The Practice Skills Courses: Mastering the Fundamental Elements of Legal Practice

A law student’s preparation for a career in advocacy begins with mastering the fundamental skills that are the necessary tools for the successful advocate of today. This is accomplished in a variety of courses that stimulate practice in today’s legal world of both traditional courtroom litigation as well as alternative dispute resolution.

The College of Law has designed a comprehensive approach to skills training that begins in the first year and continues throughout the second and third years of the curriculum. It employs the latest technology, both as teaching tools and as a means of communication and persuasion, with which the present day advocate must be familiar. It is also distinguished by a high degree of involvement of members of the full-time faculty.  This provides for the ultimate integration of the theoretical and practical aspects of a well-rounded legal education.

Legal Writing and Advocacy             

Persuasive communication is the fundamental skill of the effective advocate. In their first year, students take this required year-long course that stresses both written and oral communication. Students learn the traditional analytical and writing skills of a first-year legal writing course, but also have the opportunity for their initial exposure to effective oral communication.

Introduction to Lawyering Skills

Training the student to be an advocate in today’s world continues in this required course that can be taken in either the second or third year. In the small group setting, the student is immersed in the simulated representation of a client from the day the client first walks into the attorney’s office up to a pre-trial settlement conference. The student prepares many of the written documents that confront the practitioner, including pleadings, written discovery, motion and order, settlement agreement, and client correspondence. The student also engages in a variety of simulated exercises that are videotaped for critique by the instructor in one-on-one student-teacher consultations. In addition to teaching the student these “nuts and bolts” skills of the practice of lawyering, the course emphasizes a client-centered approach to representation. The student must assess the client’s concerns and determine how, if at all, a legal or litigated solution is appropriate.

Introduction to Lawyering Skills is taught by full-time members of the faculty and adjunct faculty who have had extensive experience in the practice of law. The course is intended, in part, to provide students with the fundamental skills needed to prepare students effectively for a range of hands-on experiences. 

Students with an interest in alternative methods of dispute resolution, increasingly relied upon in the world of today’s advocate, have the opportunity to take Mediation Theory and Practice. The course combines traditional classroom teaching with simulated exercises in which the students engage in mediations.

Trial Advocacy

In either the second or third year, the student who has taken Evidence may take Trial Advocacy. Taught by experienced members of the full-time faculty, trial practitioners, and member of the judiciary, Trial Advocacy teaches the student the day-to day courtroom skills utilized by trial attorneys. The student learns to make an opening statement and closing argument, to conduct direct and cross-examination of witnesses, and to introduce physical evidence. The course culminates with the student participating in a full trial.

Advanced Trial Advocacy

Building on the fundamental skills learned in Trial Advocacy, students may further polish and expand their trial advocacy skills in Advanced Trial Advocacy. The course engages students in a series of simulated trial exercises in which they refine the presentation of evidence and examination of witnesses, with significant emphasis on scientific/medical proof and the art of cross-examining difficult witnesses and experts. Jury selection, effective use of jury instructions and effective presentation of evidence using modern technology are also stressed.

Appellate Advocacy

Students have the opportunity to refine their skills of issue identification, case analysis, legal writing, and oral argument in Appellate Advocacy. Taught in conjunction with attorneys from offices of the Illinois Appellate Defender, students review actual appellate records and prepare both written and oral arguments. 


Practice Skills Competitions

Co-curricular competitions afford students opportunities to further sharpen their legal practice skills through participation in a variety of intramural, regional, and national student competitions.

Each year, many of our students compete internally in the Prize Moot Court Competition and the 2L Mock Trial Competition.  Students who excelled in these competitions as well as in the various aspects of the skills training curriculum have the opportunity to compete in several external competitions, involving trial advocacy, client counseling, mediation, and negotiation through which they earn academic credit through Co-Curricular Competitions.

Appellate Advocacy

2L Prize Moot Court Competition

Each year, approximately half of the second year class participates in the College of Law’s Prize Moot Court Competition. Teams of two students research and write an appellate brief and participate in several rounds of oral arguments. The final argument is an annual highlight of the spring semester at the College of Law. Distinguished jurists and members of the legal community sit on the panel of judges for the final argument.

Members of the Moot Court Society participate in the formulation of the Prize Moot Court problem, the administration of the program, and the judging of arguments in other programs. Membership in the Moot Court Society is automatically conferred upon any eligible full-time student at the College of Law who registers and competes in the NIU Prize Moot Court Competition.  The Moot Court Board is headed by a chief justice and a number of associate justices.   Additional information about Moot Court, including current competitions and board members, can be found on the Moot Court Society pages.

External Appellate Advocacy Competitions

Students who have excelled in the Prize Moot Court Competition compete in several external appellate advocacy competitions during their third year.  In recent years, teams from the College of Law have participated in the following competitions:

Trial Advocacy

2L Mock Trial Competition

The 2L Mock Trial Competition gives students their first opportunity at presenting a case in a courtroom.  The skill that is most important to the trial attorney is the art of persuasion.  Therefore, the emphasis of the competition is on putting facts together to present a persuasive case to a jury.  The competition is intended to be an introduction to the real life trial practice that many of our students will experience as states attorneys, public defenders, etc.

The competition brings together students from all three classes.  Second year students act as trial attorneys.  First year students serve as witnesses and jurors.  Third year students with trial advocacy experience act as judges for preliminary rounds.

External Trial Advocacy Competitions

During their third year, students can continue to refine their trial skills by competing in co-curricular trial advocacy competitions.  Students experience an intense immersion in development of a theory of a case and preparation of the case for eventual presentation at trial.  The competitions are an excellent opportunity to combine knowledge learned in Evidence with skills gained in Trial Advocacy in order to become a very effective trial lawyer.

The College of Law annually participated in the following competitions:

Client Counseling

Interviewing clients, ascertaining their legal needs, and providing counseling, are among the most fundamental and important skills of the practicing attorney.  These skills are strongly emphasized in the Lawyering Skills course.  Students have an opportunity to further practice those skills in the ABA Client Counseling Competition, in which over 100 teams enter nationwide.

Teams from the College of Law have twice reached the national finals, finishing as high as second in the nation.  The College of Law also has hosted the national finals of the competition.

Mediation 

Representing clients in a mediation setting is an essential skill for lawyers. Students at the College of Law have the opportunity to learn this skill in Mediation, Theory & Practice and Alternative Dispute Resolution. The ABA Representation in Mediation Competition, in which law students role-play as advocates and clients in a mediation setting, gives students a further opportunity to refine the skills of client representation in mediation, as it measures how well students model appropriate preparation for and representation of a client in mediation as well as provides students a valuable opportunity to experience the mediation process.