Student-coached trial team teaches advocacy and confidence

A handful of UB School of Law students are basking in reflected glory, as the high school mock trial team they coached celebrates a spectacular season.

The School of Law group, called Future Advocates in Training, works with students from Buffalo’s Charter School for Applied Technologies (CSAT). Law students – many of them veterans of UB’s trial teams – coach and mentor the students, and prepare them for an Erie County-wide mock trial competition.

And what a competition it was for the CSAT team. The high schoolers went on a 5-0 run, including victories over four private schools, before finally losing to a team from Iroquois High School in the championship round on March 20.

“It was an amazing run, and we are so proud of the team for making it to the championship,” says second-year law student Marina Barci, who heads the Future Advocates in Training program, now in its fourth year, under the faculty supervision of Associate Professor Matthew Steilen.

This year’s effort began in October, Barci says, with instruction on how the legal system works, the rules of evidence, and how to write and deliver persuasive arguments. After the New York State Bar Association in December issued the mock trial case – a civil action by a plaintiff alleging malicious prosecution after he was wrongfully accused of robbing a convenience store – a team of about a dozen CSAT students was chosen. Then the real work began – practices that sometimes ran three hours, three or four days a week.

“We tell the kids it’s just like a sport,” Barci says. “The biggest thing for them is developing confidence. They have to be confident enough in themselves and their abilities to make these arguments without us.

“When they start, only a few of them have an interest in being attorneys. But by the end of the season, a couple of kids will come up and tell you, ‘Wow, this was a great experience. Now I really want to be a lawyer.’ ”

The School of Law’s Future Advocates in Training program was started by Michael Adler, now an assistant U.S. Attorney in Western New York. He continues as attorney adviser to the group, along with Erie County Assistant District Attorney Cathleen Roemer ’13.

Adler brought the idea with him from the University of Michigan Law School, and says that whether it’s Ann Arbor or Buffalo, the impact on both law students and high schoolers is striking. “I just saw one of the girls who was on one of the first teams at Michigan, and now she’s in Georgetown Law School,” he says. “We’re talking about a girl who at one point was homeless. I couldn’t believe it. A lot of these kids who never thought of it are actually going to law school.”

And for the law students, he says, the old truism proves correct: In teaching their subject, they learn it cold. “I’ve heard from former volunteers,” he says, “that they learned all their rules of evidence from FAIT.”

Third-year student Courtney Morphet was head coach for the CSAT team this year. She says the experience combines teaching and mentoring in life skills.

“A lot of these kids don’t come from the most stable home life,” Morphet says, “so a lot of them don’t have the best support system. In doing this, we become their support system. We also teach them how to be a high-functioning member of society.

“And we’re there for them. It’s just rewarding to have that kind of connection with a student and to see them grow. They come in timid or scared or not super-confident in themselves – and then they blossom into fully functioning attorneys.”

Oh, and one more perk for the high school students: FAIT members fund-raise and buy them each a nice suit. Look good, present with confidence.

This year, they got to wear them a lot.