Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Good Litigating is Good Teaching: Introduction

Part One: Introduction

An odd and unexpected series of events turned me from courtroom litigator to law school professor overnight.1  Over Labor Day weekend, I traded my trial binders and exhibit stickers for a handful of “How to be a Great Teacher” books and 44 second-year students. I quickly realized that the courtroom and the law school classroom are not that different. In both instances an attorney is trying to educate a group of non-attorneys about the facts of a case, the law, and how those two things—when viewed together—demand a particular result. Moreover, both students and jurors come to the room with little familiarity with legal jargon, the rules of procedure, or the instant litigation. Therefore, I was a little surprised to learn that despite the common goal (i.e. educating a group of lay people) two separate bodies of literature exist: how to litigate2 and how to teach.3  Interestingly both the lawyering texts and the pedagogical texts suggest the same common principles: be engaging, be prepared, be adaptable, and be responsive to your specific audience’s needs. But few resources, if any, acknowledge the existence of these two parallel worlds, even though a fair number of law professors have navigated both the courtroom and classroom.4  This blog post series seeks to highlight the numerous similarities between persuasively trying a case before a jury and artfully teaching a course to law students, while offering suggestions for implementing a little more courtroom flair into the classroom.

Over the next several weeks, this blog series will explore the various phases of courtroom litigation and how those skills translate to the classroom,5 including: voir dire, opening statements, handling the case-in-chief, preparing for the unexpected, the effective use of expert witnesses, demonstrative exhibits, closing arguments, and conducting a post-trial, self-reflection. 


[1] Prior to joining academia full-time in 2013, I worked as a judicial law clerk, a prosecutor, and a court-appointed criminal defense attorney. During my nine years in the courtroom, I litigated countless pre-trial hearings, tried over 100 bench trials, and served as lead counsel in more than 30 jury trials.  I am currently the Director of Academic Excellence and a Teaching Associate Professor at West Virginia University College of Law. 

[2] See, e.g., Judge Mark W. Bennett, Eight Traits of Great Trial Lawyers: A Federal Judge’s View on How to Shed the Moniker “I am a Litigator,” 33 Rev. Litig. 1 (2014).

[3] See, e.g., virtually anything written by Professor Gerald F. Hess, including specifically Monographs on Teaching and Learning for Legal Educators, 35 Gonz. L. Rev. 63 (2000) and The Legal Educator’s Guide to Periodicals on Teaching and Learning, 67 UMKC L. Rev. 367, 367 (1998) (summarizing the “vast collection of periodical literature on teaching and learning”); Mary Kate Kearney & Mary Jane Kearney, Reflections on Good (Law) Teaching, 2001 L. Rev. Mich. St. U. Det. C.L. 835; or Paul T. Wangerin, Teaching and Learning in Law School: An “Alternative” Bookshelf of Law School Teachers 29 Gonz. L. Rev. 49 (1994).

[4] For one litigator-turned-professor’s thoughts on this transformative process, read Lucinda Jesson, So You Want to be a Law Professor?, 59 J. Legal Educ. 450 (2010).

[5] Admittedly, none of the teaching suggestions contained in this series of blog posts will likely be novel or groundbreaking.  Rather this blog series seeks to highlight how, too frequently, the courtroom and classroom are viewed as requiring separate skills sets, when instead both professors and litigators should be focusing on the similarities.

(Kirsha Trychta)


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