Akron Legal News: Buckingham attorneys participate in unusual training session
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By: SHERRY KARABIN
Legal News Reporter
Published: October 25, 2019
It’s mock trial with a more strenuous twist and for Buckingham, Doolittle & Burroughs associates who participate in the litigation practicum, it is a way for them to get the trial experience they need to score wins for clients.
The practicum was begun six years ago by John Hill, leader of the litigation practice group, in an effort to fill the training void created by the reduced number of jury trials.
“When I started practicing in the late 1980s, jury trials were quite common in civil litigation,” said Hill. “Today less than 1% of civil cases are resolved by a jury.”
With so few trials taking place, Hill said it’s difficult for new associates to get the on-the-job training they need.
“When a trial does occur, clients often don’t want associates handling all of the key parts of the case, so there are few opportunities for them to get on their feet in court,” said Hill.
But that’s not the case with the practicum, which gives associates the chance to actively work on a portion of an actual firm matter.
The entire practice group is required to attend, but a small group of attorneys is selected to play various roles during the training session. Intensifying the experience even further, the firm recruits a local common pleas court judge and an actual jury to participate.
“Our goal is to make it as real as possible,” said Hill. “We use a jury consultant to help us find real jurors, who are residents of Summit County. We pay them for their time and we have a local judge preside over the trial and make rulings.
“We ask the jurors to deliberate in another room and set up a closed-circuit TV so our attorneys can watch them,” he said.
The first practicum took place in the fall of 2013 and used a focus group to test potential trial themes and theories for an oil and gas partnership dispute (KB Resources v. Patriot Energy Partners) that was heading to trial.
“We ran case patterns by the focus group and our lawyers watched on closed-circuit TV,” he said. “Only two of our group members actively interacted with the focus group, myself and my paralegal Kim Dornack.”
In 2017, several associates played an active role in the jury selection process for what was an ongoing defamation lawsuit (Randolph S. Stepp v. Medina City School District Board of Education), in which the firm represented the plaintiff.
“We brought in a judge and a large panel of real citizens to serve as the jury pool and we had a defense and plaintiff team go through the voir dire process, which has been particularly helpful to the firm’s lawyers, who have tried several large jury trials since then,” said Hill.
The Stepp case settled on the eve of trial.
This year’s practicum took place at Buckingham, Doolittle & Burroughs on Sept. 21, with the entire litigation practice group in attendance as well as members of the firm’s employment law practice group. In the past, the sessions were held at The University of Akron School of Law and students were invited to attend.
Summit County Common Pleas Court Judge Joy Malek Oldfield presided over the trial, which dealt with a tortious interference with a business relationship claim (Deems v. Ecowater Sys., Inc.), in which the firm had represented one of the defendants, Hempy Water Conditioning.
Litigation associates Andrew Pullekins and Amanda Gatti represented plaintiffs Rick and Ron Deems, who filed a civil litigation suit against Buckingham client Hempy Water Conditioning and Ecowater Systems (represented by a different firm), after the defendants purchased another water conditioning company.
Hill said the plaintiffs argued they had a deal in place to buy that company until the defendants wrongfully interfered and induced the seller to breach the purchase agreement with Deems.
The Sept. 21 simulation focused on Buckingham’s client.
Buckingham associates Meleah Kinlow and Tara Rose defended Hempy Water Conditioning, winning their case as the firm did for the client in 2014. Associate Katie Duffy played a key witness, Hempy’s president.
The teams were charged with crafting and conducting opening statements and questioning/cross-examining the witness before a sitting jury, made up of Summit County residents selected by Buckingham.
As in the real legal world, preparation is a major part of the exercise for attorney participants, who are given access to actual depositions and other evidence that was part of the original case months in advance.
“The specifics of the practicum were laid out in August 2018,” said Pullekins. “Over the past nine months, we focused on topics that were pertinent to the practicum during our monthly practice group meetings.
“For example, we might spend one meeting focusing on the plaintiff’s opening statements and another working on the defendant’s side. We were assisted by more experienced lawyers, who helped us to craft our arguments.”
“The opening statement in a case like this is usually handled by the more experienced trial attorney on the case,” said Kinlow. “As a third-year associate, participating in the practicum has given me the opportunity to get valuable experience in front of a real judge and jury.”
Kinlow also took part in the jury selection practicum two years ago.
“The practicums are as close to the real thing as you can get,” said Kinlow. “I was able to improve my skills and become more confident in front of a jury giving an opening statement.
“I was also able to get positive feedback and constructive criticism from the more experienced trial attorneys in my practice group, all of which will help me tremendously when participating in an actual jury trial.”
Pullekins said the practicums reinforce teamwork and collaboration, two of the firm’s core values.
“The entire practice group focuses on the practicum, giving us a chance to come together and learn from one another as we address complex issues that litigators face at trial,” said Pullekins. “In my case, I do have experience trying cases, but I still walked away with new skills and techniques that I can utilize during the rest of my career.
“I also received feedback from a mock jury, which is invaluable to any trial attorney regardless of how long you’ve been practicing.”
While everyone involved benefits, Pullekins said it’s the client who really wins.
“Attorneys at all levels of the practice group hone their skills at no cost to the client,” said Pullekins. “New attorneys gain experience in a real-world setting and our seasoned attorneys sharpen their skills.”
Hill said the next practicum will likely give attorneys the chance to question an expert witness and do closing arguments.
“We’ve walked the group through the jury trial process over the last few years. The next practicum may take us through the end of the process,” Hill said. “It would be great if we could do it next year, but considering the amount of time and preparation required for these, it is probably two years down the road.”
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