Penn State Law students bring the Apfelbaum courtroom to life with mock trials

Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Students in Penn State Professor from Practice Philip Sechler’s Advocacy I class were challenged to perform the many moving parts of both civil and criminal trials the weeks of Nov. 2 and Nov. 9, with the details as true to life as possible, from the jury and judge down to the witnesses and bailiff.

The students represented clients based on actual civil and criminal cases. The case docket for the project included Williams v. Simonson, a civil case involving gender discrimination, defamation, hostile workplace harassment and wrongful termination. Mary Anne Williams sued for back pay, lost pay, damages and reinstatement. The second civil case was Huntington v. Aster, which focused on professional negligence, a $1.5 million estate, and one of the parties of the case mysteriously disappearing in Peru.

The project’s one criminal case was State v. Donaldson. Stephen Donaldson was charged with the second-degree murder of his infant stepdaughter, Cara O’Neil, but claimed that the death was a result of a crib accident days before the child’s death. Both the prosecution and defense performed opening statements, cases and closing statements in front of an unbiased jury. Students also played the parts of witnesses and, just like witnesses in a real trial, were barred from consulting with classmates representing the opposing parties.

“It has been the most amazing experience,” said Ginny Nuñez, co-counsel for the prosecution in the Donaldson case. “Professor Sechler, along with the guest judges, have really helped develop the skills needed for trial advocacy. In my first class, I could barely utter a few words without forgetting the defendant’s name. Now I look forward to the adrenaline that comes from presenting your case.”

On the defense side, student Derek Markle spent the summer of 2015 working as a defense associate at Marshal, Dennehey, Warner, Coleman, & Goggin. He said the experience gained there came into play during the mock trials.“The practical knowledge instilled in us during advocacy class and the mock trial will give me a substantial advantage over, and truly set me apart from, my peers entering the field of practice from other law schools,” Markle said. “Having the opportunity to perform a mock trial allows us as students to make mistakes and learn from them in a risk-free environment, something that would not occur in practice.”

Penn State Law’s Advocacy I course is open to third-years students and focuses on the fundamental skills of trial advocacy, as students learn by doing. Each student conducts written and oral exercises concerning the trial process, including discovery, trial preparation, direct and cross examination of lay witnesses, examination of expert witnesses, and closing arguments. Students are also able to evaluate their own progress by viewing video recordings of their performances. 

“A witness to Tuesday’s proceedings commented that the quality of advocacy in these trials far exceeds what is commonly seen in our nation’s courts,” said Sechler. “I think that comment speaks to how hard these 50 students have worked to develop highly effective skills and present persuasive cases to the juries.”

Sechler practiced law for more than 15 years as a partner at Williams & Connolly LLP in Washington, D.C., where his principal areas of practice included commercial and real estate disputes, professional malpractice litigation, and class-action defense. Sechler has substantial trial experience in state and federal courts across the country. His litigation experience also includes appearances before the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the Second, Fourth, Seventh, Eighth, and District of Columbia Circuits, as well as before the appellate courts in Maryland, Florida, Virginia and the District of Columbia. Before joining Williams & Connolly, he was a clerk to Judge Francis D. Murnaghan Jr., of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. He has also taught as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center and George Mason University School of Law.

Last Updated November 16, 2015