They Laugh...They Win
by Diane Hartman
Do they laugh because they won...or did they win because they laugh?
The moot court team from the University of Denver College of Law just brought in a second national trophy for skills in the courtroom. DU triumphed recently at the National Civil Trial Lawyers Competition in L.A. and last spring at ATLA's Trial Competition in New Orleans.
They do laugh a lot, says coach Karen Steinhauser, who Spent 20 years in the Denver District Attorney's Office and now teaches at DU. "I look forward to coming to practice because it's the most fun I have all week...It isn't about them as individuals, it's about being a team."
Most team members in the recent victory were on the winning team at ATLA. All are third year students.
Reggy Short, 32, who was on both winning teams, is from San Francisco and "really very old." After the Air Force Academy, he served eight years before law school and is still in the reserves. The only team member with a lawyer-as-parent, he said "I grew up understanding contributory negligence. They only problem was the successfully arguing with my parents was never an option." He's interning in the 18th J.D. District Attorney's Office.
Shawn Gillum, 28, grew up in Lakewood, went to CSU, loved college and applied to law school because "I like studying and didn't want to leave." He has a Mickey Mouse tattoo (somewhere) commemorating his time working at Disney World as Mugsy, the gangster, in a show. He's interning with Springer and Steinberg and will start working for Jefferson County Attorney's Office soon. He intends to be a trial attorney.
Ben Winters, 27, from Nashville, intended to be a sports agent when he entered DU. "Now I'm sold on trial advocacy." Some of his earlier jobs included working for Dell Computer ("boring as hell") and being a sales rep. He was a marketing major at the University of Tennessee. He's interning at the Adams County District Attorney's Office. While most said they'd like to stay here, Ben said he wouldn't mind moving to Chicago. He recently was named outstanding advocate in the final round.
Liz Elliott, 24, intended to get a Master's and a law degree at the same time. Like all the rest, she now intends to be a trial attorney. (Are you noticing the effect of Coach Steinhauser?) She dropped work on her Master's degree, finding "the abstract thinking a little harder to take than the more concrete thinking" she found in law school. From Nebraska, she has interned in the Colorado Springs Attorney's Office and is now at the Arapahoe County Public Defender's Office.
Brian Domingues is the youngest, at 24, from California. He chose law school because, "I wanted to have a stable career so I could support a future family. My parents lived paycheck to paycheck and I don't want to." He grew up as a Bronco fan and once coerced a friend into driving to Denver so he could see Mile High Stadium. He came to DU intending to be a prosecutor and is interning now in the Denver D.A.'s office and will go to Jefferson County next semester to that D.A.'s office.
In the ATLA competition last spring, DU almost didn't make it to the preliminary rounds in New Orleans because of Denver's big snow. Albeit chaotic and filled with challenges, they got there, defeated their competition (including Harvard Law as defending national champion) and subsequently won the final round.
The recent Second Annual National Civil Trial Lawyers competition in Los Angeles had the top 14 trial advocacy programs in the country competing. The final round was judged by seven nationally known trial alwyers, including Robert Shapiro.
At The Docket's recent photo shoot, they talked about the intense competition and how they work together.
"With stress, they laugh," said Steinhauser. "They psyche out the other team by talking about where they get their hair cut. They stay loose and keep the ability to have fun."
"We're almost always nervous as heck. It's just like a calm before a storm, until you get the first word. From then on, we all rise to the occassion," one said.
They learned not to try to "read" the judge, because they'd always be wrong, another commented.
If someone makes a mis-step, "we all bag on him afterwards."
"We typically address performance after each round," said Steinhauser. "These guys are all such perfectionists. They're their own harshest critics."
And some of the mistakes make for more laughter.
Shawn was representing the plaintiff. The judge was asking the other side if the defense had any further testimony. Shawn stood up and said 'No, Your Honor. The defense rests!' Even the judge laughed at that one.
Dan Deasy, in-house counsel for State Farm, was the coach adjunct and called it "a privilege to work with these kids. It's difficult to imagine a more worthwhile endeavor for them as future litigators." He said a big challenge is understanding objections. The team is coached to slow down, to make purposeful movements in the courtroom and let the jury see what they're talking about. Deasy emphasized that each student must check his/her ego outside the door. "We take no prisoners. We tell them here's what's good, here's what's not. You do run into personality issues." Deasy, who's coaching for the first time, said "I'll never quit this; they'll have to kick me out."
Chris Miranda, who recently died, helped Karen coach for three years. "I was going to retire and he was going to take over," she said. "After he was diagnosed with cancer, he said he'd still help if I would stay on. He'd be here, after his chemo appointments, even though he didn't look good. He loved working with the students. He died several weeks before the competition. For all team members, he was in their hearts. They'll always remember how he dealt with them; he was a huge influence. His courage and commitment, dedication and the way he balanced his life in terms of what was important. He realized that life is short and work is just a part of that. Chris had a way about him--the person being crossed didn't know they'd just been torn apart. He showed you don't have to be mean."
Besides the prestige of winning and the shiny trophies, the team is proud of its reputation. They received a note from Syracuse after the latest competition, that said: "DU's team was, hands down, the most ethical and classy team we had the pleasure of competing against." Karen said it's only what is expected from a DU team.
She thanked Dean Mary Ricketson for "all the support she has given the trial advocacy programs here, including being willing to send the teams to additional competitions."