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Workshop Prepares Juvenile Law Practitioners for the Dramatic Stage of Courtroom Trials

By Amy Yarbrough
Daily Journal Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO – Gregg Bryon didn’t realize it, but she has a dolphin flipper.

Ripley’s Believe It or Not! isn’t likely to come pounding on her door, however. The “flipper,” in Bryon’s case, was how an observer referred to her hand gestures at a recent workshop to help juvenile law practitioners improve their legal chops.

Bryon learned of the apparent awkwardness of her movements when she and 29 other local attorneys participated in the recent intense, three-day program, sponsored by the Bar Association of San Francisco.

Members of San Francisco’s dependency and delinquency panels – and attorneys who want to join – acted out a mock trial scenario, as volunteer trainers with the National Institute of Trial Advocacy looked on.

The first two days of the program, which began Dec. 1, were devoted to direct and cross-examinations of witnesses and introducing evidence. On the final day, attorneys delivered their opening statements and closing arguments.

Much as if they were participating in a drama club for litigators, attorneys received pointers on gesturing to emphasize a point, and how to stand, deliver and frame their arguments and tips on choosing words that pack a punch.

Then came a particularly dreaded moment for the participants – seeing themselves on video. In one-on-one sessions with the trainers, they watched themselves delivering closing arguments.

Byron may navigate tough terrain as a member of the dependency panel, but the critiques still seemed to sting a bit.

“It’s hard to hear so much criticism, but it’s a really great thing to do,” said Bryon, a San Francisco sole practitioner and member of the State Bar since 1994. Though hard on the ego, the workshops were still a “good charge up,” and a way to practice her skills in a low-stakes environment, she said.

Based in Louisville, Colo., the nonprofit institute offers legal advocacy skills training in workshops across the country, normally at a cost upwards of $1,200. Participants in BASF’s pro bono Juvenile Trial Advocacy Clinic didn’t pay nearly that much, thanks to the volunteer trainers, most of whom were local attorneys.

Clinic director Mike Kelly of San Francisco helped round up local lawyers who were willing to donate their time to the effort. As a result, participants ended up forking over only $100 if they’d been in practice for five years or less, or $225 if they had been working longer.

“It’s really cool from my vantage point,” Michael Roake, who taught at the clinic with his wife JoAnne, said Monday. “What usually happens is it’s a program for well-heeled lawyers.”

The training sessions also typically take place over eight days, Roake said. “These lawyers are getting it in two-and-a-half days, so they’re really gunning,” he said.

For decades, BASF has provided attorneys for both the dependency and delinquency panels. The dependency panel is made up of roughly 80 lawyers who represent children and parents in child abuse and neglect cases. For delinquency there are 30 attorneys who represent juveniles accused of crimes.

Lawyers on the dependency panel are appointed to cases and represent clients with economic hardships at the public’s expense. Delinquency panel members, who are also funded by the court, step in when the public defender’s office has a conflict or when a case involves more than one juvenile.

Outgoing BASF president Nanci Clarence said she came up with the idea for the clinic with two goals in mind. For one, she wanted to support local dependency and delinquency attorneys, whom she considers overlooked heroes in the legal world.

Clarence’s other goal was to get new blood on the panels. Six or seven of the attorneys who participated in the trainings now plan to join.

“I thought, ‘What could I do to help these folks keep their edge?'” Clarence said.

“It wasn’t a difficult thing to get off the ground,” she said. “There was a huge amount of enthusiasm and goodwill.”

During the clinic, lawyers were given the same scenario to work around: Fictional “Lola Reed’s” 7-year-old son, “Robert,” is taken away from her after she’s seen hitting him in a doctor’s office.

A doctor, receptionist and patient in the waiting room back up child abuse claims to varying degrees. Mom, however, tells a different story: Robert has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and he had bitten another child who took a toy away from him. She’d hit him with a magazine – not hard, only enough to get his attention.

Some participants represented the mother, others the Bureau of Children and Family Services.

Along the way, Roake encouraged participants to take risks, “because there is no client,” and, above all, to be themselves.

“They are just skills. The artistry comes with fusing those skills with your personalities,” he said. “Trial is the last great drama. It’s performance art.”

Later, Roake and another instructor, University of San Francisco Law professor Henry Brown, briefed a small group on the finer points of closing arguments.

“Good one, Jane. But I want you to slow it down and don’t look at these notes,” Roake told sole practitioner Jane Ginsburg of San Francisco. “I don’t want you to lose the power of your eyes.”

While Bryon had drawn comparisons to a dolphin, Jennifer Callahan in some eyes resembled a dinosaur. Callahan had been told she’d been moving her hands but keeping her arms stiff as she made presentations in front of her group.

But on Monday, the course’s final day, when she and instructor Doris Cheng sat down to watch Callahan’s video, the stiffness had disappeared.

“We saw big changes in everyone from the first to the last day,” Cheng, an attorney with Walkup, Melodia, Kelly, Wecht & Schoenberger in San Francisco, said later. “People just kind of came out of their cocoons.”

This type of training does have some potential pitfalls, as Kelly found out firsthand.

Kelly, who is also with Walkup, had the rare opportunity of going up against two attorneys in San Francisco Superior Court that he’d taught in training sessions outside the state.

“I’m proud to say I’m an excellent teacher because I lost both cases,” he said.

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© 2008 Daily Journal Corporation. All rights reserved.