Time Tested: A Longstanding Tradition of Teaching Trial Advocacy

by Kenny Berkowitz
Aleena Haris ’26 (left) and Avery Newcom ’26 were competitors in the final round of the Law School’s 2024 Mock Trial Internal Competition, held March 23.

It’s an unseasonably warm winter day,  one of many, and Jens David Ohlin is sitting in his office at Myron Taylor Hall, thinking out loud about the Law School’s long tradition of excellence in trial advocacy. He talks about “the giants of the past,” faculty members like Irving Younger, a master storyteller who remains famous as the author of the “10 Commandments of Cross-Examination,” even decades after his death. Faust F. Rossi ’60, whose hypotheticals have become legendary for generations of Cornell Law students. Honorable Glenn G. Galbreath, currently in his thirty-third year as the elected justice in the Village of Cayuga Heights, who spent twenty-five years teaching trial advocacy and fifteen years litigating in the public interest. 

Ohlin traces a direct line between these legal legends and Keir M. Weyble, who inherited the five-credit Trial Advocacy course from Galbreath, and Thomas Heiden ’71, who comes to campus each fall for a weeklong course in Intensive Trial Advocacy. From there, Ohlin’s line splits into multiple paths, broadening to add five faculty members steeped in the same academic traditions of lawyering in the best sense. There’s George Higgins, a West Coast–attorney who teaches Improv, Storytelling, and Trial Advocacy; colleagues Michelle A. Whelan and Theodore Grossman, who lead complementary courses in introductory and intensive depositions; and professors Valerie P. Hans and Jeffrey J. Rachlinski, whose psychological research into trial dynamics translates real-world lessons from the courtroom to the classroom.

“Trial advocacy combines our focus on the law in the abstract, on the highest principles of the law, with our commitment to teach the law as a set of skills, as a profession, as a career,” says Ohlin, Allan R. Tessler Dean and Professor of Law. “Students can learn a lot from a case book, but it takes courses like Trial Advocacy to translate that abstract knowledge into the strongest possible argument for your client. That means knowing how to deal with judges, how to present facts before a jury, how to question a witness. How to cross-examine a witness. How to make an opening argument and a closing argument. How to tell a good story.

“It takes practice, preparation, performance,” continues Ohlin. “It takes real artistry and real science. They’re very different skills, but they’re all about learning how to perform in the courtroom. And we teach that better than any other institution in the Ivy League.”

That teaching begins with Weyble, who came to Cornell after twelve years as a practicing attorney in South Carolina, where he litigated capital cases in state and federal courts across the South. In Trial Advocacy, Weyble emphasizes learning by doing, with lectures every Monday, video reviews every Tuesday, large group exercises every Wednesday, small group sessions led by adjunct faculty every Thursday, and a capstone Saturday mock trial at the Tompkins County Courthouse in front of judges like Hon. Scott A. Miller ’95, Tompkins County Court judge.

“So much measurable success in law school happens sitting down, writing exams or responding to questions posed by a faculty member at the front the room,” says Weyble, clinical professor of law and director of death penalty litigation. “This course is very different. It emphasizes thinking and performing like a lawyer, and through that process, learning about yourself. We focus on one skill per week, so over the course of ten weeks, students go from never having done anything in a courtroom to mastering a case file, developing a theory, delivering an opening statement, examining and cross-examining witnesses, getting exhibits into evidence, working with judges, constructing a closing argument—and doing all that in front of a room full of their peers, refining their skills together week after week.”

Avery Newcom ’26 (left) and Aleena Haris ’26 (right) argue their cases before a mock jury. Haris would go on to be crowned the winner of the 2024 Mock Trial Internal Competition.

Each student performs in the role of attorney at least once a week, and each class is another opportunity for Weyble to emphasize the fundamentals of good lawyering, starting with “complete, dogged preparation.” Students are taught to focus on two different kinds of prep, from the specifics of the case to the broader understandings of how to structure an argument, how to focus a jury on your story, and how to perform persuasively in court: What do judges expect to see in a lawyer? What are the protocols you need to follow? How do you demonstrate respect? How do you prove your trustworthiness?

How do you learn confidence?

“At the start of the semester, some students are completely at home standing up and talking in front of other people, and some students think it’s the scariest thing they’ve ever been asked to do,” says Weyble. “By week two or three, it’s still common for some students to be nervous, hesitant, and distracted. They stay very connected to their notes, have a difficult time looking directly at witnesses, and don’t want to say anything that hasn’t already been scripted.

“By week seven or eight, the transformation is profound,” continues Weyble. “Even the least confident students are loosening up, starting to trust themselves and trust their instincts. By the end, everyone is comfortable in their ability to think on their feet. They’re diagnosing the issues and they’re adapting to address whatever problems come up. They’re learning from their mistakes, and they’re learning from their classmates’ mistakes. In the ten years I’ve been teaching this course, I’ve never seen a student not grow into a much stronger, more confident performer.”

Some of Weyble’s students follow with the Intensive Trial Advocacy course taught by Thomas Heiden, which starts with a lecture about the role of the trial in our justice system, progresses with a critique of courtroom scenes from old movies, and quickly reaches the heart of his approach: drill, drill, drill. In one, each student comes up with a proposition, say, “Everyone should own a cardigan sweater,” stands in front of the class, and argues for three minutes without using any notes. In another, students practice word choices in a long series of questions and answers, drilling again and again, and comparing the results. In Heiden’s favorite, students have sixty seconds to deliver an opening statement that should normally take an hour—and present it with no advance preparation.

In other drills, students practice asking open-ended questions for direct examination and narrow, closed-ended questions for cross-examinations. They practice impeaching witnesses, admitting three-dimensional objects into evidence, and arguing each side in a hypothetical case about trademark infringement between two competing medical practices. Then, on the last day, they break into two-person teams to perform before a real judge in mock court.

“We meet for eight days in a row, all day, every day,” says Heiden, fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers, long-time adjunct professor of law, and a former partner at Latham & Watkins. “It’s intensive by design, and by the end of the last day, you’re going to be tired. You should be tired. We take each segment of a trial, drill the purpose of it, and give a demonstration of why it matters. After that, you learn by doing. You learn by listening and watching your peers. You’re critiqued, both privately and in front of the class, and the critique is always positive. Then you get up and do it again—and most students want to do it even one more time.

“They start nervous,” continues Heiden, “and they learn at the speed of light.”

After winning thousands of trials, including the $4B Brady v. National Football League, Heiden is more than willing to share his mistakes, each with its own lesson of what not to do in court. Graduating just before the era when Rossi and Younger pioneered specific courses in trial advocacy, Heiden remembers his early days as a young associate, entering his first court case without knowing where to sit, wondering how to ask basic questions about procedure, and losing thirty or forty misdemeanor jury trials before finding his footing.

“We all make mistakes at trial, and we all have to recover right in the moment,” says Heiden. “Cross-examination is a good example. You have to obtain and maintain control over the witness, no matter what happens, and sometimes you have to regain control. You have to hold witnesses to the answer you want—you can’t take any risks and you can’t run any experiments. You have to try your case to a simple, winning theme that won’t get turned against you, and the single biggest ingredient in all of it is preparation. Preparation is more important than any particular talent you may or may not have for advocacy. Preparation can be taught.”

For George Higgins, one key to that preparation, the ability to think on your feet, is best taught by adapting tools used to train performers. “As far as I can tell, there’s nothing like this course anywhere else,” says Higgins, adjunct professor of law, who teaches Improv, Storytelling, and Trial Advocacy. “There are standalone improv courses taught by non-lawyers, but none that combine improvisation, storytelling, and trial advocacy. It’s a combination that teaches you to be a better listener, to be more flexible, to tell the story you want to tell. To do that successfully, you need to command an audience and be open to what’s going on around you. To collaborate. To be more authentic, more persuasive, more spontaneous. To argue a case through your tone, your gestures, your physicality. Your performance.”

Beginning with classic improv exercises developed for theater, the semester-long class builds to increasingly complex, lawyerly exercises in telling stories, talking in front of an audience, reacting to interruptions, paying close attention to the spoken word, and flexing quickly to recover from missteps. They’re all skills that helped give Higgins—who spent his legal career in the U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps, the U.S. Navy Reserves, and the Alameda County Public Defender’s Office—an increased sense of confidence at trial, a deeper awareness of the dynamics of the courtroom, and an ability to think in the moment.

“Improvisation can really accelerate the learning process,” says Higgins, who has been training and performing as a dramatic improviser since 2007. “Improv teaches you to take risks, and even if that leads to mistakes in the classroom, it makes you much more flexible in the courtroom. The students in this course learn to step away from their notes, and that makes them better storytellers and better communicators. It helps them be more vulnerable, and even if that doesn’t sound like a useful skill for a trial lawyer, it really is. In a place where credibility is your stock-in-trade, improv makes you more authentic to a jury.”

Michelle Whelan

Like Higgins, Michelle Fongyee Whelan was expected to learn lawyering on the job, and after watching a couple of depositions as a new associate at Greenberg Traurig, she was assigned to do one herself. She did, and the memory of that first attempt provided the spark for proposing a depositions course at Cornell Law in 2009. Fifteen years and hundreds of students later, demand for Introduction to Depositions keeps growing, and Whelan typically teaches the two-credit course in both fall and spring semesters.

“Depositions are yet another way for students to understand the timeline of a lawsuit and the key role discovery plays in achieving a successful outcome at trial, or even before trial,” says Whelan, associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion and clinical professor of law. “They learn how to anticipate problems that might occur during the deposition and how to think through their responses ahead of time. With the type of depositions we focus on in the course, students learn how to gather as much information as they can. It’s about setting the stage and finding ways to make people willing to share their stories.”

Whelan’s syllabus concentrates on preparing a list of initial questions, closely listening to the deponent’s response, watching for nonverbal cues, introducing documents, defending depositions, ensuring the integrity of the transcript, and self-evaluating student progress over the course of the semester. They complement the goals for the two-week Intensive Depositions course taught by Theodore Grossman, who has deposed and cross-examined a long list of apex litigants and witnesses, including CEOs of leading corporations, celebrities, and experts in a wide range of fields.

“Our job in taking depositions is primarily to prevent deponents from telling the self-serving story they want to tell at trial,” says Grossman, adjunct professor of law and of counsel at Jones Day, where he successfully defended the largest commercial class action in U.S. history, among many victories. “We want deponents to help us build the theme of our case, and the way to do that is through intensive preparation and organization, starting with an understanding of the admissions that will be necessary during trial, on a motion for summary judgment, in settlement discussions, or in convincing the opponent to drop its case.

“A successful deposition,” continues Grossman, “is almost always the result of intense planning, of building admission on admission to ultimately prevail for your side. Civil cases—where an opponent can be compelled to appear at trial and where there is very broad discovery—are almost always won or lost on the basis of admissions elicited from opposing parties.”

Jeffrey J. Rachlinski

Grossman’s curriculum teaches students to begin at the end, deciding what their closing argument will be, writing an outline of admissions they’ll need to make their case, formulating narrowly tailored questions and follow-up questions, anticipating self-serving answers witnesses might give, and determining ways to undermine those answers. Such depositions almost exclusively use leading questions to create a record of admissions, probe the weaknesses in their opponents’ testimony, and clear a pathway to block their case.

From there, it’s up to the jury to decide, and it’s up to law students to sharpen their arguments with courses from two nationally recognized authorities on the psychology of decision making: Valerie P. Hans, an expert in juries, and Jeffrey J. Rachlinski, an expert in judges. In Hans’ Contemporary American Jury, students study the social science behind jury selection, jury consultants, jury deliberations, jury questionnaires, and juror perceptions of attorneys, evidence, and experts.

“Trials are made up of human actors, and by understanding the psychology behind decision making, students become much more effective at litigation,” says Hans, Charles F. Rechlin Professor of Law, who also teaches Social Science and the Law and co-teaches the undergraduate Psychology and Law with Rachlinski. “They don’t become social scientists in our classes, but they learn how to knowledgably interact with social science to make a powerful case for their client, and whether they’re appearing in front of a judge or a jury, they learn how to construct an argument that’s supported by systematic, scientific research.”

“We’re teaching them to think like lawyers, to become better advocates for their clients, and to understand how people, including judges, make decisions,” says Rachlinski, Henry Allen Mark Professor of Law, who has presented his research to thousands of judges in a dozen states and three countries. “Yes, the courtroom is a unique place, and yes, the law is complicated. But if you’re in front of a judge, and you really want to win your case, you have to know how decisions are made. Judges are humans, just like the rest of us, and if you want to persuade them, you need a story that’s simple and authoritative.

“Half of your job as a lawyer is simplifying the story,” continues Rachlinski. “That’s what works on juries. That’s what works on judges.”

And the evidence?

“The students did a superb job,” says Hon. Anne Patterson ’83, associate justice of the Supreme Court of New Jersey, who returned to campus to judge the moot court competition earlier this year. “They gave presentations that were virtually flawless, handled a barrage of questions, and responded with thorough, concise answers.

“They were in a very challenging position—I remember what it was like for me—and if they were nervous making their case in front of five actual judges, it didn’t show,” continues Patterson, who won the Francis P. Cuccia Cup in 1982. “They skillfully pivoted from the panel’s questions to the main themes of their presentations in a way that I expect to see from very seasoned appellate lawyers.”

Hon. Scott A. Miller ’95, who co-taught Trial Advocacy for eight years and has presided over mock court for more than ten years, agrees. “These mock trials have some of the best closing arguments I’ve ever heard, better than many of the lawyers who regularly practice in front of me,” says Miller, who served as an Ithaca City Court Judge (2013–2019) before becoming a Tompkins County Court Judge (2020–present). “As a trial attorney, you have to identify the heart of the story you want to tell. What’s the human element? What’s the emotional pull? That’s what this trial advocacy program gives its students: a first glimmer into the art of persuasion.”

“By the end of this course, students have mastered the ability to weave their arguments into a compelling, emotional story, and when it comes down to it, that’s the magic of being a trial attorney,” continues Miller. “Cornell’s trial advocacy program teaches law students to find their inner storyteller, which is what this program is all about. It’s one more way that sets itself Cornell apart from every other law school.”