In the Courtroom
New Texas law school advocacy competition to debut this fall.
Written by Eileen F. O’Neill
Texas law students will have a new opportunity to hone their courtroom advocacy skills thanks to a partnership between the state’s 10 law schools and the Texas chapters of the American Board of Trial Advocates—known regionally as TEX-ABOTA.
The “TEX-ABOTA Best in Texas Voir Dire Competition,” a first-of-its-kind advocacy simulation focused on the under-taught skills of jury selection, has been in the works since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Its inaugural tournament is scheduled for September 30 through October 2, 2021, in San Antonio.
A trial advocacy competition among the Lone Star State’s law schools was the brainchild of Austin attorney and 2020 TEX-ABOTA President Robby Alden, who while helping judge the regional rounds of the Texas Young Lawyers Association National Trial Competition in 2019, broached the idea with St. Mary’s University School of Law Professor A.J. Bellido de Luna. Bellido de Luna, who enthusiastically endorsed the suggestion, remembers the conversation well. “I met so many ABOTA members there,” he said. “I think their positive experience helped us along the way to build the relationship.”
The idea garnered unanimous support from the TEX-ABOTA board, which includes representatives from all 15 Texas ABOTA chapters. Alden then appointed Justice Patricia O. Alvarez, of the 4th Court of Appeals in San Antonio, to chair the planning committee. Lawyers from all around the state volunteered to serve. Bellido de Luna suggested reaching out to each Texas law school to participate as well. All 10 agreed.
The first order of business was to decide on the competition’s focus. Texas Tech University School of Law Professor Robert T. Sherwin felt strongly it should center on jury selection. “I thought that this was a really unique opportunity to do something nobody else in the country is doing,” Sherwin recalled. He said that back in 2013, the University of Missouri-Kansas City—then under the leadership of Texas attorney Rafe Foreman—launched a revolutionary competition emphasizing voir dire skills. “That tournament was the very best, and most practical, advocacy competition I had ever experienced,” Sherwin said.
Unfortunately, when Foreman retired from teaching and returned to Lubbock to practice law in 2019, the UMKC competition was retired as well. “I felt like that left a gaping hole in the advocacy world,” Sherwin said. “And I thought, the last thing we need is another regular old mock trial competition. There are already dozens of those. Let’s do something different.”
The committee unanimously agreed, and the “Best in Texas Voir Dire Competition” was born. Instead of a traditional trial-advocacy tournament that follows the opening-statement/four-witness/closing-argument model, the voir dire competition will focus solely on jury selection and opening statement. To do this, real-world laypeople will be brought in to serve as mock jurors. The student advocates will question those jurors just as they would in a real case, and afterward, make both for-cause and peremptory strikes. A six-person jury will then be seated to hear the students’ opening statements. Afterward, the jurors and the judge will fill out the ballots that will decide which team wins.
“What I really love about this format is how real world it is,” Sherwin said. “The juror ballots are going to be dead simple—which attorney do you think did a better job? The team that gets more ballots will win. And so it’s just like the real world, where you’re trying to make a connection with the venire panel and strike those people who you think don’t think like you or your case.”
And because only the non-stricken jurors will vote on the winner, prudently exercising one’s strikes is just as important as the oral arguments the attorneys make, Sherwin explained. “One of the things that I think sometimes gets lost in trial advocacy competitions is that they’re judged by lawyers. Well, in the real world, lawyers aren’t our audience. People are. And this is a competition where real people will get to decide who did a better job.”
Once the committee decided on the format, Alden submitted the idea to the TEX-ABOTA board. “They loved it,” Alvarez said of the board’s unanimous approval. She then split everyone into subcommittees to begin the arduous task of building the tournament into a reality. Aside from a host subcommittee to plan the competition itinerary and details, subcommittee members have been drafting the rules and the problem, designing trophies and awards, and perhaps most importantly, raising funds.
To help pay for the event, the Texas ABOTA chapters and many of their members have made contributions through the ABOTA Foundation, a 501(c)(3) educational organization. “Their contributions will help train the next generation of trial lawyers—and hopefully future ABOTA members—in Texas,” Alden said.
The committee also recommended that the competition rotate and be held in the cities with a law school. In 2022, the competition will take place in Dallas.
Alvarez is proud of the committee’s work so far. “To me, what is most important about this endeavor is that it’s a competition that has brought advocacy teachers and trial attorneys together for the first time—it’s a program grounded on civility, the right to jury trials, and the importance of voir dire in Texas advocacy practice,” she said.
Alden agreed. “One of ABOTA’s primary missions is the preservation of the Seventh Amendment’s right to a civil jury trial, and the focus on jury selection perfectly fits ABOTA’s mission,” he said. “The professors whole-heartedly supported this focus as well because law students do not receive much training in jury selection—perhaps the most important part of a jury trial.”
Law professors serving on the committee are Tim Adams, of Texas Southern University Thurgood Marshall School of Law; A.J. Bellido de Luna, of St. Mary’s University School of Law; Brandon Draper, of the University of Houston Law Center; Jennifer Ellis, of Texas A&M University School of Law; Elizabeth M. Fraley, Robert Little, and Kathy Serr, of Baylor Law School; Laura Frase, of UNT Dallas College of Law; Rob Galloway, of South Texas College of Law Houston; Jonni Walls, of SMU Dedman School of Law; Tracy McCormack, of the University of Texas School of Law; and Rob Sherwin, of Texas Tech University School of Law.
ABOTA members serving on the committee are Justice Patricia O. Alvarez, of San Antonio; Robby Alden, of Austin; Robert Aldrich, of Fort Worth; Quentin Brogdon, of Dallas; Judge Les Hatch, of Lubbock; retired Judge Caroline Baker Hurley, of Houston; Albert Gutierrez, of San Antonio; Donald Kidd, of Houston; Sandra Laurel, of San Antonio; Brian Lauten, of Dallas; Joe Lovell, of Amarillo; Ranelle Meroney, of Austin; Eileen O’Neill, of Houston; Dennis Peery, of San Antonio; R. Bruce Phillips, of San Antonio; Ellen Presby, of Dallas; Hella Scheuerman, of San Antonio; Terry Tottenham, of Austin; and Allen Williamson, of Decatur.
Alden said other ABOTA groups across the country are watching the Texas event with an eye toward duplicating it. “I’ve mentioned the possibility of the other three regional chapters, CAL-ABOTA, FLABOTA, and SEABOTA, hosting a trial competition with the winners participating in a ‘Final Four’ event hosted by the national organization. No doubt the ‘Best in Texas’ would be the ‘Best in the U.S.,’” he said.
But for now, TEX-ABOTA and the Texas law school advocacy professors
are excited to see their work take flight. “An incredible relationship
was born between ABOTA and all of the Texas law schools,” Bellido de
Luna said. “I can’t wait for the first one.”TBJ
EILEEN F. O’NEILL
is a partner in Ware, Jackson, Lee, O’Neill, Smith & Barrow in Houston, where she is a trial and appellate lawyer focused on domestic and international arbitrations. She is certified in civil trial law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. A former judge, O’Neill is president of the American Board of Trial Advocates, a senior fellow of the Litigation Counsel of America, and a life fellow of the Texas Bar Foundation.