Putting into practice the truism “While we teach, we learn,” SUNY Buffalo Law students are coaching a mock trial team from one of Buffalo’s poorest high schools – and finding startling success.
The effort, called Future Advocates in Training, brings together law students – many of them veterans of the school’s trial teams – with high school students from the Charter School for Applied Technologies. It is the brainchild of Michael Adler, an Erie County assistant district attorney who was part of a similar program at the University of Michigan Law School; he serves as its attorney adviser along with Cathleen Roemer ’13, a member of the litigation department at the Law Offices of William Mattar.
“The idea is to go into a lower-income area and work with kids who would otherwise never have had that exposure to the legal field,” Adler says. “A lack of diversity is a continuing problem in the legal profession, and we hope this helps to even the playing field. But it also is amazing at developing their confidence.”
About 10 high school students are taking part, along with a rotating cast of law students with about 15 regular volunteers. The practices mostly take place at the high school, in Buffalo’s Riverside neighborhood, although once the students scrimmaged at the Law School against a team of law students with mock trial experience. “The amount of effort and energy that the students have been putting into this program is unbelievable,” Adler says. “We spent two months giving lectures on what a trial is, doing role-playing, discussing issues like leading vs. non-leading questions, getting them comfortable with the language.
“The evidence material is the hardest for sure, but we try to make it as fun as possible and as interactive as possible. We play games; the law students break into groups with them or work with them one-on-one, to make it feel less like school.
“We preach confidence a lot,” Adler says. “I am constantly pretending that I can’t hear them, trying to get them to speak louder. We have one girl who is very timid, very soft-spoken, a very bright girl, and our biggest challenge is getting her to speak up and believe in what she’s saying.”
But the work is paying off already. In its first match, held in the Law School’s Letro Courtroom against a team from the private Nardin Academy, the Applied Technologies team cruised to an upset victory. They celebrated at McDonald’s.
The team expects to continue to the Erie County playoffs, a 24-team event administered by the Erie County Bar Association. The case at issue involves an allegation that hydro-fracking contaminated the water table, and the students are working from a thick competition packet that contains documents, exhibits, maps and pictures.
Besides Michigan and Buffalo, the only other law school where Future Advocates in Training operates is Washington University in St. Louis.
Roemer, a veteran of the Law School’s trial teams, says that their coaching work benefits the law students as well. “You can only learn so much from the classroom,” she says. “If you want to learn a skill that sets you apart, you have to go after it yourself, and working with a trial team does that. We have lots of 1Ls on board right now, and this will be a terrific experience for them for the next two years.”
Second-year law student Aaron Fishkin, executive chair of the group, says that initial victory in mock trial competition showed how far the high school students had come.
At the beginning, he says, “These kids had no concept of what a lawyer was, what a courtroom was, the procedure of a trial – nothing. It was so exciting winning against Nardin, a perennial powerhouse. Our students were initially intimidated, but I think our opponents greatly underestimated us.”
The organizers are hoping that Future Advocates in Training can expand in scope at the Law School. One vision includes teams of students working in a number of Buffalo high schools. It has been suggested that this type of coaching also become part of the school’s Trial Technique course.
They also hope to bulk up funding for the program. For instance, Adler says, the Applied Technologies students didn’t have proper courtroom attire; through a combination of fundraising and private donations (including a major one by the school’s superintendent), they were able to be outfitted professionally. Contributions are also welcomed for the program; email Fishkin at email@example.com.