Courtroom Juggernauts

July 12, 2017

St. Mary’s Law External Advocacy Program celebrates legacy of wins with another national championship
by Jennifer R. Lloyd (M.B.A. ’16)

Three students in courtroom

L-R: Rising third-year law student Sophia George, William “Billy” Calve (J.D. ’17) and Devin deBruyn (J.D. ’17) won the 2017 national championship at the American Bar Association’s National Appellate Advocacy Competition.

When Sophia George began her legal studies at St. Mary’s University School of Law, she was set against doing litigation work after graduation.

“I didn’t want to argue in court,” said George, now on the cusp of her third year of law school. “I was kind of scared.”

Now George and her teammates William “Billy” Calve (J.D. ’17) and Devin deBruyn (J.D. ’17) are as comfortable speaking before a panel of judges as they are posing next to the glass trophy honoring their recent national championship at the American Bar Association’s National Appellate Advocacy Competition.

In a rare achievement for any U.S. law school, St. Mary’s Law students won this elite honor two years in a row. Calve was a member of both teams.

“Winning ABA even once is an honor,” he said. “To have come back and defended that title was an incredible feeling.”

Calve likened the energy of competition to riding a roller coaster.

“There’s a lot of anticipation before you start. And then once you’re over that first hill … you just kind of buckle in,” said Calve, as George added, “and enjoy the ride.”

But the real magic of the advocacy programs at St. Mary’s is not the wins. It’s the development of skill and confidence through hundreds of hours of effort, said head coach Ricky J. Poole (J.D. ’90).

Since the launch of the law school’s formal advocacy programs in 2000, St. Mary’s teams have brought home 30 state, regional and national championships — netting a major competition win nearly every year. Poole has been a coach from the start and has seen the transformation in students unfold time and again.

“You have some students who come in and are talented but not at their potential,” Poole said. “I can see them progress from one level of talent to something that’s absolutely extraordinary.”

Poole said deBruyn, for instance, came into the program wanting only to write briefs. But he, ultimately, snagged the title of second-best speaker at a competition, as well as earning recognition for writing the fifth-best brief in the nation for the ABA championship.

The advocacy programs at St. Mary’s, which Professor of Law David Schlueter, J.D., LL.M., helped organize, include the External Advocacy Program (teams in competitions like the ABA championship), the trial advocacy curriculum and the Board of Advocates, which is a student organization that runs internal competitions.

The External Advocacy Program prepares students for three types of competition: mock trial, negotiations and moot court.

For those uninitiated in the world of advocacy, mock trial mimics the kinds of situations TV viewers are most used to seeing — think Perry Mason. Students on negotiations teams receive a legal problem and must act as lawyers representing a side.

Moot court tournaments, like the ABA competition, reflect the appellate courtroom, such as the U.S. Supreme Court, in which students argue the law before a judicial panel and write a brief to convince the court to decide in their favor.

DeBruyn said moot court participation allows students “to get underneath the law in some ways, to explore the underlying reasons or rational or policy considerations behind the law.”

Beyond the trophies and glory, students emerge from the program with a finely honed set of practice-ready skills, said Schlueter, who is wrapping up his 17 years as Director of Advocacy and plans to continue teaching. Many advocacy alumni have gone on to work in trial and appellate courtrooms and around negotiation tables, he said.

Beth Watkins (J.D. ’02) of Watkins Appeals PLLC was on the moot court team that took home the ABA championship in 2002 — the first time St. Mary’s won the trophy — and was recognized as the competition’s best speaker.

Describing herself as “painfully shy and terrified of public speaking” before joining the team, she credits that experience as the reason she became an appellate lawyer and credits the program with bringing tremendous prestige to St. Mary’s.

“I was not born with great public speaking and advocacy skills, but as a result of countless practice rounds, I developed those skills and eventually won a national competition,” Watkins said. “Now, those skills form the foundation of my livelihood.”

She is one of the hundreds of students ushered through the advocacy programs over the years who benefited from being armed with advocacy skills.

Through the journey, students also find new meaning in the law they’ve studied in order to compete.

At one regional competition, a girl from the audience came up to George and told her the fictional case that the team had been arguing about a college student sexually assaulted at a party was similar to an experience she had endured. The girl told the team that she was glad there would be lawyers like them advocating for people in her situation. That comment, with its real-life repercussions, sticks with George still.

“When you graduate, it’s not about winning a round. It’s about getting justice for your client,” George said.

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