REPORT ON THE FLORIDA BAR’S CIVIL ADVOCACY COURSE
In May 2016, four junior barristers were fortunate enough to be awarded a South Eastern Circuit scholarship to attend the Civil Advocacy Course at the University of Florida, in Gainesville. The course is run by the Florida Bar Association and attended by civil practitioners to hone the advocacy skills of both wide-eyed juniors and seasoned lawyers alike. The lucky recipients flying the flag for the SEC were Francesca Perselli (New Square Chambers), James Holmes (1 Gray’s Inn Square), Sarah Clarke (Clerksroom) and me (Church Court Chambers). We were led by Gavin Mansfield QC (Littleton Chambers) who joined the faculty in training the course participants and gave us the benefit of his wisdom and good humour throughout the trip.
Upon arrival in the Sunshine State, we were very kindly hosted in Tampa by Judge Claudia Isom and practising trial lawyer Woody Isom. Aside from kayaking, swimming in their pool and trips to local restaurants, Woody and Claudia ensured we were given tours of the State Court, US Middle District Court and the Second District Court of Appeal. We were also treated to a Cuban style dinner with members of the judiciary and the Florida Bar and a lunch with the Hillsborough Bar Association’s Young Lawyers, where we addressed the group on issues within our own practices.
My personal highlights included a private audience with Judge Virginia Covingham, whose enormous and beautifully furnished courtroom and chambers enjoyed the benefit of complete electronic management in papers. At her fingertips she had access to all pleadings, applications, orders, judgments and correspondence ever filed for one case. Documents were electronically hyperlinked to one another and to external case law. One entertaining part of our tour was listening to one amused Judge’s remarks to Defence Counsel making criminal bail applications on behalf of their orange jumpsuit-wearing clients. Finally, I relished listening to legal arguments in the District Court of Appeal. Although the terminology was very different, the legal principles and arguments were comparable. We were also extremely fortunate to have a private audience with the appellate Judges thereafter to discuss the US legal system and the ethical issues that arise in their work.
After Tampa, the real work began in Gainesville, the largest city in North Central Florida and home to the University of Florida. Our intensive advocacy course was a split over a number of days of lectures, presentations, workshops, discussions, working lunches and feedback sessions led by faculty staff and high-flying civil practitioners. James and I were tasked with representing the Claimant, an aspiring golf professional whose dreams of Tiger Woods style success were (on our case) cut short following a run of bad luck: an accident on a “slip ’n slide” waterslide, then negligent clinical treatment and surgery, which installed a faulty plate in his spine. Francesca represented the surgeon accused of clinical negligence; Sarah, the company who manufactured the metal plate. We all had to prepare different aspects of the opening, examination in chief, cross-examination and closing speeches to be watched and filmed by amused American lawyers and faculty staff, the latter of whom served as both judge and jury. After each performance, we were given very useful feedback and sent off to review our videos with other faculty staff and Judges.
Having carried out only limited number of jury trials in my practice, I really enjoyed watching and practising jury speeches. Somewhat surprisingly, a lot of the theatrics seen in our much-loved US television dramas was replicated in these demonstrations. By this I mean, appealing to shared family values, holding a client’s shoulders, moving more freely around the courtroom and using demonstrative and visual aids. The style was quite different too – perhaps more colloquial and sometimes hyperbolic than we’re used to in our civil courts. Further, observing the process of jury selection complete with bone fide jury consultants and a real mock jury was an experience I will never forget. Each party’s trial lawyers posed a variety of questions of potential jurors including those about gun ownership, favoured news channels and college education to engineer their dream team and to pitch their case accordingly, to great effect.
Day one of the course marked my first opening speech to my very own “jury” comprising other course participants and faculty staff in my small group. As luck would have it, Gavin Mansfield QC was one of the faculty staff allocated to our group that morning. I decided to throw myself into the US style of advocacy. Across the board it seemed as though my colleagues and I were reaping the benefits of our English upbringing – many of us were told by faculty staff that they were inclined to accept our arguments, simply due to our “quaint accents”. All of our performances were filmed. Personally, I’m saving my re-runs for 10 years from now, only to be watched with a sense of humour and a glass of wine in one hand!
During the course, the Chair of the Trial Lawyers Section of The Florida Bar, Thomas Bishop and Gavin Mansfield QC demonstrated examination in chief (known as “direct”) and cross-examination of the Claimant’s quantum expert. The applause from the English contingent for Gavin’s devastating cross-examination was probably the loudest of all! Thereafter, the real reason we were in Gainesville emerged: to entertain the Americans.
At great haste, we proceeded to write a Revels-style skit set in the Court of Appeal, to be performed after dinner at the Present of the University of Florida’s on-campus house-cum-mansion. James Holmes rather fittingly played an amalgamation of James Bond and Sherlock Holmes; Gavin played himself, as lead Counsel for the applicant; Francesca played Q, Dr Watson and a court usher whilst Sarah was herself and Moriarty. I played Lady Justice Camilla Parker-Whitehouse of Westminster – I find that anticipating the Parker-Bowles jokes is often the best form of defence. After a few hasty rehearsals in the hotel lobby, our after-dinner sketch seemed to go down well. Certainly we don’t appear to have scared off the Americans from hosting us Brits again just yet.
I am very grateful to the SEC for enabling me to attend the course. The experience reinforced how much I actually enjoy oral advocacy, which is something that I can sometimes forget amidst pleadings, advices, negotiations and skeleton arguments. Seeing the effectiveness of our US counterparts’ often enigmatic courtroom style, reminded me that it is worth taking risks with advocacy and always being open to trying new techniques. Lastly, it has strengthened the idea for me, that the value that barristers have to their clients isn’t necessarily an encyclopaedic knowledge of the law but rather their skill set. Despite knowing very little about Floridian law, during the course it quickly became clear that what mattered most was analytic ability and advocacy technique. This served as an important reminder to focus on and hone one’s skill set, so that one can be flexible when new and exciting areas of practice develop.
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