by Sharron Kahn Luttrell
It happened more than a dozen years ago, but the event lives on as a near-mythical moment in the history of the Suffolk University Law School National Trial Team.
In an ornately detailed federal courtroom in Miami, Florida, then-third-year law students Robert A. Fullerton, JD '95 and Kathy Jo Cook, JD '95 were competing in the National Student Trial Advocacy Competition sponsored annually by the American Association for Justice (AAJ) (formerly the Association of Trial Lawyers of America). Their fictional case involved a restaurant patron who had broken his neck when a rusty, 10-year-old chair collapsed under his weight. The plaintiff claimed that the manufacturer used substandard steel in constructing the tubular, S-shaped chair frame; the defense argued that the restaurant caused the rust and should have replaced the chair.
Fullerton and Cook had already survived 10 round-robin trials at the regional and national semifinal levels and were paired against a team from Campbell University in the final, deciding round. Suffolk Law's team won the coin toss and chose to represent the defense. Fullerton took his position in front of the panel of prominent lawyers in the jury box and the federal judge who presided while the team's advisor, Professor Timothy Wilton, looked on.
Fullerton launched into his opening argument, parts of which, all these years later, Wilton can still quote verbatim. Recalling the pivotal moment today, Wilton lowers his voice to a deep growl and drops his r's to approximate the Boston-born Fullerton's cadences.
"'I got a friend named Joe,'" Wilton recalls him saying. "'Joe has a 1969 Dodge Dart. When I ride around with Joe, I can see the road passing beneath my feet, because Joe's floorboards are all rusted out. Now I ask you: If one day I fall right through the floor and get hurt, is that Dodge's fault, who sold Joe a perfectly fine car in 1969? Or is that Joe's fault, for keeping that car on the road far after its useful life has ended?'"
Three hours later, through dramatic opening statements, tense direct and cross examinations, and eloquent summations, the points were tallied, and the Suffolk Law National Trial Team was declared the 1995 Student Trial Advocacy Competition national champions. Wilton's team had beat out more than 200 other law schools to take the title.
Back home in Boston, Wilton and his students went out to celebrate at the Dugout, a Kenmore Square bar where Fullerton was bartending nights to help put himself through law school.
"We walk into the bar, and Rob sees his friend," Wilton recalls. "He goes, 'Hey, Joe! Joe, bring the car around. Show them the floor!' Sure enough, it was a true story. I tell you, this stuff is magical."
"Magical" could also describe the sustained success of Suffolk Law's National Trial Team over its 24-year history. The team has won the New England regional championship in either the AAJ competition or the American College of Trial Lawyers' National Trial Competition (NTC) a total of 17 times, including six consecutive NTC regional tournament wins in the last six years, the second-longest winning streak in the nation. Two years ago, the team was a national NTC semifinalist, and over the years the team has made the national NTC "Final Four" four times. Most years, team members have competed in the prestigious National Institute for Trial Advocacy Tournament of Champions, a fall competition open to the nation's top 16 trial teams; and this fall, team members will compete for the fourth consecutive year against 18 other trial teams in the William W. Daniel National Invitational Mock Trial Competition. For the last two years, the team has ranked in the national top 10 for Tournament of Champions points, and for the last three years the team has been the highest ranking law school in New England for Tournament of Champions points.
And, of course, there's that magical AAJ win in Miami.
The National Trial Team program is one of eight competition teams at Suffolk Law (see sidebar). Although the National Trial Team has been the school's most consistent breakout star, several other competition teams have also enjoyed recent successes. Last year, the Securities Law Team made it to the Final Four and received a Best Brief award in the Irving R. Kaufman Memorial Securities Law Moot Court Competition; that same year the Constitutional Law Team won the national J. Braxton Craven Moot Court Competition, considered one of the most esteemed appellate advocacy competitions in the country. And several years ago, the Trademark Law Team placed second in the national Saul Lefkowitz Moot Court Competition.
The teams give students a forum in which to apply classroom theory to real-world practice, says Professor Richard Pizzano, who in addition to overseeing all of the outside teams and personally coaching two of the school's constitutional law teams, serves as faculty advisor to the Moot Court Program, supervising the Moot Court Honor Board and the Suffolk Journal of Trial & Appellate Advocacy. "These competitions enrich their educational experiences, teach them some of the fundamentals of the lawyering process, and teach them to stand up on their feet in front of people," Pizzano says.
And in no case is that truer than for Suffolk Law's National Trial Team. Founded in 1983 by now-retired Professor Charles Burnim, the team gives students invaluable practice trying cases before members of the bench and bar around the country. Each spring, the program fields four teams of four to eight students each, sending two teams to the AAJ competition and two teams to the NTC competition.
While the two competitions differ slightly, both have been compared to the National Collegiate Athletic Association's March Madness. The sponsoring organizations kick off their annual competitions six weeks ahead of the first tournaments by issuing teams a fictitious case. Teams go head-to-head in trial simulations held in actual courtrooms around the country, and judges use a point system to score student advocates on the different aspects of their performance. Teams argue both sides of the case in round after round, moving up through regional and then national tournaments with each win.
Tryouts for the National Trial Team are open to any Suffolk Law student but are highly competitive; last year, some 40 students tried out for 11 open spots.
"We're looking for students who can think on their feet and who'll be comfortable with the performance aspect of the competition," says Bobby Hazelton, JD '02, a former competitor and the current head coach of the team, along with Wilton. (Seven alumni, many of whom are former competitors themselves, serve as coaches for the team.) Candidates prepare a five-minute closing argument from a trial record, and then answer questions from coaches and team members during a 20-minute interview.
The students who win a slot on the team each fall are slotted onto one of the program's four squads as either advocates or witnesses. The team members practice about 20 hours per week, meeting all day Sunday from January until March, when the regional tournaments begin. They also squeeze in additional practice sessions during the week. All told, says Hazelton, each student advocate puts in about 200 hours of preparation for each competition.
The students and coaches work together, analyzing the record, putting together the theory behind the case, developing their witness examinations, and formulating their opening and closing arguments. They determine the best way to organize the facts in order to lead the jurors to their point. They learn to turn a witness response in their favor and to recognize when it's time to change tactics. They hammer one another with questions, hoping to cover any possible surprises during competition. The entire experience, pre- and post-competition, is a crash course in trial advocacy. And perhaps most importantly, the students learn to argue both sides of a case with passion and precision, which trains them to avoid the tunnel vision that can result from approaching a case from a single perspective.
"It's been by far the best experience of law school. You get a feeling that everything you're learning in law school is put into practice with these competitions," says Amy Martin, JD '08, an AAJ regional finalist last year who received 85 percent of all available points in the tournament. In fact, the opportunity to be a part of the Suffolk Law National Trial Team has proven a specific draw to some prospective students. Cassandra Hearn, JD '07 chose Suffolk Law precisely because of the trial team's reputation. She became one of the rare students accepted onto the trial team in her first year and went on to participate in all three regional competitions. Hearn believes that her trial team work prepared her for a third-year position in the Suffolk County District Attorney's office (through the Prosecutors Program)-which in turn helped her hone her trial team skills. "It was a cyclical thing," Hearn says. "Since I had the mock trial experience, they were more apt to give me real trial experience, and the real trial experience helped me with mock trial."
Fellow trial team member Adam Foss, JD '08 also chose to attend Suffolk Law after watching trial team members stage a mini-mock trial during a prospective student open house. Before attending Suffolk Law, Foss spent three years as a paralegal at a business litigation firm; he marveled that the students on the trial team were as skilled, if not more so, than most of the lawyers he had seen in court.
"It's experience that you don't get sitting in a classroom or reading cases," says Foss. "If you want to be a trial attorney, it's the best thing you can do to prepare short of actually being one."
That assessment doesn't surprise Wilton.
"By the time they get done with trial team-especially the competing advocates-their trial skills are as good or better than the average practicing lawyer," Wilton says. "Their training goes far beyond that of any other law student."
In fact, for one team competitor, that highly developed skill set led to an unanticipated job offer. The year Wilton joined the program as co-director with Burnim, his team won the regional NTC tournament. A week later, Larry Boyle, one of the attorneys who judged the competition, invited the two winning student advocates to interview at his Boston law firm, Morrison, Mahoney & Miller (now Morrison Mahoney). Student advocate Thomas Elcock, JD '86 took Boyle up on his offer and started working at the firm; six months later, he argued his first jury trial in the Massachusetts Superior Court. "I did it by myself, and the only reason I was in a position to do that is because of the trial competition, and because Larry had judged me and said, 'You can try this case,'" Elcock says.
Wilton attributes the team's continued success to a number of factors, including the intense practice schedule and the care with which team members are chosen, assigned to their roles, and paired up. But mostly, Wilton insists, the team's accomplishments are due to the dedication of the coaches, most of whom are former trial team members and young practicing attorneys who sacrifice nights and weekends to prepare the next generation of trial attorneys for competition-and, ultimately, for thriving careers.
"They feel like they have a huge debt to pay back," says Wilton. "Half a dozen young lawyers and other people like me have poured hour after hour into training them to be the best trial advocates in Boston."
Erin Harris, JD '06 was an advocate on one of the Suffolk Law teams that swept the NTC regionals in 2006, where she and competition partner Kevin Freytag, JD '06 made it to the Final Four. Harris was also a 2006 recipient of the Judy Potter Award for best individual advocate in New England. Now a Suffolk County assistant district attorney, Harris was eager to return to Suffolk Law as a trial team coach. However, she thought long and hard about signing on for a second year this fall, wondering if she might better spend her time working a second job to pay off her student loans. In the end, she chose to continue coaching.
"I think it's worth it to stick with the team because of how much it gave me," says Harris. "I wouldn't be in this job right now if I hadn't been in the program, and I wouldn't do as well as I do if I hadn't been in the program."
But the National Trial Team experience isn't all late nights and stressful mock trial showdowns. Over the years, there have been many stress-reducing moments of levity-one of which even led to a team custom.
Twenty years ago, Wilton and students Joe Balliro Jr., JD '87 and Steve Lander, JD '87 were playing "evidence trivia"-quizzing each other from an evidence book-while driving north to a regional tournament at the University of Vermont when one of the students said, "Hey, Professor Wilton. If we win the regional championship, do we get to call you Uncle Wilty?" "I said, 'Oh sure, fine, whatever, whatever,'" Wilton recalls. "Well, they won. That began a tradition. If you win a regional championship, you get to call me Uncle Wilty." And with the team's taste for victory, there's no doubt 'Uncle Wilty' will be an oft-heard moniker for years to come.
ALUMNI PROFILESLance D. Clarke