UM team's trial by fire ends with a win

November 10, 2006|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,Sun reporter

Scopes had Clarence Darrow. O.J. had Johnnie. Even patricidal Erik Menendez had that spitfire attorney Leslie Abramson.

And now, among the next generation of leading litigators, a former professional kickboxer and an actor whose character told off Tony Soprano and lived to see another day?

The unlikely pair helped capture the first national championship for the University of Maryland School of Law's mock trial program late last month. Talking about their success this week, students credit dedicated coaches, hours of late-night preparation at their downtown Baltimore campus and their diverse backgrounds for an unexpected win.

"I think it's in the performance. It's about connecting with the audience, whether on TV or in the jury box," said Sig Libowitz, a third-year Maryland law student and actor who, in a role on The Sopranos, disparaged the violent head of the Mafia family. "You got to be able to tell a story and direct a story."

Victory over 15 other teams at the invitation-only Tournament of Champions has shed new light on the little-known but increasingly successful program at Maryland. To make the competition, teams from around the country must have three years of success at regional contests. Maryland never before made it to the tournament's semifinals, much less take home the top prize.

"It's a very competitive field. Some schools pour in a lot of resources in personnel for their teams," said Bobbi Flowers, director of the Center for Excellence in Advocacy at Stetson University College of Law, where the national competition was held.

"Maryland has done it primarily on the back of the coach. It's a very respected program now," she added. "And for Maryland to come out and beat those established schools is amazing."

Kimberly Chatman of the National Institute for Trial Advocacy, which sponsored the tournament, called Maryland's triumph "a shock."

Judges routinely referenced Maryland's command of the law and rules of evidence, as well as an impeccable courtroom manner that never fell into dramatics.

This week, other members of the Maryland team are putting their reputation on the line in Los Angeles at the National Civil Trial Competition, which ends tomorrow.

Competing in mock trials provides students what most of law school doesn't - a chance to test out legal theories, novel arguments, technical motions and hard-fought objections in front a sitting judge.

Even trial team supporters acknowledge it still doesn't always get the same academic respect as, say, making law review. Its top performers don't usually hail from the nation's most selective law schools like Harvard and Yale.

"But I kind of have a leg up on my peers," said Jessica Butkera, a third-year student who was paired with Libowitz at the national championship. "I just have a lot of practical, hands-on experience that most people don't get until they graduate."

In the trial team world, leading programs are at Washington University, Temple University and South Texas College of Law, among others. Many of those top-ranked schools field well-funded teams and coaches whose futures are precariously tied to their teams' success.

"I was at one competition where our team defeated a very successful team," said Maryland coach Jerome Deise. "The coach berated the students, leaving some of them in tears. I heard some students were later removed from the team. That's just not the way we operate."

At Maryland, almost 100 first-year students try out every year but only a handful make the cut to join the 18-member team. In doing so, they commit to a two-year class that meets once a week but requires hours of additional practice sessions on weekends and nights before competition.

"You can't be a good fighter without the work. It's all in the practice," said team member and former pro kickboxer Jason Downs. "It's very similar to trial work. You just don't walk into court without a lot of preparation."

Downs, 23, came to law school to become a litigator, not the choice of many lawyers who graduate and spend relatively little time in a courtroom.

"I grew up in Baltimore City. I want to be a litigator in the tradition of Warren Brown and Ken Ravenell," he said, referring to two of the city's better-known defense attorneys.

In addition to Butkera, Downs and Libowitz, the winning team was rounded out by Rachel Simmons, who was named the final's best advocate.

In competition, the team is broken up into two-lawyer teams who play the role of the prosecution or defense (or in civil cases, the plaintiff and the defense). When they're not voicing objections to the judge or addressing the jury, they switch roles and serve as witnesses for the trial.

Deise took over as coach for the program eight years ago. Now he jokes that he would have been more wary of the job had he known about the late nights and weekends consumed with trial team practices

"It's labor-intensive, but there is no substitute," said Deise, a former chief of capital defense for the Maryland Public Defender Service and now a law professor at Maryland.

The training is not designed to make a group of lawyers who think and act exactly alike. "My goals are to try to create in each student the very best lawyer each student can be," he added. "I don't want a bunch of Jerry Deises running around."

matthew.dolan@baltsun.com

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