Course culminates in mock trial: Practicum gives law students courtroom experience


By Jo Mathis

Legal News

Max Ballou knew he wanted to be a trial lawyer from as far back as he can remember.

In fact, for him, litigation is what being a lawyer is all about.

"I didn't know there was an alternative in law school," said the third year Michigan Law student with a laugh. "I thought that's what lawyers did."

Because he wanted litigation experience before he graduates next month, Ballou enrolled in Michigan Law's Family Law Litigation Practicum co-taught by Washtenaw County Trial Judge Tim Connors and Vivek Sankaran, a clinical assistant professor of law in the Child Advocacy Law Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School.

The three-hour weekly classes are held in Connors' courtroom in the Washtenaw County Courthouse.

"From the second students step foot in the building, and go through security and checking in, they're getting a feel for what lawyers do every single day," said Sankaran.

Many law school classes and clinics today have a mock trial component to them, he said.

"There's definitely a shift in legal education to more practice-based types of exercises just to make sure we're teaching students things that are relevant to the actual practice of law," Sankaran said.

During class, students learn about child welfare laws as well as how to advocate on behalf of families who are in difficult situations.

At the end of the year, students from Cooley Law School and Eastern Michigan University's social work program are invited to join in a mock trial competition, which was held on Saturday, April 14.

Judges included Judge Joseph Burke as well as the four attorneys--James Fink, Carol Kuhnke, Douglas McClure and Erane Washington - who are running for the upcoming Circuit Court judge seat that will be vacated by the retirement of Judge Melinda Morris.

"Each of them brings a unique perspective to the table and it gives them an opportunity to get a preview of the work they're either doing now or will be doing as a judge," said Connors. "But most importantly it's a chance for law students to learn and to share and to grow from that experience. And hopefully when they do go in to start to represent clients, they do so with a measure of understanding and compassion."

Jenny Fritz, a professor of social work at Eastern Michigan University, brought five social work students with her to be jurors and witnesses on the mock trial, which dealt with the termination of parental rights.

"We think it's important to have the relationship where our students can offer the social work perspective, also to learn how to be good witnesses and also just learn about the court process," said Fritz. "We are teaching them as much as we can throughout the year about our program and this course offers another perspective and another way to learn as much as they can."

"It's very nice of Judge Connors to involve us," added Fritz's colleague, Bonnie Miller, who wishes more law professionals would collaborate with the social workers and mental health professionals on similar projects.

While the practicum helps some students realize they do want to become litigators, others learn it's not for them.

There's a certain level of anxiety before a court appearance, and euphoria afterwards that keeps litigators going, Sankaran said, noting some people don't like the highs and lows.

"Some students take these practice-based classes and realize they want to do transactional work as opposed to doing litigation," said Sankaran, who has litigated cases on behalf of parents before the Michigan Supreme Court, and was recently appointed to the state's Child Abuse Prevention Board. "There's a certain personality that enjoys this. And some don't."

Sankaran graduated from Michigan Law in 2001. While there, he was enrolled in several clinics, which gives students the opportunity to represent actual clients after they go through mock trials in preparation.

"It really gave me the first flavor in law school of what it's like to be a lawyer," "So much of law school is just reading cases. This is a chance to go out there and see what the practice of law is all about."

Ballou will graduate from the University of Michigan Law School on May 7, and already has a job lined up with a law firm in New York.

"Long-term, I want to do trial work and litigate cases on a courtroom level and that's not something you ever get to do in law school other than in something like this," he said. "Most of law school classrooms are utterly irrelevant of what you'll ever actually do as a lawyer. So this was a great experience."

Published: Thu, Apr 19, 2012


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