Feature TYLA Affiliate

Feature TYLA Affiliate

Austin Young Lawyers Association Trial Academy
By:  Zachary Hall

Mistakes made during trial are not an uncommon occurrence for even the most experienced of lawyers.  Most of these mistakes ultimately prove to be inconsequential.  However, some mistakes are significant and end up costing the lawyers—and their clients—the case, either at trial or on appeal.  Fortunately, a new program in Austin, the Austin Young Lawyers Association (AYLA) Trial Academy, strives to teach young lawyers how to avoid such mistakes and to become better advocates for their clients.

The AYLA Trial Academy is a hands-on training program intended to improve the trial-advocacy skills of young lawyers licensed five years or less through a combination of lectures and demonstrations by some of Austin’s best known judges and trial attorneys.  The Trial Academy was the ambitious idea of AYLA President David Courreges, who wanted a program in the fall to pair with AYLA’s successful Leadership Academy in the spring.  While the goal of the Leadership Academy is to prepare lawyers to become leaders both inside and outside of Austin’s legal community, the goal of the Trial Academy is to teach young lawyers how to successfully navigate the strenuous and stressful world of the courtroom.

This year’s Trial Academy was chaired by current TYLA Director Sally Pretorius, a rising star in Austin’s legal community.  Pretorius, who was assisted by Debbie Kelly, the Executive Director of AYLA; Chari Kelly, an attorney at the Office of the Attorney General; David Lawrence, Senior Counsel at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld; Jorge Padilla, an associate at Jackson Walker; and me.  Together, we recruited some of the best lawyers and judges in Austin to teach the Academy participants a wide range of trial skills, including pretrial motion practice, voir dire and jury questioning, opening and closing statements, and direct and cross examination.  Each session included lectures on the various topics, hands-on demonstrations of the skill sets involved, and question-and-answer periods.  

The 2013-14 Trial Academy was split into a civil track and a criminal track, which allowed the participants to learn from experienced lawyers and judges within their practice areas.  One of the highlights of the criminal track was a session on pretrial motion practice held in Austin’s new and impressive federal courthouse in the courtoom of U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Lane.  Another session that received praise from the participants was one in which they were able to practice cross-examining a witness and then receive feedback on their cross-examination techniques from experienced criminal-defense attorneys.  On the civil side, participants particularly enjoyed a session with experienced trial lawyers who walked them step-by-step through the process of developing an effective opening statement and then demonstrated how such a statement would sound.

Jeanine Hudson, an attorney with DPS who participated in the criminal track, praised the program, explaining that “[a]s a transactional attorney, moving into litigation, I signed up to refresh my trial techniques and get the perspective of other litigators.  I most enjoyed getting to meet attorneys and judges from both the prosecution and defense sides and having an environment to get questions answered.”

In addition to Judge Lane, the judges who volunteered their time to teach the Academy included Travis County District Court Judges Cliff Brown, John Dietz, Scott Jenkins, Amy Clark Meachum, Orlinda Naranjo, Karen Sage, and David Wahlberg, and County Court Judges Elisabeth Earle, Brandy Mueller, and Eric Shepperd.  The attorneys who took time out of their busy schedules to teach the Academy included Marjorie Bachman, Sam Bassett, Amber Vasquez Bode, Karin Crump, Ben Cunningham, Darla Davis, Chantal Eldridge, Kevin Fine, David Frank, Carlos Garcia, Mike Golden, Dicky Grigg, Steve McConnico, Tracy McCormack, Mindy Montford, Jana Ortega, Jeff Otto, David Peterson, David Sheppard, Randy Slagle, Paul Walcutt, Tom Watkins, Geoff Weisbart, and Rick Yeomans. 

The Trial Academy concluded last month with a reception at Benji’s Cantina, which included an informative question-and-answer session involving a panel of three of Austin’s best and brightest young lawyers: Adam Schramek, a partner at Norton Rose Fulbright; Ryan Squires, a partner at Scott, Douglass & McConnico; and Rick Flores, an experienced former prosecutor and current criminal-defense attorney with the firm of Minton, Burton, Bassett, and Collins.  The panelists provided the participants with excellent advice regarding how to be successful at trial and how to best avoid and overcome the common mistakes that are often made in the courtroom.  The session, which combined the participants in both the civil and criminal tracks, provided a successful ending for the Trial Academy’s inaugural year.

The first-ever Trial Academy was a resounding success on many levels.  It encouraged more attorneys to get involved with AYLA, it enabled the participants to expand their network of professional colleagues, and, most importantly, it taught the participants advanced advocacy skills from some of the most successful and experienced legal practitioners in Austin.     

--ZAK HALL is a staff attorney for the Third Court of Appeals in Austin, where he has been practicing for the past eight years.  Before returning to his hometown of Austin, Mr. Hall was first a briefing attorney and then a staff attorney for Chief Justice Jim Wright of the Eleventh Court of Appeals in Eastland.  Mr. Hall graduated from Texas Tech University School of Law in 2004 and received his undergraduate degree from Texas A&M University.