American College of Trial Lawyers hones trial advocacy skills of UP Practical Law students

Posted on June 07, 2024

On April 11, 2024, three professional fellows of the American College of Trail Lawyers (ACTL) conducted a skills training for Practical Law final year LLB students at the UP. This special event was the outcome of lengthy negotiations and numerous Zoom sessions between ACTL members and the Director of the UP Law Clinic, Mr. Eddie Hanekom, beginning in 2022.

Students were introduced to "Advanced Advocacy Training." The ACTL created a case file. Our students had to prepare to conduct an examination-in-chief and cross-examine witnesses in a simulated live situation while being evaluated by American legal professionals. Students were also expected to make opening comments and closing arguments based on the case file and evidence gathered during the sessions. A daunting prospect indeed for LLB students only in the second month of their final year!

The ACTL initially planned to collaborate with other South African law associations to give a course to South African legal practitioners in March 2023. This project became unviable due to a lack of understanding of the structure and availability of legal practitioners in South Africa.

UP Law Clinic comes to the rescue.

The UP Law Clinic stepped in, and after some conversations with Hanekom, the Pretoria Society of Advocates (PSA) affirmed their interest in such Advanced Advocacy Training. Advocate Gerhard Cilliers, SC, chairperson of the Pretoria Bar Council, met with Hanekom and enthusiastically supported the project, which was launched for the week of 8-12 April, 2024. Advocate Delene Gianni, convenor of the PSA Training Committee, and Advocate Daniël Villier, secretary, arranged and facilitated the training for advocates.

The course was later expanded to advocates from across South Africa. Seven highly experienced trial lawyers made up the ACTL group: Caroline Cinquanto from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Bernard Taylor from Atlanta, Georgia; Judy Barrasso and Brent Barriere from New Orleans, Louisiana; Joe Steinfield from Boston, Massachusetts; Diane MacArthur from Chicago, Illinois; and Bart Dalton from Wilmington, Delaware.

The ACTL appreciated the University of Pretoria Law Clinic's efforts by offering a free Advanced Student Advocacy course at the UP on April 11! The ACTL is North America's leading trial lawyer group, dedicated to enhancing trial practice and justice administration. Fellowships are only granted upon invitation to accomplished trial lawyers who have mastered the art of advocacy. They give workshops all around the world, including in Russia, Slovenia, Poland, and Iceland. This workshop was the first in Africa.

The Practical Law students prepared for the lecture by reading a defamation case file that would be used in a mock trial, with opportunity for students to lead witnesses in direct and cross-examination on behalf of their clients. Frik Grobler and Samantha Getsos, the UPLC's supervising solicitors who teach Practical Law, worked with academic associate Lizaan Geldenhuys to prepare the Practical Law students for the experience and make the event arrangements.

Training by expert American Trial Lawyers

Our pupils were instructed by Joe Steinfield, an American Trial Lawyer from Boston, Massachusetts, who specialises in civil litigation. He has vast experience lecturing on trial advocacy and constitutional law. Diane MacArthur, a renowned prosecutor from Chicago, Illinois, collaborates with trial teams and creates strategies throughout the trial preparation phase. Bart Dalton of Wilmington, Delaware, has been one of the lead lawyers. He recently represented plaintiffs in one of the largest sex abuse cases in U.S. history. In addition to their experience as trial lawyers and ACTL fellows, all three have substantial teaching experience.

As South African legal practitioners, we originally expressed concerns about the level of the ACTL members' knowledge of the South African legal system. The risk that they would infuse the skills training with conceptions foreign to our law, such as jury trials and a distinct court hierarchy, had to be evaluated and ruled out. We did not need to worry. The experienced Americans swiftly examined the South African legal system and then gave our students a masterful demonstration of universal trial advocacy abilities!

The ACTL trial lawyers ran the training sessions with amazingly smooth transitions and highly personal contacts with the Practical Law students who had been assigned by their "firms" to attend the "on your feet" oration and assessment. They encouragedly critiqued and calmed pupils' ruffled nerves, boosting their confidence. They also communicated with individuals who did not stand up to speak, resulting in a welcoming and intimate teaching and learning environment for everyone. Advocates Delene Gianni and Daniël Villier from the PSA were essential in providing this chance for UP students to learn from specialists. They ensured that the instruction was focused on the South African legal system.

Students' feedback

"I believe everyone learned from the experience is to always come prepared, and when you're on the podium, to remain calm, take your time, project your voice, and be confident." The lawyers entered and captivated the gathering; they were poised, fluent, and extremely wise." Karabo Kgoroba

"This lecture gave a whole new meaning to consolidating what we had learned in previous lectures, as we were given the space to engage with the work and provided with valuable feedback that we will take with us for the rest of our lives." Jessica Erin Chambers

"Personally, I experienced the lecture to be extremely enlightening, empowering, and encouraging." "Being relatively reticent in this manner made me wonder if I have the right personality to be a successful legal practitioner, given the prevalence of extroverted people in this industry. This is why working with a seasoned legal practitioner like Diane MacArthur was so beneficial. She really beautifully reiterated and demonstrated how one does not have to have a generally large personality in order to be a good lawyer." Refuoe lebohang mokhobo

Practical Law students praised by the ACTL

The UP Practical Law students were extremely well-prepared and delivered outstanding "court" performances, despite the fact that they had just recently begun their final year of LLB studies. The fellows of the ACTL praised them highly.

Diane MacArthur characterised her experience as follows: "Thank you for the opportunity to give the presentation to your students." It was one of my favourite parts of our trip to South Africa. The pupils were enthusiastic and well prepared. They welcomed us pleasantly and were receptive to recommendations. I felt as if we were having a real trial experience, complete with highs and lows and plenty of laughter."

Joe Steinfield wrote: "Our visit to the university last week had been a long time coming. However, it was worth the wait. I agree with Diane's appreciation for the students. "They were simply wonderful."

Collaboration of law and the arts

Four brave UP Drama students were requested to participate as witnesses in a one-of-a-kind legal-arts partnership. They took the stand in the simulated trial after studying their roles. They had to give evidence and then face cross-examination from some very determined practical law students. Ms. Bianca Janse van Vuuren, Ms. Thato Modimoeng, Mr. Landile Nkengana, and Ms. Kgaogelo Mogale all delivered outstanding performances as witnesses, with one even wiping away a tear on the stand!

Hanekom commented: "Before this advocacy workshop, I would have rated the students' advocacy skills as average, simply because our busy LLB curriculum does not allow for much time to develop such skills." After witnessing our Practical Law students' excellent preparation and inspirational performances, I am confident that our students are the best, and that the UP Faculty of Law is rightfully ranked first in Africa."

Close relationships between advocates and the UP Faculty of Law.

The PSA invited the Dean and members of the UPLC to attend a farewell lunch that was also attended by the chair of the Johannesburg Society of Advocates, Advocate Greta Engelbrecht SC. A very encouraging development is that the UP Law Clinic and the Faculty of Law have reiterated their commitment to strengthening connections with the Pretoria Society of Advocates. Future collaborations will include guest lectures, workshops, and collaborative research. Professor Elsabé Schoeman, Dean of the Faculty of Law, and Advocate Gerhard Cilliers, SC, have already began discussions to formalise these aspirations.

- Author Eddie Hanekom

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