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Trial Academy Insights from the Executive Director

I can’t thank enough the forty volunteers who contributed so much of their time and talents to the recent VBA Trial Academy, especially the judicial officers and trial practitioners who provided very helpful critiques throughout the day to individual practitioners in the ten separate mock trial courtrooms that were set up for the program.

I also very much appreciate the feedback from participants, which we typically solicit following our programs, in an effort to continually improve the educational experience for our members.

In light of recent publicity about the Trial Academy, I would like to offer three insights in the hopes that they’re helpful to persons who were not able to be there:

  1. The primary focus of the Academy is to provide lawyer participants an opportunity to hone their trial advocacy skills in a courtroom setting. Participants select either a criminal, civil or family law case pattern when they register, and prepare trial segments (an opening statement, direct examination, cross examination and closing statement) in advance of the program. They present the segments before a judicial officer and experienced trial practitioner in separate classrooms set up as mock courtrooms.  The judicial officer and practitioner provide individualized feedback about the substance and style of the presentations. We have received nothing but positive feedback about this aspect of the program, which aspect was the primary reason for organizing the Academy, and which was the primary focus of the nearly 8-hour program.
  2. It is clear that a number of participants were offended by several unscripted comments that were made during a brief portion of the program that was intended to provide a short overview for each trial segment.  One of the points made at that time was that lawyers should dress professionally in the courtroom, and should be mindful of the impact that their appearance may have, particularly on jurors who come from a variety of backgrounds. That is standard trial advocacy guidance. Where the comments drew criticism was when the discussion strayed into the area of specific items of attire. Shortly after that point one of the female judges volunteering in the program rightly pointed out that lawyers should decide for themselves what is appropriate attire. She added that female litigators, in particular, should not feel limited in their choices of courtroom attire. Following those remarks, the balance of the day-long program returned to its anticipated format. I spoke with the female judge after the program, thanking her for her input, and we discussed different ways to improve the program in the future, including enlisting a greater number of female practitioners next year.
  3. The several comments at issue were not intended to offend. They were offered in the broader general context to dress appropriately in the courtroom. That they did offend is clear, and the VBA Board has apologized for the delivery of those comments, and has outlined steps to take going forward.  It has also addressed in a letter the separate issues of gender balance in VBA presentations, and the number of presentations that the VBA has offered in the past, and will continue to provide, regarding implicit bias, gender balance and sexual harassment topics.

Thank you for the chance to address the three points that I feel have been somewhat lost in the recent publicity, that is:  (1) That the central focus of the Academy was the excellent individualized feedback from real judges and trial practitioners in mock trial courtrooms; (2) that the few ill-advised comments specific to courtroom attire (not female lawyer attire in general) were during a limited portion of the program and were responded to at that time; and (3) the comments at issue were not intended to offend. We recognize that they did offend, though, and the Board has responded with specific plans in response.

I also appreciate the feedback that we have since received about the topic from a number of members. We will continue to listen respectfully to all members’ views, and to give those views full consideration as we strive to serve the public and the profession as the Vermont Bar Association.  We have an opportunity to be a forum for this and other very important topics in the ever-changing legal landscape, and will do our best to be that forum in a helpful way. Please feel free to contact me at tcorsones@vtbar.org if you have questions or comments about these insights.