One of the most important relationships in a law school trial advocacy program is between a coach and an advocate. The relationship is like no other. It is a mutually beneficial, give and take relationship. And this mentor-mentee relationship can last far beyond law school.
But only when both coach and advocate understand and agree with what their expectations are, can both parties excel and achieve their agreed upon objectives. Like any partnership, the parties must share common goals. Defining what those goals are at the outset, and how to achieve them, is paramount to achieving success in a coach-advocate relationship.
Every team’s goal is to win the competition – if your desire is anything less than victory, you may want to rethink the field you are in. But depending on the experience of the parties, specific expectations may be different. Realistically, whether you advance or win the competition may, or may not, define the experience as a success or failure. For example, expectations for a 2L competing in their first competition with a new coach as opposed to a 3L with a coach they are familiar with may differ. The overall experience of the entire team is also a factor that must come in to play. The best way for the relationship to be a successful one is to be up front and honest with each other from the beginning. That means clearly defining the expectations and roles of the parties.
How does the relationship begin? A dedicated law student tries out for a mock trial/moot court team. But in order to be a true advocate, that dedicated law student must be willing to learn, receive critique, and challenge themselves. That is the first step, but it doesn’t end there. It takes a lot of self-reflection to become a good advocate. It doesn’t happen overnight – it takes heart, dedication, and a bit of luck to win.
The coach must help that dedicated law student grow to become their best. That means they must be willing to provide all of their collective wisdom and experience to mentor that young advocate.
This article will discuss the responsibilities and requirements of both coach and advocate in order to achieve the optimum result in the coach-advocate relationship.
The Coaches Perspective
The Types of Coaches
Just like advocates, coaches come in all sizes and flavors. They range from the recent graduate who was a former successful law school advocate, the one who wants to stay involved with their alma mater’s advocacy program, to the experienced practitioner who enjoys giving back to the next generation of trial advocates.
Like everything in life, each coach will have their own unique strengths and weaknesses. The coach who is a recent graduate is probably savvier with the intricacies of the competition rules, so much so that they know most of the tricks of the trade. The older, more experienced coach may not be as familiar with the rules of the competitions but can bring that real life experience to your advocacy education. This is invaluable to your ability to be a well-rounded advocate.
Alas, there are coaches that have taken on too much responsibility and cannot put in the necessary time for the advocate to grow to their maximum potential. Most coaches have full time jobs which require a lot of their attention. They also have lives – families and children. This often means you will have to take a back seat to their other responsibilities. If this is the case, you may be in a no-win situation because they cannot devote sufficient time to you and your team.
If you, as an advocate, are paired with a coach like this, be up front with them and explain your issues. Do the best you can in your situation but attempt to get help from other sources, such as your advocacy professors or anyone else who can help you become a better advocate.
The Tea: Rapport with Coaches
In most law schools, coaches have reputations. Students talk and it isn’t difficult to discover which coaches are considered the better ones. Simply ask a 3L. If there is a specific coach you like and want to be a member on their team, find a way for them to notice you. Reach out to them in some manner. That may mean sending them an email introducing yourself. Or it may entail speaking up in bootcamps or advocacy meetings. You may even try to seek an introduction by someone who knows them. Whatever it is, you need to get noticed if you want them to consider you for their team.
Students also have reputations. It would be silly to think that coaches do not want the school’s better advocates on their team. After all, they are giving a lot of their time (and get paid little for it), so they want to win as well. Find a way to get your own solid reputation. That may mean becoming part of the advocacy board or volunteering in some manner. The bottom line here is don’t keep a low profile. Just the opposite – become a known factor.
As someone who has coached for a number of years, has a full-time job, teaches, and has a family, I fall into the category of being extremely busy. But I coach because I love interacting with passionate young advocates who make me a better trial lawyer in my practice. My personality is such that when I get involved with something, I can only do it 100%. Therefore, I expect nothing less from the advocates on my team. That is made known to them immediately and I am not afraid to make a switch should I deem they are not up living up to my expectations. Yes, that means replacing them if they are not putting in the effort.
Most coaches value hard work above all else. That means when choosing a team, they are not necessarily looking for the most talented advocates, but those who will work the hardest. There was once a famous quote by Herb Brooks, “I’m not looking for the best players, I’m looking for the right ones.” Hard work is the great equalizer and work ethic wins over talent any day of the week and twice on Sunday. If you want to be a great advocate and teammate, you best be prepared to work hard.
Setting the Advocate up for Success
No matter which type of coach you get, they should have a passion for advocacy that is infectious. The best ones also coach to your specific strengths and work with you on your particular weaknesses. That means they are not trying to change the advocate you are but working within your personality to make you the best advocate you can be.
Optimally, if you are a rookie advocate, they will pair you with an experienced one who can help mentor you along the way. Remember your coach is not the only one there to teach you. You have other teammates who are responsible for, and should be assisting in, your advocacy education. That is why it is important for your coach to pick the right team.
Fast-forward to the next semester or year. If everything has worked out as planned, you are the veteran advocate and are still paired with the same coach. Now they will trust YOU to guide the new rookies. This is an awesome responsibility and shows a lot of faith by the coach as you will be training your eventual replacement. Trust me when I say you will learn as much from this experience, if not more, than when you were the rookie because you will be teaching as well as learning.
Creating the Right Atmosphere
The right coach fosters an atmosphere of creativity and communication for the entire team while preparing the advocate for what will be an adversarial contest. A most difficult situation arises when team members cannot get along and fighting takes over. That is why it is imperative to consider team chemistry when choosing advocates. It is as important a factor to success as any other. Each individual’s voice is important, they each possess distinct ideas. And a good coach can use diversity of opinion to make the team stronger, but only if the advocate is open to new and differing ideas. Personality clashes is a factor coaches consider when choosing their team.
The Advocate’s Perspective
How to Find the Right Coach
As an advocate seeking to learn the most from mock trial, it is important to see which coach you will work best with. Coaches are mostly alumni, and if this is the case, find the competitions that the alum competed in and see how they did, but also learn about their field of practice. Are they an ADA in a city office? Or maybe they are in private practice? Sometimes picking a coach that works in the same practice area of law that you want to practice in is a good tactic. Or maybe try a coach who does a practice area completely different from your interests – their perspectives could be something that you would have never thought about. Every coach has strengths and weaknesses, as do advocates.
Some coaches have higher expectations than others which require more work, meaning the time and effort needed for the competition could be tenfold what you thought. But that’s where your opinion matters. If you as the student, have a family, a job, or other obligations, find a coach with the same. We are adults – we all have responsibilities, both coaches and advocates. Coaches are understanding, but remember that if you commit to something, stick to it. Don’t take on too much. If you can’t devote the right amount of time to your team, co-counsel, and coach, you might need to find either a different team, or rethink your responsibilities.
The key takeaway in picking a coach is deciding who your mentor will be. When I say mentor, I don’t mean just for this one competition, I mean in life. A coach can have one of the biggest impacts on an advocate’s career and life. Really think hard about what type of mentor you want, and that will set the tone of the relationship with your coach.
I would say that I’m unlike some law students. I dedicate a majority of my time to mock trial and my team. Some of the readers might be thinking, “WHY?” and the answer is because I love it. I go into every single meeting, practice, scrimmage, or competition knowing that I will learn something new. And I love that. I have said this to perspective advocates, and I mean it – advocacy is the best thing you can get out of law school. In what other aspect of school can you get up on your feet, give deference to the court, learn, and argue objections, AND present an entire case? You can’t. The only answer is advocacy. And that is why I work so hard to reach not only my own (very high) expectations, but my coach’s expectations as well. I expect my coach to give their time and effort, and the same is expected of me.
Now I’m not saying that every advocate needs to be just like me. Everyone has different priorities in life. But you need to have the heart and the drive to do mock trial. You need to believe in yourself and your case. Coaches look for hard workers, the ones with drive and determination. From an advocate’s perspective, you do not need to be the best in the room, but you do have to work just as hard to want to be the best. Take every day as the most important day and always try your hardest. You will never be faulted for trying something and it not working out, but you’ll kick yourself late at night if you didn’t take a chance and go for it.
It is not going to be easy; I can tell you firsthand. But it will be worth it. As a first semester advocate, you’ll learn from the experienced advocates on your team until you become that experienced advocate. It may take one semester; it may take two. Don’t let that bring you down. Some competitions are harder than others and some advocates learn quicker than others. It’s about the time and effort YOU put in that will make you better. A coach can teach you a thousand and one things, but you must be willing to learn them. You must be able to take the harsh critiques and turn them into something positive. If you don’t, the negatives will outweigh the positives and you will not succeed. Like I said, it will not be easy. But if you change your mindset from “this is so hard. I can’t do it” into “this will make me better if I try it differently and do it correctly” – you will succeed.
How to Succeed
After you find a coach that fits with your work ethic, strengths, weaknesses, and goals, it’s time to get started. Approach the competition with an open mind. Set the necessary boundaries and guidelines with your team and coach. It is imperative to learn the coach’s expectations up front. But it is also just as important for the coach to know your expectations. Like I said, it’s a mutually beneficial, give and take relationship.
After both expectations are expressed, that’s when the work begins. And by work, I not only mean academically, but also exercising great mental strength. An advocate must be open to direction and be willing to take criticism. Not all coaches have the same styles of criticism – some might be harsher than others. But it is important to keep an open mind and remember that there is an end goal and that is not only the success of the team, but your own success. Every coach has a different teaching method, and that is why you need to be open to direction. The coach knows best and that is why they are the coach and you are the advocate. They will guide you in the right direction and it is your job to take their direction and be open to criticism. If I could leave you all with one piece of advice it would be to remain open-minded. Take on that competition team, give it your all, and do not back down, I can guarantee that you will succeed and do great things.
In order for the coach-advocate relationship to be a successful one, both parties must have a clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities and share common goals. Otherwise, the team can be in for some tough times. It is best to have an initial meeting outlining each side’s expectations immediately to avoid an unpleasant experience later.
We have attempted to explain the good, the bad and the unknowns about the relationship between a coach and advocate. It’s necessary to understand who your coach is and who your advocate is, and to understand one another. Keep one goal in mind – prosper, as a coach, an advocate, an attorney, and a student. Mindset is key – and that is how to succeed. Take advantage of this relationship, and it will be one of the most important relationships throughout your life.
- Jared Hatcliffe has coached at the Haub School of Law at Pace University since 2018. As a coach in 2019 he was recognized as one of the best judges of the Battle of the Experts Competition hosted by the Drexel University, Thomas R. Kline School of Law. In 2021 his team reached the semi-finals in the Student Advocacy Competition (STAC), American Association for Justice (AAJ) regional competition.
- Mattison Stewart is a 3L at the Haub School of Law at Pace University, who took first place in regionals and came in second in the National Finals in the American Association for Justice Student Trial Advocacy Competition in 2021. She has also competed in the All Star Bracket Challenge in Fall 2020 and in her current semester, Fall 2021.