by Micheal F. Lamb
Trial Trends, Autumn 2007 Issue
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The Trial Academy was the best 2½ days of my legal career. . .  .

[T]he Trial Academy . . .  the most demanding, yet rewarding and worthwhile CLE experience of my legal career.

I learned more about myself and advocacy in two and ½ days than I thought possible. . . .  I think the 2½ days were worth more than law school! . . .  [T]his turned out to be one of the best and most valuable experiences of my professional career. . . .

The Trial Academy was exactly what I needed to prepare for my upcoming hearing and trials.

I can't say enough about the program. . . . I simply find myself at a loss to explain how much I took away from the course. . . . It gave me confidence to be myself in trial.

The Trial Academy was undoubtedly the greatest experience I have taken part in – in my young legal career.

I've been feeling like since I left Yellow Bay I've wanted to shout from the roof tops how great my experience was and how useful and effective the academy was for me. . . . [N]o young/new/inexperienced attorney representing plaintiffs or criminal defendants should miss out on this opportunity.

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What are all these people taking about?  What educational experience could give rise to this type of unqualified evaluation?  MTLA's 2007 Trial Academy, held September 26-28 at the Yellow Bay Biological Station at Flathead Lake.

The current version of the Trial Academy is the result of the combined efforts of various MTLA stalwarts, spearheaded by the creativity and determination of Doug Wold and Jim Manley.  I asked Doug to share with our membership how the program evolved.  He explained that many years ago there had been a couple of attempts at developing a trial school which, while considered a good idea, simply didn't get very far.  Ultimately, the law school became involved and various top-flight instructors participated in the programs held there, but the program wasn't reaching the right people.  It was a great idea looking for the right circumstance.

Ultimately, Jim Manley and Doug Wold, as part of their once-a-week lunch regimen, became more and more focused on trying to put together a trial school.  As the ideas became more concrete, Jim came back from an MTLA Board of Directors meeting to advise that MTLA Director and Bozeman attorney Mike Cok and Kalispell attorney Amy Eddy, then Chairperson of the MTLA Young Lawyers, had the "bit in their teeth and were going to run" with the concept.  Doug and Jim, always among the very first to volunteer their time and expertise, became involved.

As Doug explains, the inspiration for the Academy was probably best explained by past MTLA President Mike Wheat, a state senator from Bozeman, who at one of MTLA's annual meetings in Polson described his pride in being a member of MTLA – "the largest law firm in the State." Senator Wheat may have had that original thought or merely repeated it, but it is an accurate and wonderful fact.  In any event, according to Doug, Jim Manley has always been the "big picture guy" and Doug's focus has always been on the details.  Doug generated the first drafts of the Trial Academy program and Jim "sandpapered" it.  It was then circulated to Mike Cok, Amy Eddy, and others for feedback and the program began to take shape.  Various MTLA members bit off portions of the program:  Amy worked on getting the students; Mike put together an outstanding faculty; and Jim and Doug developed a fact pattern based on a case they were familiar with.  Responsibility for trial presentation components, witnesses, etc. were farmed out to various MTLA volunteers. 

The first Trial Academy was held in 2005 at the Lutheran Church Camp.  The directors also did the cooking.  Linda Wold and Julia Manley, perennial volunteers in the good work of MTLA, generously contributed their time in support of Doug's and Jim's efforts to make the program a success.  While there were growing pains as the program lurched from the start, as Doug describes it "everyone was generous with their time, everyone was a pleasure to work with, and the good ideas just naturally rose to the top." 

With feedback from the participants in 2005, a second Academy was planned for 2006.  For various reasons, probably principally because of the failure to make known to our membership that the opportunity existed, it was postponed.  

This year, because of Doug's contacts with the powers that be at the University of Montana's Biological Station at Yellow Bay on Flathead Lake, MTLA was able to hold its program at that facility.  As a result, we had adequate space to set up four separate courtrooms as well as a classroom so that demonstrations and discussions could be held with everyone present.  As a result of the isolated setting, the Academy was able to run without distractions.  The participants – junior partners, senior partners, judges, administrators – all interacted with each other in a constructive educational setting from the time they arrived on Wednesday until they left Friday evening. 

The program is easy to describe.  Over the course of three days every student participates as plaintiff's counsel in a final pretrial conference, prepares and argues motions in limine, conducts a voir dire and strikes jurors, prepares and presents an opening statement, and works on the skills necessary to conduct direct examination, to qualify experts for testimony, and to lay the foundation to introduce evidence.  Each participant also cross-examines a defense witness, and prepares and presents a closing argument.  In addition, participants have the opportunity to witness and critique their fellow students as they do all of these same tasks; to benefit from live demonstrations by senior counsel performing all of these same roles; to listen to classroom presentations on various issues and considerations to be considered in performing these tasks; and to receive constructive suggestions and criticism from senior partners assigned to work with them every step of the way.  And when students are not in the courtroom or classroom, they are eating, sleeping, or preparing for the next installment of the trial.  In sum, you are preparing and trying a case in a safe, supportive, challenging environment – with the best help you could possibly have. 

It would serve absolutely no purpose whatsoever to try and paraphrase or restate the observations and evaluations provided by the participants in the program.  Accordingly, representative evaluations submitted by those who responded to the request for feedback are set out here in total with attribution to the people who provided them.  Without exception, participants invite anyone who is interested in the program to call them with any further questions.

I found the program to be invaluable.  Not only were junior partners exposed to true "hands on" trial experience with real jury feedback, but we also had the opportunity to learn by watching some of the best and most experienced trial lawyers in the state.  Equally importantly, we developed relationships with both senior attorneys and our more novice peers.  I am hopeful that these are friendships and mentor/mentee relationships that will last many years!

I have told everyone I have talked to that the Trial Academy was the best 2 ½ days of my legal career to date.  I am looking forward to putting my experience to use in the courtroom in the years to come. 
I can't thank you and the other senior partners enough for taking time out of your busy schedules to assist the next generation of lawyers.  Jim Manley was right -- MTLA is a very giving organization full of some incredible people.  I'm proud to be a part of it.

Cherche Prezeau
Hughes, Kellner, Sullivan & Alke, PLLP

The MTLA Trial Academy is an essential educational experience in the career of any attorney seeking additional insight into trial practice.  As a participant in the 2007 Trial Academy, I learned invaluable skills, techniques, and theories for trying a case from the plaintiff's bar, and in the development of the overall case.  Our access to some of the brightest and most talented trial attorneys in the Montana Bar was unprecedented, and their contribution to our education was not only tireless, but was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that no attorney with aspirations of trying a case should forego.  From voir dire to closing arguments, the program allows you to make mistakes in a "safe" environment, but provides you with critical and insightful feedback that will help minimize those mistakes when your client's cause is at stake.  The contributions of the esteemed judges and MTLA directors were also admirable beyond description.  Frankly, I don't know how they pulled it all off, but MTLA and its senior membership put together a program in the Trial Academy that I will remember as the most demanding, yet rewarding and worthwhile CLE experience of my legal career.

Dave Lighthall,
Carey Law Firm, P.C.

It was a great experience - certainly useful in a number of respects.  The process I found to be most interesting and helpful was the voir dire.  An area that has always been sort of scary and unknown is no longer so - I actually enjoyed it.  The direct exam exercises were useful, too - some of the people in my group had done these things before but I hadn't done any of them - not since trial practice class back in 1999 - so I found the exercises and explanations extremely helpful.  The cross examination section was great because it really pointed out the fact that cross takes skill and practice and most importantly, that you need to prepare carefully for each individual witness.  In all of the exercises, I found all of the SP [Senior Partner] feedback (to myself and the other JP's [Junior Partners]) to be extremely valuable.

The demonstrations by the seasoned Senior Partners were great to see for several reasons.  First, they enabled us to watch how the "pros" would handle whatever we, the JP's, had just stumbled through. Second, I learned some cool techniques and even a few key phrases that I can and definitely will use in the future. Finally, watching the SP's and interacting with them on a social level was reassuring because it made me have confidence in myself and my abilities.  That is, I (and some other JP's I spoke to) recognized that even these "super lawyers" are just regular people and that with the proper practice and preparation, I, too, can be a great trial lawyer.

Stephanie Breck
Lakeside Law Office, PLLC

It was an outstanding experience.  I have been to plenty of lectures, and nothing substitutes for standing up in front of a group of people and just doing it. The element of having the jury and a judge there was invaluable.  The most illuminating thing though was to be in a room with many very accomplished attorneys and watch them in action.  While there are some common ingredients to try a case, everybody put in their own flavor with no right or wrong final recipe.

Amy Eddy
Bottomly & Ellingson

I found that just being around so many great people/trial lawyers for such an intense period of work (and fun) was itself an invaluable experience.  You could justify the entire three day commitment even if all you did was sit back and soak up every bit of wisdom that gets passed around.  The fact that you actually get to do all the trial work yourself, and receive immediate, personal feedback from judges, jurors, and experienced trial lawyers really does feel too good to be true.  I think it would be impossible to attend this workshop and not come away a better and more inspired lawyer.

John F. Lacey
McCarvey Law Firm

I learned more about myself and advocacy in two and ½ days than I thought possible. In terms of value, I think the 2½ days were worth more than law school!

Having worked for trial lawyers, with trial lawyers or as a trial lawyer for nearly 27 years now (including Jim Goetz, Brian Gallik, Russ Dunn, Mike Cok, and Mike Wheat from Bozeman, Jim Fitzgerald, from Cheyenne and Charles Wisch from San Francisco) and having tried over thirty cases myself, I was somewhat hesitant to apply to an Academy that I knew would be largely populated by younger and "less seasoned" attorneys.  Nonetheless, when Jim Manley encouraged "some of you older attorneys" to apply at our convention in Polson last summer, I did so.  As this turned out to be one of the best and most valuable experiences of my professional career, I'm glad I didn't let my own ego or perceived "experience" get in the way of a truly golden opportunity to learn about better ways to do what it is we do.  With regard to my 27 years of experience, I have not felt this much excitement and passion for the art and science of trial advocacy since I was a 20 year old undergraduate intern, helping Jim Goetz try, and win, a Livingston gasoline leak case. . . . After working on literally hundreds of cases and many millions of dollars in "settlements," since then, seeing where I've been, where I am and where I still want to go . . . I needed this experience, more than you can know.

I think that part of the magic of the Academy lies in the opportunity to see so much of what works and what doesn't work from so many angles and perspectives and from such a wide variety of lawyers, dealing with a common set of facts that look simple and straightforward in the beginning, but which really begin to unfold and come to life as the academy progresses. While I expected to learn great things from the senior partners, some of the greatest and most moving things I heard came from junior partners with virtually no trial experience, plenty of fear and no small amount of insecurity.  I think it was special, now, because we had such a great mix of people, from those wet behind the ears with puppy eyed optimism to those who wonder whether they should have spent their whole lives doing this.  In the end, I sensed that everyone came away feeling better about what it is we do, how we do it, how we can do it better and why it is so important to our free society and system of government, that we keep on doing it. 

Seeing people fail, succeed, get by, and come back to succeed again, or at least improve, was truly magical.  I suspect that some of the humblest of the group, now think, "hey, I can do this as well as anyone."  (In this regard, someone just e-mailed me a quote from Vince Lombardi that says, "The greatest accomplishment is not in never falling, but rising again after you fall."  While, it's not fun
to fall, as we do from time to time, it really is the "not quitting," getting better and returning for a new fight, that matters most, regardless of how you did in the last one.)

Wouldn't it be great if we could all learn to work and get better together, in the interests of civil justice, and making judges, defense lawyers, jurors and the public see what is so phenomenal about our system of trial by jury?  Imagine the power of our organization if we all felt, all the time, like the participants of the Trial Academy feel like when they leave on Friday afternoon.  Imagining is the first step. " Let me know what, how and when I can help you make the Trial Academy and our Association, better and stronger.

Doug Marshall
Marshall Law Firm, P.C.

The Trial Academy was exactly what I needed to prepare for my upcoming hearing and trials. You gave me the structure to organize my evidence and witnesses, the direction to know how to prepare for evidentiary challenges and the opportunity to practice and make mistakes in a safe environment. The fact that I had the opportunity to prepare for and cross examine a challenging medical expert was the icing on the cake, since almost everything I do turns on medical experts.  The tips I received for controlling the difficult witness were invaluable.  Having some of the top trial attorneys in MT dedicate almost three days to showing us the very best techniques and styles was a true gift and example of professionalism at its highest.

Alexandra Volkerts
Montana Advocacy Program

I can't say enough about the program.  I simply find myself at a loss to explain how much I took away from the course.  I will try my best. It was invaluable to see that every single successful trial attorney has a very different style.  It gave me confidence to be myself in trial.  Furthermore, our senior partners create a very secure place to attempt to try new trial techniques.  They gave us true constructive criticism, which told us what we did well, and what we could try next time. I walked away with self confidence and a new group of friends.  All the judges and senior partners were kind, humble, helpful people.  I know that anytime I need help with a case, I can pick up the telephone and know someone I can trust will be on the other end for me.  Thank you all for putting this together.  Like the American Express commercial says, $500.00 for a Trial Academy Course.  Working with some of the most incredible trial attorneys and human beings in Montana, priceless.  Thank you so much.

Alanah Griffith
Mark A. Bryan P.C.

The trial academy was undoubtedly the greatest experience I have taken part in - in my young legal career.  The skills, techniques, and mentoring I acquired through the senior partners and even my fellow junior partners would take years to attain through the practical experience of trying cases.  I know that if I were to attend again I would learn just as much as I did through my first experience. Overall I was extremely satisfied with the program and would strongly encourage both new and seasoned attorneys to attend.

Ryan K. Jackson
Jackson Law, P.C.

I've been feeling like since I left Yellow Bay I've wanted to shout from the roof tops how great my experience was and how useful and effective the academy was for me.  My real life senior partners, Dick Andriolo and Dorie Refling, heard all about it yesterday, several times... so, here you go!

I found the academy to be an invaluable experience for several reasons: (1) The senior partners were present, willing, and even anxious to help us.  So often life takes hold and we get abbreviated answers to our questions that deserve more time.  I felt the time and attention paid to every one of me and my fellow junior partners' questions was freely given and well spent by the senior partners. (2) The structure was perfect for fostering an environment where I could learn.  At first, I thought it would be nice to rotate senior partners so we could get more varied feedback.  But, once I'd done my second presentation, I was really glad it was the same two senior partners I'd had before.  I felt safe and like I could try things I may not have felt safe to try had the faculty rotated.  (3) The critique I received was so pointed and true.  Each time, the advice, suggestions, and insight left me feeling like I'd grown as a lawyer and a human being.  (4) I've returned to work with a different perspective than I had last week.  I now have the confidence to try my cases, not settle at the bottom dollar.  I realize all cases have problems - both sides do.  I'm not afraid to take a leap, rely on my fellow junior and senior partners across the state for advice and assistance when needed to get justice for my clients.  (5) I liked that we could put in a preference for our junior and senior partners.  I think that's a good feature, one I didn't expect, but given that Montana is a "small boat" of lawyers - makes great sense.

Please pass on my thanks to all who came together and worked hard to make the academy happen. I am confident NONE of my law school comrades from San Diego have had an experience anywhere near this in CA.  I feel lucky to be practicing law in Montana for the very reason that something like the Academy exists.  Thanks again for everything.  Please feel free to ask me any other questions. I feel strongly that no young/new/inexperienced attorney representing plaintiffs or criminal defendants should miss out on this opportunity.  And, you should charge more!!  While I didn't have to pay... thanks to Andriolo & Refling ... I think a higher dollar amount may attract more participants. I can't believe you aren't fighting off applicants.

Elisabeth Montoya
Andriolo & Refling

The trial school was a great learning experience. By far the best CLE I've attended since I began practicing 4 years ago. If the fact pattern changes in the future, I will certainly reapply and try to attend.

The jurors added non-legal insights the case and into the civil justice system from a lay person's perspective. Both the instructors and the students were able to exchange ideas and have a meaningful dialogue about what it means to be a trial attorney and how one goes about effectively representing his or her client in the court room. 

Thanks to all of you who put the time and effort into bringing the academy into existence.

Brian Bramblett
Trieweiler Law Firm

It is certainly worth noting that everyone, regardless of their level of experience, felt that the program was not only worthwhile, but energized them, gave them a new perspective, gave them new ideas.  As I walked across the compound the second day of the program with Erik Thueson, one of the most experienced and successful trial lawyers in the State, he said "I'd pay to go to this as a student."  I felt exactly the same way; it was a privilege to be there.  Joe Bottomly and I worked together in one courtroom with our 4 Junior Partners for three days – and every day I took something away from his comments and those of the younger lawyers that I'll use for the balance of my career.  During the "demonstrations" I wrote notes as feverishly as anyone else while listening to Beth Best work the "unfortunate (defense friendly) facts" of the case into her seamless opening statement in a way that made it clear they supported the plaintiff's case.  David Slovak and Erik Thueson both made short, pointed presentations of considerations in closing argument and cross-examination respectively.  I watched Randy Bishop conduct the cross-examination of an expert and interrupt himself at intervals to explain what had been done, why, what was left to be done, and how he suggested it be done.  We watched Larry Cozzens' eloquent closing liability argument and listened to Zander Blewett handle the general damages portion of that argument in a way so effective that Jim Manley actually wrote him a check.  There were a multitude of other opportunities to learn from everyone present – the senior partners; the junior partners; the judges; the jurors; and the witnesses – it was brilliant.  

We are all proud of what we do and of our affiliation with the Montana Trial Lawyers  Association.  The leadership of generous, determined people like Doug Wold, Jim Manley, Mike Cok, Randy Bishop, Amy Eddy, and a host of others too numerous to name who volunteer their time, their expertise, and experience, has created an educational opportunity for our brothers and sisters in the law that is second to none.  As Doug Wold explained, experiences like the Trial Academy give people the experience and the confidence to try their client's case ably and well.  They can "step across the line to try the case because they know how."  And as Erik Thueson admonished the participants "try your cases," the jury system depends on it.

I don't know what any of us could be doing next year that would provide greater potential benefit to our clients – i.e., those we are privileged to represent – than the opportunity to improve our skills at MTLA's Trial Academy.  You may want to check it out, to get in line.  If you can set the time aside, perhaps you'll come away with the perspective captured by seasoned trial attorney Doug Marshall, quoted above "feeling better about what it is we do, how we do it, how we can do it better and why it is so important to our free society and system of government, that we keep doing it."  Bravo!