About the Trial Practicum
This intensive litigation practicum consists of three full days of trial practice, videotaping, personal review of videotaped segments, and trial preparation culminating with a full day of trial at the San Francisco Superior Courthouse.
Students are typically family law attorneys intending to take the Family Law Specialization Examination and interested in earning two trial credits for their participation, and/or family law attorneys generally interested in improving courtroom advocacy skills.
Panelists and practicum leaders are experienced family law lawyers and judges who are committed to the education and development of the family law bar. Experienced family law accountants and mental health professionals also participate as expert witnesses.
Stay tuned for more information.
My Experience at the 2014 Trial Practicum
December 29, 2014
By Vanessa K. Wills, Associate Attorney at Blevans & McCall, LLP
For the third time in a row, the AAML Trial Practicum coincided with the San Francisco Giants’ triumphant quest for World Series victory. Any other year, you would have found me glued to the nearest television, delightfully experiencing a healthy dose of the San Francisco Giants’ infamous “torture.” In 2014, however, I enrolled in the AAML Trial Practicum, which was scheduled to begin on the same day as Game 2 of the World Series. A few minutes into orientation, I came to terms with the fact that any activities extraneous to the Trial Practicum—including the World Series—would be temporarily forgotten for the next four days.
The AAML Trial Practicum is a wonderfully rigorous investment in one’s own trial skills. It is intended to, and in my opinion successfully does, simulate a real-life family law trial addressing both financial and custody issues of a dissolution proceeding. For the first three days of the Practicum, participants divide their time between attending lectures put on by some of the most talented and accomplished Family Law trial lawyers in the business, and participating in workshops by presenting their developing trial skills in smaller groups. At the end of each “work day” participants are faced with the dilemma of getting a good night’s rest or preparing for the next day. As with any trial, preparation takes priority.
By the fourth day, exhaustion sets in as participants gear up for a full-day mock evidentiary trial. The trials are held in courtrooms at the San Francisco Superior Court before actual Judicial Officers from around the Bay Area, and involves the examination (and cross-examination) of actual experts. The one benefit of exhaustion, particularly when combined with three jam-packed days of skill development and preparation, is that it tends to override any nervousness that inevitably comes from presenting a client’s case at trial. Before you know it, you are on your feet giving an opening statement or closing argument and examining witnesses. For me, this process revitalized my ardor for being in the courtroom and taught me against my better judgment that cross-examination can actually be a lot of fun.
In sum, the benefits of the AAML Trial Practicum are two-fold. First, it presents an invaluable opportunity to learn from AAML Fellows who candidly share their insights on developing successful trial skills and techniques. Second, it presents a rare opportunity to practice those skills in a realistic setting without the risk of dealing with a dissatisfied client, or worse, a malpractice suit. The program’s value is not limited to “new” or “young” lawyers, but is realized by anyone desiring to better their trial presentation skills. For those of you who have not yet had the pleasure of participating in the Trial Practicum, I cannot recommend strongly enough that you mark your calendars for 2016.
I believe I speak for all of the 2014 AAML Trial Practicum participants in graciously thanking the Judicial Officers, AAML Fellows, and experts who invested so much of their precious time to developing the next generation of quality Family Law trial lawyers. For both these individuals and the participants who dedicated four long days to improving their practice, the return on this investment is sure to yield strong results and, hopefully, another Giants World Series victory in 2016.
2014 Northern California AAML Trial Practicum
Craig C. Weaver is an associate attorney with the firm of Bartholomew & Wasznicky LLP in Sacramento.
It’s like a bar exam for family law trials. That’s how I would describe the Northern California AAML Trial Practicum. Going into it you know it’s going to be difficult, you know you’re not going to get much sleep, but once it’s done, if you’ve given it your all, you know something great is going to come of it.
Much like the bar exam, on the first day you’re in a room with some familiar faces, but most are unknown. There’s a feeling of excitement mixed with a healthy dose of apprehension in the air. The introduction of what’s to come is brutally honest. I’m not sure if that helped ease the apprehension or added to it. Either way, it was appreciated. We were informed that a lot was going to be asked of us, that it would be a difficult and trying experience, but that the payoff would be worth the effort.
This year’s practicum consisted of three full days of trial practice, videotaping, personal review of videotaped segments, and trial preparation, culminating with a full day of trial at the San Francisco Superior Courthouse. At the end of the program, from my estimation, the payoff was definitely worth the effort. Some of the best family law attorneys in Northern California devoted their valuable time to help some up-and-coming practitioners become better litigators and advocates in general for our clients.
The course is intense. At the end of the introduction each participant was provided with a thick three-ring binder with handouts, fact patterns, relevant law, and other materials that would be used throughout the course. In addition to the lectures that provided valuable insights and practice tips from seasoned litigators, participants were assigned tasks with completion deadlines. However, before we could complete the tasks, we first needed to digest the fact patterns, relevant law, and other materials. Diving into the materials reminded me of cramming for a law school exam only a few days away, i.e., the trial scheduled for Saturday. However, the difference was this was the first time we were being exposed to the materials. Thankfully, we were all assigned partners and small groups that allowed us each to gauge what others were doing to ensure that our plan for managing what needed to be done wasn’t too far off course.
Being from out-of-town, I was staying at the host hotel which I believe was a considerable advantage. No distractions and no travel—the same as my set-up for the bar exam. I was also lucky to be assigned an excellent partner and mentors. My partner Chris Cohade from Nachlis & Fink was local. His office was literally a block away from our host hotel and he was very familiar with San Francisco. This made working dinners a breeze and we were also fortunate enough to have access to his firm’s conference room to prepare on the eve of trial.
Michèle Bissada and Gretchen Wallacker served as our mentors. Their critiques of our preparation, advice on where to focus our arguments, and ensuring that we stayed on track through the grueling program was invaluable. In addition to the critiques, advice, and lectures from our mentors and the other presenters, one of the unique takeaways from the practicum for me was the ability for us to critique ourselves. It’s not often that you’re videotaped while presenting legal arguments and have the opportunity to review that video. Whether good or bad, we all think that we look a certain way, talk a certain way, and present ourselves in a certain way when making a legal argument to the court. However, as I found, the videotape sometimes can tell a different story—good or bad. We can always improve our presentation style and for me having the opportunity to review the videotape was a valuable tool in improving my own presentation of legal arguments.
The trial itself was a fantastic experience. Where else do you have the opportunity to present arguments in a real courtroom, to a real judge, with witnesses who are often attorneys themselves or who are professionals in the family law arena, without the concern of having an impact on your client’s life? I’m an attorney. Not surprisingly, I’m competitive and I like to win. I imagine most, if not all, of my peers at the Practicum felt the same. We were all trying our best but our clients weren’t real. They were actors. The judge’s ruling wasn’t really going to impact their lives. I viewed this as an opportunity to be creative; to try some new things stylistically; to take some risks. And, it paid off. I received some excellent feedback and feel that I am now a better attorney and litigator from having done so.
I highly recommend the Northern California AAML Trial Practicum to anyone who is considering attending. I would also like to thank all of those involved who made it happen this year, including my fellow participants and the partners at Bartholomew & Wasznicky LLP for allowing me to attend. The beautiful crystal Honor Advocate Award in my office was a nice take-away from what I felt to be a very valuable and worthwhile experience.