November 14 , 2005
BY ERIC RANGUS
Paraphrased, the dictionary definition of advocacy is “the act of speaking in support of something.” According to law Professor Paul Zwier, director of the School of Law’s advocacy skills program, the definition of his work, and that of the lawyers he trains, doesn’t stray too much from Noah Webster’s.
“Advocacy is at the heart and soul of being a lawyer,” said Zwier, who came to Emory in 2003 after leading the University of Tennessee Law School’s advocacy program for four years. Before that, he spent 18 years as a professor and director of the lawyering skills program at the University of Richmond’s T.C. Williams School of Law.
“Speaking very broadly, advocacy is representing a client before the powers that be—whether it’s court, jury, in a boardroom or in an administrative agency setting,” Zwier continued. “It’s based in part on an adversarial model of decision-making, which says that before a decision-maker should too easily reach a decision, it’s important to explore vigorously and fully what each player has to say about it. It’s the role of the advocate to force the decision-maker to consider fully and comprehensively what can be said on behalf of the individual client to ensure the decision-maker is not relying on biases or prejudices in reaching his or her decision.”
The jewel of the law school’s advocacy skills curriculum (which include advanced classes aimed at legal advocacy in the labor and employment, medical malpractice, and criminal arenas, as well as in mediation and negotiation) is its Trial Techniques Program. Also directed by Zwier, trial techniques gives Emory law students intense instruction in every aspect of trial advocacy: making opening statements and closing arguments, trying cases, examining witnesses, introducing evidence and dealing with objections, in both jury and non-jury trials.
Every second-year Emory law student must go through trial techniques whether he or she even intends to step in a courtroom or not. “Even if they see themselves as a transactional lawyer, they still need to know what it’s like to be on their feet, under pressure, having to articulate a position vigorously, comprehensively and persuasively on behalf of their client.”
The core elements of the Trial Techniques Program are the watchful eyes and strong opinions of the lawyers and judges from around Atlanta and the country who participate in its workshops. Zwier compared the student experience to “a kinder and gentler boot camp.”
“To the extent that people are really very driven and perfectionist, the critiques can be hard,” Zwier said. Few punches are pulled during the critiquing of student presentations. The intent is for the lawyer to be forward looking and strive for excellence, and the effect is to toughen them up for future court experiences—the court may have little time for teaching or to be concerned about whether the advocate’s feelings are hurt.
Despite—or in many cases, because of—its difficulty, many law students have said that trial techniques is the best part of their law school experience. But, that hasn’t always been the case.
Prior to Zwier’s arrival at Emory, the Trial Techniques Program was suffering from low morale. One of the top programs nationally for years, in the late 1990s some students began seeing it as a burden because of when it was held.
Sandwiched around exam time and graduation each May, the 11-day program often interfered with students’ ability to get clerkships or other summer employment.
The Trial Techniques Program now spans the majority of the spring semester and is coordinated with the students’ learning of evidence. It includes five Friday afternoon workshops from January through March, taught by some of Atlanta’s finest trial lawyers and judges, with an idea to help the students learn the practical skills that go along with the theories they are learning in the regular evidence classrooms.
The students are broken into small groups of six to eight, and the vast majority travel to downtown law firms to learn on-site. Most prominent firms have their own mock courtrooms. The law school does, too, but accommodating a class of some 240 students is impractical.
The spring workshops allow the May session to be shortened to eight days without eliminating any content. Each day some 60-65 lawyers, judges and other professionals from around the country come to Emory to lead discussions about advocacy and help students hone their skills.
Zwier said that each day around 40 of the presenters are from outside Georgia—some stay the entire eight days, others are in town for a portion of the program. The remainder of participants are local.
By bringing in legal minds from all corners of the United States, students get the benefit of perspectives beyond Fulton and DeKalb counties—and they don’t always match up with those found inside the perimeter.
“It’s fun to have an Atlanta lawyer say, ‘This is how we do it,’” Zwier said. “A California lawyer may say something completely different. One Georgia judge may say he doesn’t allow lawyers to show exhibits during opening statements because they haven’t yet been entered into evidence. But in California, they love that because it offers a clear presentation of the case. It’s almost like a docu-drama. An attorney can show and tell what’s going to come through the run of witnesses.” What works in L.A. may not work in South Georgia.
Use of technology in the courtroom is an important emphasis of the course. So are presentation skills, which have more to do with being genuine than being a prize-winning orator.
“I like to talk to students about not trying to be like someone else,” he said. “Don’t be like Clarence Darrow or try to project in a way you think you ought to project. It’s more like peeling away the layers of professionalism to make yourself more authentic. How are you when you get angry or sad or annoyed or frustrated? How do you communicate those emotions authentically?”
That said, one of the most popular aspects of the Trial Techniques Program includes guests from Emory’s theater studies department who critique law students’ opening and closing arguments.
Zwier’s advocacy work is not limited to Emory, Atlanta or even North America. He has trained lawyers in Africa, Europe and Asia, and in early 2006 he will be returning to Africa for one of the most exciting—and challenging—assignments of his career.
At the end of January, Zwier will be part of a team of lawyers traveling to Rwanda to help train the prosecutors in that country’s ongoing genocide trials.
The trip has been organized by the National Institute for Trial Advocacy (NITA), an organization dedicated to training and mentoring lawyers, teaching trial advocacy and promoting justice though effective and ethical advocacy.
“You have this nightmare about putting together a cogent case, prosecuting people and making sure you get the right people in dealing with the Rwandan genocide,” said Zwier, who serves as NITA’s associate director of in-house training.
“One thing we’ll be looking at,” he said, is whether technology could play a role in these cases. For instance, many witnesses might be able to testify remotely, and Rwanda prosecutors have no experience in questioning someone who may not be in front of them. For these witnesses, simply appearing in the courtroom could endanger their lives. And that doesn’t even address the dangers faced by the judges and the attorneys Zwier will meet. But that doesn’t make him turn away. The challenges they face in doing their jobs are enormous and they take real courage,” Zwier said.
“I have the best of both worlds,” he continued, discussing his blend of teaching and legal consulting. “My work with NITA keeps my foot in the real world by working with lawyers on their skills. But I love to teach and I’m able to learn some great stories and examples to bring back into the classroom.”