New experiential course creates effective advocates
June 9, 2015 - Tamara Williams
“An expert knows all the answers – if you ask the right questions.”— Levi Strauss
Students at the UNM School of Law learn how to ask the right questions of both consulting and testifying experts in a highly-interactive new course called Experts in Litigation.
Students participate in three hands-on experiences in depositions and in court, where they receive advice and pointers from judges and attorneys.
Former Assistant United States Attorney Mark T. Baker was one of the volunteers who evaluated students during their courtroom exercises. He says they are really lucky to have this opportunity in law school. “Normally, the first time you’d work with an expert witness is after you graduate,” said Baker. “It could be years before you call an expert as a witness or cross-examine one in court. It’s so much better to get the chance to do this in law school, where you aren't dealing with the pressures of a real case with real world consequences.”
Class focus is on practical lawyering
Experts in Litigation was co-developed and co-taught by Professor Barbara E. Bergman and UNM Law School alumna Cynthia Blackwell (’04), an attorney at Los Alamos National Laboratory, who adds expertise in science and technology as well as the law.
Bergman has taught at the law school since 1987 and has helped shape the school’s practical lawyering curriculum. “The UNM Law School has focused on experiential learning for years,” says Bergman. “Legal education around the country has now finally started to realize that the practical application of legal skills is critical in the education of our law students.”
Her strong expertise in criminal law includes practicing as a criminal defense lawyer with the Public Defender Service in Washington, D.C. She also worked on the defense team in the State of Oklahoma v. Terry Nichols, a state death penalty case.
Community collaborates to teach students
The five mock cases range from eye witness identification to a shaken baby case, with both testifying and consulting experts. The six writing assignments are real-life exercises from law office practice, including a memo explaining what sort of expert is needed and why, a Daubert motion or response, and jury instructions.
Bergman tapped into her network of nationally-recognized attorneys and the New Mexico Bench and Bar for guest speakers and participants to evaluate the mock trials and courtroom exercises.
The experts included clinical psychologists, fellows from the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator, experts from the state crime lab and Los Alamos National Laboratory, and a lab expert in forensics who worked on the Terry Nichols case.
“We are so fortunate here at UNM to be able to call upon the leading trial attorneys, experts, and judges throughout the state to help educate our students,” says Bergman. “Over and over again they enthusiastically donate their time and expertise to prepare our students to be effective advocates for their clients.”
A memorable courtroom experience
One of the exercises took place on April 15 in a courtroom in the impressive Pete V. Domenici Federal Courthouse in downtown Albuquerque.
Robert Johnston (’16) took the podium to establish the credentials of his testifying defense expert, a forensic pathology fellow in the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator. He asked questions about the victim’s symptoms and if the expert had reached an opinion in this case. She had; in her opinion, the baby exhibited the triad of symptoms consistent with shaken baby syndrome.
Then Hannah Bell (’16) cross-examined the expert, asking questions about the data and the information she had used to evaluate the medical examiner’s autopsy report.
When they were finished, New Mexico Court of Appeals Judge Michael E. Vigil critiqued both students on their courtroom exercises. “You’ll remember this experience the rest of your lives,” he added.
Students say the class gave them practical knowledge and invaluable experience. “Experts in Litigation has provided me with tools now that I would be lucky to get after four or more years in practice had I not taken the class,” says Johnston. “From Daubert hearings and motions to fine tuning the mechanics of working with an expert, this class has taught me a lot of valuable skills.”
“We got to learn trial tips from great attorneys and judges,” says Bell. “It was a wonderful experience that will enable us to become better advocates for our clients in the future.”
“This new class on expert witnesses is another great addition to the UNM Law School’s already first-rate trial advocacy curriculum.
Law firms and agencies that hire UNM Law grads are getting new lawyers who are ready to hit the ground running in the areas where new lawyers are most valuable – preparing cases through well planned discovery, and preparing witnesses, especially experts, to testify.”