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Laramie, Lander Law Students Gain Courtroom Experience

August 22, 2012
Nathan Nicholas and unidentified student
University of Wyoming law student Nathan Nicholas of Laramie, left, makes an argument during the UW College of Law’s recent Summer Trial Institute. (UW Photo)

As third-year students in the University of Wyoming College of Law, Jared Larsen of Lander and Nathan Nicholas of Laramie have learned a lot about the law -- both in the classroom and as legal interns.

But neither had firsthand experience in a courtroom -- until last week.

Larsen and Nicholas were among 24 third-year UW College of Law students who received valuable instruction from nearly 70 volunteer attorneys and judges, most from Wyoming, during the two-week Summer Trial Institute at UW. Actual courtroom reporters also attended the second annual event.

The volunteer group served as faculty members for one or two days each, and some gave a week of their time, says Steve Easton, UW College of Law dean. He adds that the institute is an intensive “boot camp” experience for the UW students who learn what it takes to become successful trial attorneys.

The institute culminated with a mock trial, complete with a defendant and attorneys on both sides of a case. The trials were heard before a judge and jury panel. Larsen was on the prosecuting team and Nicholas the defense team in a fictional aggravated sexual assault case.

“I’ve gone from knowing basically nothing to a jury trial,” Larsen says. “It’s been a steep learning curve, but it’s definitely been worth it.”

During the institute’s first week, the students attended sessions focusing on beneficial information about assorted parts of trial practice, such as direct and cross-examination of witnesses, opening statements and closing arguments. The lectures were followed by demonstrations in which faculty members showed students how they would approach these matters in trial.

The student performances, and the outlines they prepared in advance, were critiqued by the volunteer faculty members.

During the institute’s final week, students prepared for two separate court cases. Each student was a member of a two-attorney team that tried a “bench trial” -- a trial with a judge, but no jury. On the final day of the institute, the students were part of different two-attorney teams that tried cases in front of mock juries. Six different jury trials -- some at the UW College of Law and others at the Albany County Courthouse -- were tried. A sitting or retired judge presided over each trial.

“Our students worked, in some fashion, on the Summer Trial Institute from dawn until past midnight, pretty much every night. This is very similar to what they will later experience as actual trial lawyers,” Easton says.

Nicholas says it was somewhat intimidating to perform in front of actual judges and attorneys. But it was an excellent learning experience.

“It’s been great to get the perspectives of the practitioners,” he says.

Larsen says the professionals were definitely not “touchy-feely” in their interactions with students, but it was still “a pretty congenial atmosphere. They just want to help us get better.”

Easton says the institute is a “fantastic way to teach trial advocacy.”

“We are proud of this program. There are few law schools across the nation that would even try to run such a program,” Easton says. “We are able to do so due to the generosity of the outstanding trial attorneys, judges and court reporters who volunteer their time to teach in the institute. This is a great example of the university -- in this case, the College of Law -- interacting with the entire state of Wyoming. Though the Institute occurs in Laramie, it is very much a statewide program, with faculty and students from across the state.”

The Wyoming chapters of the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA) and the American College of Trial Lawyers (ACTL) co-sponsored the program.

“These are extremely prestigious organizations that one must be invited to join, and invitations go only to the best trial attorneys,” Easton says. “We work with the Wyoming ABOTA and ACTL leadership to identify the’ best of the best’ and invite them to serve as volunteer faculty members for our institute.”

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