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Akron Law holds first Summer Trial Academy

SHERRY KARABIN
Legal News Reporter

Published: September 25, 2015

It’s not often in life that people get the chance to try out a career before choosing it. But that’s exactly what The University of Akron School of Law Summer Trial Academy allows students to do.

The two-week academy got underway on Aug. 17, coming to a stirring ending on Aug. 28 when over 150 students participated in mock criminal and civil trials at the Summit County Court of Common Pleas. The trials were presided over by sitting judges.

“Being a trial lawyer can be all-consuming,” said Summit County Court of Common Pleas Judge Mary Margaret Rowlands, one of the judges who heard the criminal case. “It is not for everyone and this program gave students a real feel for what life would be like if they choose to become trial lawyers,” said Judge Rowlands, who also helped to develop the academy’s curriculum.

Fifteen second- and third-year students served as attorneys in two civil and two criminal trials and incoming 1Ls were used as jurors and witnesses.

In addition to Judge Rowlands, Summit County Court of Common Pleas judges Christine Croce and Amy Corrigall Jones and Akron Municipal Court Judge Joy Malek Oldfield also heard cases. The student advocates were charged with selecting jurors, preparing and delivering opening statements, handling direct and cross-examinations along with closing arguments. Those who were jurors deliberated and delivered final verdicts.

The criminal case grew out of an incident in which an off-duty Summit County Sheriff’s Department police officer caught a homeless man stealing dog food from his friend’s car. When the homeless man ends up in the Portage Lakes and drowns, the officer is charged with homicide. In Judge Rowlands’ courtroom the defendant was found not guilty of murder but guilty of the lesser-included offense of reckless homicide. In Judge Oldfield’s courtroom the defendant was found not guilty.

In the civil case of Keys v. Carney, plaintiff Dan B. Keys, an African American male, sues a local police officer for false arrest and the use of excessive force. Keys was in his car waiting for his daughter when the officer allegedly mistook him for the suspect who was committing burglaries in the primarily white community. He was pulled from the car and beat up. The jury found the defendant not liable in both civil trials, which were presided over by Judge Corrigall Jones and Judge Croce.

The cases were developed by associate professor of law Dana Cole, the director of the Summer Trial Academy, who also teaches criminal law, evidence and trial advocacy. “I took two fact patterns based on real cases we have used at Harvard Law School in a trial advocacy program there and, with permission, heavily revised them to make them Ohio cases using Ohio law and Ohio Rules of Evidence,” said Cole. “We wanted to make the trials as realistic as possible.

“Two weeks before the program began I gave both case files to the members of the class,” Cole said. “I asked them to review the material and let me know which case they were drawn to and which party they wanted to represent. I then assigned everyone roles as prosecutors, plaintiff’s lawyers or defense attorneys and asked them to familiarize themselves with the facts so they would be ready to get to work when the class started.”

The course was taught by practicing attorneys in Summit, Mahoning and Cuyahoga counties.

“Our goal was to give the students practical experience litigating a criminal or civil case that was as close to the real world as possible without actually being an attorney,” said longtime criminal defense attorney Don Malarcik, who was one of the instructors.

“It was important that the students learn from experienced trial counsel,” said Malarcik, a partner at Gorman, Malarcik & Pierce, who also worked with Cole to help create the trial academy.

“We had experienced trial lawyers demonstrate each and every trial skill from voir dire to closing argument,” said Malarcik.

“It was a class that is not like any other in law school. I really wish it had been there for me when I was in law school,” said Malarcik.

It was about a year ago when The University of Akron School of Law Dean Matthew Wilson first approached Cole about creating the summer trial academy.

“When I was associate dean at the University of Wyoming College of Law, we had a summer trial institute,” said Wilson. “The program brought together students and members of the legal community and I wanted to do something similar at Akron.

“When I approached Professor Cole, he was eager to get involved. We combined some of the elements from Wyoming together with some of those from Harvard Law School’s Winter Trial Advocacy Workshop. Professor Cole is a teaching team member for that program.

“It was a very successful program,” said Wilson. “Many people come to law school not knowing what type of law they want to practice. The academy’s simulated environment may be the first step in helping some of them decide.”

“One of my goals was to encourage two-way traffic between the law school and courthouse,” said Judge Rowlands. “Right now there is very little traffic.

“As a result, the students were required to attend at least two court sessions in the morning.”

Students spent their afternoons at the law school, briefly reviewing the material from the day before, followed by a lecture from one of the attorney instructors, discussions and demonstrations. In the evenings, the students were broken into groups of four, led by two or three trial attorneys who assisted them in practicing various skills.

“I was so impressed with the four students who tried their criminal case in my court,” said Judge Rowlands. “They worked very hard, even getting together on the weekends with their group to go over the case. They did phenomenally.”

“When the trials were over, the judges asked the 1L students who had served as jurors to discuss the case with the student lawyers,” said Cole. “The student lawyers learned what the jurors found persuasive and, more importantly, how the student lawyers could improve. It was a wonderful exchange.”

“One of the things that really intrigued me about the program was the hands-on learning,” said Matthew Hull, a 3L at the law school. Hull participated in a civil trial before Judge Amy Corrigall Jones, representing the defendant, officer Patrick Carney.

“Most of the time in law school is spent in the classroom learning theories and concepts. This class gave me the chance to get in front of lawyers and judges.”

Akron law student John Stiles, now a 1L, was assigned the role of the plaintiff in the civil case. He said the academy allowed him to get a better idea of what it would be like to be a trial attorney.

 

“It was a great experience,” said Stiles, who is considering becoming a criminal trial lawyer. “I really liked being able to sit through an actual trial and see all the different components.

 

“Judge Christine Croce presided over my case. She described the process of selecting a jury as an art form and I definitely agree with her,” said Stiles. “I think I learned that it was the most important part of the process.”

 

Stiles said the attorneys representing him did not make their points of argument stand out as much as they should have. “I think they blended in when they really needed to make them ‘pop.’”

Wilson said feedback from the course has been so positive that plans are in the works for next year’s academy, which may accept as many as 24 students. Registration will take place this spring. Second and third-year students who complete the course receive 3 credit hours.

“This past year we accepted 16 students and the class filled very quickly,” said Cole. “One student withdrew so we ultimately had 15. We’ll expand the course next year to include more students and I expect the course will fill quickly again. I have already begun developing two new cases for the students to try.”


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