Every year, as the University of Richmond campus empties for fall break, the second-year class returns to the law school for the annual law skills weekend.  This weekend provides the students a chance to develop their trial skills in a two-day intensive workshop.  The students, however, are not the only people who are on campus during fall break.  Year after year, more than a dozen local practitioners come back to lead the workshop and help create the next generation of lawyers.

The curriculum for the weekend takes the students through many things they’ll need to know for a trial, including questioning witnesses and introducing evidence.  Many of the instructors feel that the intensive nature of the weekend is key to its success.  “The school deserves a lot of credit and Professor Douglass deserves a lot of credit,” says Mike Herring, the Commonwealth’s Attorney for the city of Richmond.  “The school makes it clear that this is serious stuff.”

The instructors tap into their years of experience to guide the students through the details and strategies of trial practice.  Each instructor’s unique experiences in their career shapes their teaching style and makes the experience slightly different for each student.  Regardless of the instructor, however, every student is sure to receive in-depth and personal feedback on their performance in the different exercises over the course of the weekend.  The structure of the weekend allows for the instructors to step students through the process of a trial and help the students develop their skills.

For the instructors, working with the students is what brings them back each year.  “I enjoy the ability to interact with students,” says Steve Faraci (L ’98), a shareholder at LeClairRyan.  “I enjoy watching the development of law students and younger lawyers, and it’s just nice to give back.”  David Johnson (R ’80, L ’83), Director of the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission, echoes that sentiment.  “This is my 14th year,” explains Johnson.  “I love the students.  Every year, they just keep getting better.” For Herring, the lessons go both ways: “it’s as much a learning experience for me as it is for the students.  It keeps me on my toes in working with them to perfect their technique.”

All of the instructors also reflected on how wonderful it is to see the students develop over the length of the weekend, and the entire course.  “You go from someone who has no idea how to handle a piece of evidence in a courtroom to being able to authenticate the evidence, admit the evidence, work with it, and prove points with their witnesses,” says Tracy Thorne-Begland (L ’97), a judge in Richmond General District Court.  Herring remembers those extra-special moments he’s seen in his thirteen years teaching the course: “I’m watching a student do an exercise, and they do such a good job, relatively speaking.  It could be a student who has come a long way, or it could be a student having no problem whatsoever who just knocks something out of the park.  I can feel this beaming smile come across my face and, in some years, I am so taken by it that I’ve literally run down the middle of the courtroom and high-fived the student.”  Every instructor has those memories, as they watch students rise to the occasion.

Many of the instructors are Richmond Law alumni, and they reflect on how the program has changed, and yet, how consistent it has remained.  “This was a four-day course when I took it,” says Thorne-Begland with a grin, “so I appreciate the fact that we’ve been able to condense it down to a couple of days.  But it’s a great program and it’s been pretty consistent.  I think they’ve got the right formula, so I haven’t seen a lot of change.”  All of the instructors are impressed at how steady the program has stayed.  “I have maintained the same set of materials for seven years.  Done the same case for seven years,” explains Faraci, “so you get a chance to watch how each specific class handles those materials, and each and every year that goes by you’re able to find a little more concise and clear way to articulate the rules of the road and the tips and the tricks that will aid them as they go forward.”

Ultimately, the skills the instructors pass on are ones the students will use their whole professional lives.  “At the beginning of each semester I always tell the students, you don’t know where you’re going to be five-to-ten years from now,” says Herring.  “But the one thing you can take away from this classroom is the fundamentals on how to try a case.  And a lawyer who knows how to try a case fundamentally can always earn a living.”