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What is Trial Advocacy?

By Christopher John
Updated May 16, 2024
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Trial advocacy or trial practice is a course in law school. It teaches students the fundamentals of conducting a trial. The course work usually includes trial preparation, selecting a jury, developing an opening statement, presenting evidence, raising objections, questioning witnesses and making a closing argument. Trial advocacy usually culminates in mock trials during which each student serves as a lawyer in a trial. Real lawyers and judges usually observe the mock trial and offer critiques to help students learn.

Law professors teaching trial advocacy help students learn the basics of trial preparation, such as developing and organizing a trial notebook. Students must design a trial notebook carefully to include all materials needed for trial. Students learn that organization is key, allowing a lawyer to find needed documents quickly during an actual trial. Professors impress upon students that jury members observe a lawyer's every action. A lawyer fumbling around trying to find a document appears incompetent and unprofessional, which will cause jury members to have a negative perception of the lawyer.

Students taking a trial advocacy course learn the importance of selecting a jury. The first step is deciding whether to request a jury trial. If a jury is appropriate for the case, then students learn about voir dire, which is the process of questioning a jury pool to try to learn about the background and potential bias of a potential juror. Students must learn how to ask questions, interact with prospective jury members, and control their demeanor. With the information gathered during voir dire, students must decide whether a prospective juror is likely to identify with their client or influence other people serving on the jury, and whether a challenge should be exercised to eliminate a person from serving on the jury.

Developing an opening statement is another important facet of trial advocacy. Students learn that an opening statement must establish a theme for the case, explain what the lawyer will prove and avoid legal jargon. The opening statement must personalize the client to the jury. Students learn how to present themselves with confidence and authority during the opening statement.

A trial advocacy program teaches students how to present evidence through their witnesses via documents, exhibits and other types of physical evidence. Students must learn the art of questioning witnesses by asking leading questions during cross-examination and open-ended questions during direct examination. Students practice raising objections — such as hearsay, compound questions, argumentative, leading, or calls for speculation — when an opposing party is questioning witnesses. The students also learn about strategy and tactics such as deciding not to raise an objection to avoid bringing attention to a key point. Law students will quickly realize in trial advocacy that perception is as vital as the evidence to winning a trial.

The closing argument is the final part of a trial. Students in trial advocacy learn the importance of an effective closing. They learn to argue the evidence and law. They try to paint a picture of why the jury should enter a verdict in favor of their client. Trial advocacy teaches students to use analogies, anecdotes, humor and rhetorical questions in a closing argument.

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