Law students and newly minted attorneys are getting a rare peek into the virtual courtrooms of state Supreme Court, by way of an innovative project spearheaded by two UB-trained litigators.
It was at a meeting of the New York State Academy of Trial Lawyers’ Associate Board where Carey Beyer ’14 and Christina Gullo ’15 came up with an idea. They were reminiscing about how much they learned as young lawyers watching the action in the judges’ Special Term proceedings—a jampacked day when all parties in suits before a particular judge may bring motions relevant to their cases.
During a time when Special Term proceedings are held online because of pandemic precautions, why not, they thought, make that experience accessible to whoever wants to learn the fine points of the profession?
“We realized how difficult it was for young attorneys to jump into the realm of litigation without being able to first visit a courtroom,” says Gullo, who serves as counsel with the Kantor Law Firm. “We thought, why can’t we give young attorneys and law students the chance to see these motions being brought live?”
They investigated the applicable rules and learned that, though proceedings cannot legally be recorded, they can be broadcast live with the judge’s permission. Beyer and Gullo got the OK from four Erie County Supreme Court judges— Hon. Mark J. Grisanti, Hon. E. Jeannette Ogden ’83, Hon. Catherine Nugent Panepinto ’97 and Hon. Dennis E. Ward ’76—and the livestreaming began. Special Term proceedings are accessible in real time on the New York State Academy of Trial Lawyers’ YouTube Channel. The Academy posts updates on upcoming livestreams on its social media channels.
They’ve been making the Special Term proceedings available about twice a month. It’s a time-intensive project—either Gullo or Beyer has to be a party to the Microsoft Teams call in order to host the livestream, and the sessions can last several hours—but they say providing opportunities for professional growth makes it worth the time.
“I learned some of my best lessons sitting in the gallery of a Special Term courtroom,” Gullo says. “Something not necessarily taught in a school textbook is courtroom etiquette—how to address another attorney, how to address the courtroom staff, even addressing the judge. You learn how to not undercut your own arguments, and when it might be time to stop. You pick up on cues, even from the other attorneys, when enough is enough.”
“For somebody just out of law school who didn’t really know much about the practice of law, it was great,” Beyer says of the old “cattle call” Special Term days, which he says are distinctive of practice in Western New York. “The biggest thing was watching how attorneys can and should interact with judges—everything from argument style to interpersonal communication, and how to talk in a manner that is professional and reflects well on both you and your client. It also allows you to get answers to questions you might not have felt comfortable asking your boss. If I’m sitting there watching the judges, I can see, oh, that’s how it works.”
The proceedings at this point address motions in civil cases, including disputes over discovery or motions to dismiss a case. Gullo says they’re hoping to expand the project to cover some expedited jury trials as well.
It’s a curated feed of proceedings—Beyer, who practices with the litigation firm Francis M. Letro Attorneys, says the judges will tip them off to upcoming cases with a particularly interesting fact pattern or in which two well-known lawyers will be facing off. Of special interest, he says, are motions for summary judgment. “That is where you’re going to get your deepest analysis of law, with high stakes for the parties, because if you win a case for summary judgment the case may be over,” he says. “It’s also the area where you’re going to get the most in-depth analysis of New York law in particular.”
It’s not just students who can benefit from logging in, Gullo says. “Even if you’re an experienced attorney, you have an interest in seeing how an individual judge will rule on a specific matter,” she says. “For example, if you’re going to get a judge who’s going to ask a lot of questions, it’s good to know that going in.”
Judge Ogden, for one, sees value in opening up the Special Term proceedings that she runs. “This is a great opportunity,” she says. “Livestreaming allows the students and young lawyers to connect to the court on a deeper level, shows them what to and not to do during oral argument, and enables them to be better prepared when it’s their turn. That enhances the efficiency and effectiveness of motion practice. Listening and observing enables you to strengthen and solidify the salient points of your position and save time.”