BYU Law Students Sharpen Litigation Skills in Immersive Trial Academy

Simon J. McHenry and Emily Walter, first-year law students at BYU Law, completed their last final exam on Thursday, April 25, 2019. While most students on campus took the chance to celebrate and relax after exam week, McHenry and Walter were sent a civil court case to review before starting BYU Law’s Trial Academy—an intensive, weeklong program designed to develop litigation skills.

The Trial Academy, an application-based program, brought 24 first-year law students together for immersive training in the skills necessary to become successful future courtroom litigators. Through practice and performance, students exercised skills such as presenting opening and closing statements, speaking before a jury, presenting evidence, questioning a witness, and other essential skills for trial proceedings.

“I was a little apprehensive about the whole experience,” McHenry explained. “It seemed a little daunting to go through such an intensive experience… but overall, I was excited to have such a unique experience to sharpen my trial advocacy skills.”

Learning by doing is a key objective of the Trial Academy. Students were mentored by four expert trial attorneys from across the nation. These lawyers followed a “show, tell, do” approach. First, the attorneys demonstrated and then explained specific skills. They concluded by having the students implement what they had just learned.

“I felt nervous at the beginning of the week because we were thrown right into practice performances,” Walter explained. “But I quickly realized that there was really no point in feeling that way because presenting with no prep time was the expectation and the norm. It became easier and easier to get up in front of everyone and just do it. Our mistakes were really good diving boards for our mentors to teach us.”

Paul Stancil, a BYU Law faculty member and Trial Academy organizer, stated that the overall purpose of the program is to provide students with the opportunity to implement the skills and theories they learn in the classroom, in an environment that can facilitate building their confidence in the courtroom: “I want these students to feel comfortable walking into a courtroom and knowing that they can do this.” Professor Stancil added, “The skills they are learning here [at the Trial Academy] are going to translate to anything that they may end up doing in their lives as trial lawyers.”

The week concluded with a mock trial at the Springville City Justice Court. Student performances were judged by mentors and faculty.

“Throughout the week I felt more and more comfortable as I placed myself in new situations,” McHenry said. “By the end of the week, I felt prepared to be a trial advocate.”

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