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Akron Law’s 2nd annual Summer Trial Academy underway

Legal News Reporter

Published: August 24, 2016

Ever since he was a young boy in Pinckneyville, Illinois Kenton Steele said he’s been interested in the law.

“As a child I was a good talker and people always told me I should be a lawyer,” said Steele. “I did not know what a lawyer was but it sounded good. I went through most of my life wanting to learn about things that were related to the law.”

Now a 3L at The University of Akron School of Law, Steele plans to become a civil litigator. To give him an added advantage, he enrolled in Akron Law’s Summer Trial Academy, where he’s been working with other law students, professors and practicing attorneys to prepare to defend a fictional client accused of insurance fraud.

The second annual Summer Trial Academy got underway on Aug. 15, with 22 upper-level law students serving as attorneys in the civil case of Crimson Permanent Assurance Company v. Aiden Lynch.

The three-credit course concludes on Friday, when the students take part in mock trials presided over by five judges and one magistrate at the Summit County Court of Common Pleas. The entire incoming 1L class will participate as jurors and witnesses.

“I am hoping to walk away with a more in-depth understanding of the nuts and bolts of trial work,” said Steele.

Providing real life trial skills was the goal of former Akron Law Dean Matthew J. Wilson, whose idea it was to create the program. In 2014 Wilson, now interim president of The University of Akron, approached associate law professor Dana Cole about starting the trial academy.

Back when Wilson was a professor and associate dean at the University of Wyoming College of Law, he said the school featured a similar offering. Wilson and Cole combined elements from Wyoming’s program with some from Harvard Law School’s winter Trial Advocacy Workshop to create what’s now offered at Akron Law.

In 2015, over 150 students took part in mock criminal and civil trials at the Summit County Court of Common Pleas.

“The program was very successful last year,” said Wilson. “Many of the students who participated said it was one of the greatest experiences they had in law school. I am hoping to replicate that sentiment this year.”

This time around there are not only more students, the number of trials has increased from four to six.

Summit County Court of Common Pleas judges Mary Margaret Rowlands, Christine Croce and Amy Corrigall Jones and Akron Municipal Court Judge Joy Malek Oldfield all presided over trials in 2015.

This year Magistrate Martha Hom is filling in for Judge Rowlands during the mock trial portion of the academy. Judge Rowlands is serving as a lecturer and continued to work on developing the curriculum as she did last year.

Summit County Common Pleas Judge Amy Corrigall Jones and Akron Municipal Court Presiding/Administrative Judge Joy Malek Oldfield are presiding over trials.

“I think any time a person is learning a trade it is extremely important that they get hands-on experience,” said Judge Oldfield.

“For the last 16 years, students taking the bar exam in Ohio have been tested on practical skills. When I took the bar in 2000, I did very well on this part of the test because I had experience working at law firms,” she said. “In recent years Akron Law has gone out of its way to give students practical, hands-on experience, which I think is very important.”

While Judge Croce is not hearing a trial this year, she is volunteering as a lecturer.

“I am discussing tips in selecting impartial jurors and what should be included in an opening statement,” said Judge Croce, who was also an instructor in 2015.

“Many law students graduate without ever having set foot in a courtroom,” said Judge Croce. “By taking part in the trial academy, they can get an idea about whether being a trial lawyer is indeed their calling or whether they would enjoy some other aspect of the law more.”

Barberton Municipal Court Presiding/Administrative Judge David Fish and Stark County Court of Common Pleas judges Chryssa Hartnett and Taryn Heath are hearing cases for the first time.

An Akron Law graduate, Judge Heath said she participated in the school’s trial advocacy team when she was a student and found it to be very valuable.

“I think it’s really important for a young lawyer to know what is expected of him/her before appearing in front of a judge or jury,” said Judge Heath. “I plan to provide positive reinforcement and constructive criticism.”

While the first academy featured both criminal and civil cases, this year all the students were assigned to the same civil matter.

“By keeping the fact patterns the same for all the students involved, they will be able to get more out of the demonstrations,” said Cole, director of Akron Law’s Summer Trial Academy. “I do plan to rotate between civil and criminal cases each year, so next year’s students will get the chance to work on a criminal case.”

This year half of the upper-level students are representing defendant, Aiden Lynch; the others are assigned to the plaintiff, Crimson Permanent Assurance Company.

The facts of the case are as follows: Lynch purchased a thoroughbred horse for his wife, Virginia, and insured the horse for $1 million. The horse ended up being unable to compete in show jumping competitions. Virginia, who was seeking a divorce, later hired a claims adjuster to break the horse’s leg in an attempt to defraud the insurance company. The issues are whether Aiden was involved in the scheme and whether he is entitled to recover $1 million.

Cole developed the case, “heavily revising and updating an old fact pattern we used many years ago in a Texas Young Lawyers Association trial competition.”

To prepare for trial, the students are meeting in the afternoons for lectures and demonstrations by practicing attorneys. In the evenings the students are broken into six small groups, where two or three practicing attorneys work with them on specific skills.

In addition to Cole, 19 other lawyers from as far away as Columbus are serving as lecturers/coaches. They include Donald Malarcik, John Hill, Brian Pierce, Andrea Whitaker, Anne Valentine, Kevin Kita, Greg Thompson, Rachel Smick, Brian Dodez, Kelle Redepenning, Devon Stanley, Stu Baker, Anthony Wise, Ashley Wakefield, Jessica Forrest, Lavell Payne, Daniel Leister, Daniel L. Bray and Larry Vuillemin.

John Hill, a partner at Buckingham, Doolittle & Burroughs, took part in last year’s academy, as did many of the other attorneys.

“I will discuss jury selection again this year,” said Hill. “Last year I did the lecture portion and then Don Malarcik and I performed a sample jury selection, with the students functioning as potential jurors.

 Jury trial work is what I do for a living and I really enjoy speaking to the students about it,” said Hill. “The court system does not do many civil trials anymore so it’s very hard for young attorneys to see these trials in action. That’s why this program is so important.”

Samuel Meadows, a 3L, said he’s hoping the experience he gains from the trial academy will help to distinguish him from other candidates during interviews.

A second-generation Akron Law student, Meadows aspires to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a trial lawyer. 

“My father is a trial attorney at Reminger and prior to starting law school I got the chance to work part-time at the firm as a legal intern,” said Meadows. “I think there is something to be said for being able to talk about how you wrote an opening statement, prepared witnesses and experienced a day in the life of a trial attorney during an interview.

“I will represent the defendant at the close of the week and look forward to the challenge.”

Akron Law 3L Nichole Nabors said the trial academy is allowing her to get some early on-the-job experience in an insulated environment.

“Typically an attorney cannot represent someone at trial without there being any consequences for the client,” said Nabors. “The trial academy allows us to learn about the process without those consequences.”