Crystal Enekwa (’13) has worked since graduation as a judicial clerk, first for the United States District Court and now for Judge Bernice Donald of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.
While some might question the relevance of a law school education focusing on advocacy and dispute resolution to the tasks of a judicial clerk, Enekwa attributes some distinctive skills to her studies.
“I feel that all my advocacy courses helped to boost the confidence I had in my abilities and knowledge,” Enekwa says. “Pretrial Litigation exposed me to a wealth of procedural knowledge that has been invaluable in working within the court, while courses like Negotiation and Trial Practice helped me develop the necessary confidence to communicate smartly and efficiently with judges and lawyers.”
Law professor and former clerk Brennan Wingerter (’12) agrees, based not only on her own experiences, but also those she has witnessed. “I notice that students who have participated in the concentration tend to be more confident, practical, and ‘street smart,’” she says.
Mabern Wall (’12) clerked for a judge immediately following law school. She was grateful for her familiarity with terms and procedure, but after becoming an associate attorney with Hodges, Doughty & Carson, Wall saw a much more direct consequence of her legal training.
“Drafting complaints, answers, motions, and discovery requests and responses in class made drafting my first set of documents for partners much less intimidating,” Wall says. “Having to stand up and argue briefs, motions, and evidentiary issues gave me great experience and practice. There is no better way to gain confidence and improve than actually practicing the skills, which is what the advocacy concentration encourages.”
Luke Archer (’10)—an associate attorney with Odin Feldman Pittleman PC, a medium-sized firm serving the Washington, DC, area—describes his classes as teaching him “practice and in-depth lessons about what actually goes on in a courtroom.”
“Although being a civil litigator means that I spend much more time preparing for trial than in trial,” Archer says, “knowing how the trial would proceed, how to admit and exclude certain evidence, and how to present the best, most consistent theme of my case [is critical].” Because of his classes, from the beginning of his career, Archer has felt better “oriented and effective throughout the entire course of client representation,” he says.
Having a lawyer’s orientation early on is something we often describe as “practice-ready.” Kyle Hixson (’08) serves as deputy district attorney general for Knox County. Unlike many of his civil law firm counterparts, Hixson says, “I carried a full docket as a prosecutor the day after I received my law license. That would have not been possible without the practical knowledge and experience that I gained in law school. Because I am in the courtroom every day, I have to have a working knowledge of Evidence and Trial Practice. Those classes have been most helpful to my work as a prosecutor.”
Hector Sanchez (’14), also a prosecutor in Knox County, says those courses and others enabled him to feel “practice-ready based on the extensive practical orientation.” However, Sanchez’s course work was complemented by a unique opportunity: as a law student, Hector tried three jury trials, more than many attorneys try in a year.
Other concentration grads also tried cases during law school. Amy Mohan (’12), now an associate with Sherrard Roe Voight & Harbison in Nashville, tried a jury trial during law school. Although she has not yet tried a jury trial in practice, she finds that she frequently uses the skills she learned in bench trials and arbitrations, she says. “The ability to feel comfortable in court and to know how to prepare for a trial are skills that directly came from advocacy classes and my clinic experience. For example, I still use the cross-examination methods [Knox County Public Defender] Mark Stephens (’79) taught me.”
Josh Arters (’12) recognizes the importance of being taught lawyer skills by real lawyers and judges. “A highly respected Knox County chancellor taught my Civil Pretrial Litigation course, where we researched and drafted a motion for summary judgment in a hypothetical employment discrimination case. A staff attorney for the Tennessee Supreme Court taught my Advanced Appellate Advocacy course,” Arters says. “I have relied on the effective writing techniques taught in those courses countless times since becoming an attorney.”
Room for Improvement
As is true of most everything, there is room for improvement. Several recent graduates suggest some lawyering skills that should be added to the curriculum.
Brian Pearce (’13), a solo practitioner in Chattanooga, thinks the curriculum should address issues of office management, docket control, and client relations. He suggests altering the Trial Practice course to more accurately simulate the pressures of the practice. For example, he suggests students be given a mix of cases, which they must prepare, plead, negotiate, and if not settled, try.
“It would help educate as to the necessity of civility and working well with other counsel, as well as the importance of managing client expectations and maintaining credibility,” Pearce says.
Doug Bates IV (’08) agrees with Brian. “I don’t know how to teach this, but there should be a class titled ‘How to Know which Battles to Fight,’” says Bates. “Of course, there is a difference between criminal and civil litigation in this area, but when trying bench trials, lawyers lose a lot of credibility fighting over issues they have no real chance of winning. It’s hard to do, but somehow [we should] teach students not to be duplicitous in their reasoning—but I don’t know how you teach wisdom.”
We don’t either, Doug. But we promise to keep trying.
UPDATE: November 3, 2016
Based on input and feedback from alumni, the college will offer the new course Solo and Small Firm Practice in spring 2017. The course will address the personal characteristics needed for success in small firms, creating a business plan, marketing, ethical and professional responsibility, and the financial, operational, and technological aspects of developing a solo practice or small firm, among other issues.