.

In the summer of 1962, I had three years of college, no LSAT, no degree. Only the idea of becoming a lawyer. My new bride and I visited law schools in Texas, all of which turned me down and told me to come back with a degree—except for Baylor. I found out that the process of making lawyers was similar to selecting a jury; only about a third stick around. This truth was built into the design of the classrooms, with each year’s class size getting progressively smaller as more students gave up or were not allowed to return. Because I had no undergraduate degree and had a wife and child, I had no alternative but to study and pass. I was licensed in 1964 at age 22.

I got a job with a personal injury defense firm, and my mentor was Henry Giessel. Hank, as he likes to be called, is the most intelligent, eloquent, and charming man I have ever met. I slipped out of the office at every opportunity to watch him in court. Once, at the conclusion of his argument, the courtroom was so spellbound that total silence persisted for several minutes before the judge asked Hank’s opponent, “Counsel, do you wish to respond?” The poor fellow cleared his throat and asked, “Judge, can I get a drink of water?” I was as hooked as when I heard Foreman speak back in high school.

Fifty years has flown by. Jesus was right—each day has had problems of its own. There isn’t room for error. There is always another lawyer looking over your shoulder and a judge to grade your papers. Ultimately, the jury gets to decide.

My lesson has been that the best form of government ever devised is the jury system. I have seen our society improve because of lawyers and jury verdicts—cars are safer, government officials are more honest, businesses are more law-abiding. As long as we have juries, we will be safe. And as long as we have juries, we will need good lawyers.

Crash course on jury duty for high school seniors

Many people dread jury duty, which is associated with detouring from our all-too-comfortable daily routines. High school seniors are no different, and with a multitude of enticing alternate options for how to spend their time, they likely are more susceptible to developing jury duty apathy.

On Nov. 7, a program of the Houston Bar Association will bring together 10 Harris County judges to teach Houston high school seniors about the importance of jury duty, as well as how juries are selected. Each judge works on humanizing the jury process for the students and dispelling common jury duty myths. The judge leads its class through mock questioning, treating the students as if they were potential jurors, and then selects a jury panel and discusses what made those students appropriate choices.

HBA created the Voir Dire Program in 2000 during a period of low juror turnout in Harris County. It seeks to increase the number of people who show up for jury duty in order to create a large, diverse jury pool for efficient administration of justice.

“Jury duty is not only a civic duty but a privilege,” said Judge Paula Goodhart of the Harris County Criminal Court at Law No. 1. “And the less intimidating and more informative we can make it for young adults, the more likely they will respond when called to duty.”