By Julius Melnitzer | April 13, 2021
Some 15 years ago, a seasoned Ottawa lawyer’s frustration with the failed potential of young advocates led to the creation of The Advocacy Club, a unique program that has quietly trained hundreds of junior lawyers and students at law firms and governmental organizations in the arts of civil advocacy.
“Back around 2007, we had two young lawyers whose potential should have made them great advocates – but they both failed miserably,” says John Hollander, a civil litigator with MBC Law Professional Corporation, an Ottawa-based litigation boutique, and founder of The Advocacy Club.
That doesn’t surprise Crystal McConkey, an Advocacy Club graduate who practises municipal law at Ottawa-based Soloway Wright LLP and assists Hollander with the program.
“There’s so much out there for students or lawyers looking for theoretical knowledge, but not nearly as much to help them with the practical aspects of the profession,” she says. “The Advocacy Club goes a long way to filling that gap.”
At the Advocacy Club, action is de rigueur; lectures are anathema.
“Sitting in a room and watching a head yap at you is no way to transmit information, especially to anyone under 40,” Hollander says.
So three principles govern the Club’s continuing legal education accredited programs, made up of Boot Camp, The Advanced Club, annual retreats, and customized programs:
- Trainees learn more by doing than by listening to lectures;
- Junior advocates benefit greatly from networking with other like-minded professionals; and
- Collegiality, professionalism, and competence interrelate and form the foundation for a successful career in law.
Training methods emphasize practical exercise sessions in enrolment-limited groups.
“We reduce everything we teach to a formula: do this, not that, in this order,” explains Hollander, who uses similar techniques in his trial advocacy course at the University of Ottawa.
Boot Camp comprises two half-days that focus on interview techniques, case analysis, direct examination, cross-examination and argument.
The Advanced Club is restricted to Boot Camp graduates. The one-evening sessions focus on a single subject. Topics have encompassed case analysis, cross-examination, direct examination, presentation skills, discovery techniques, negotiation tactics, and mediation and settlement conferences. Other sessions drill down on the nitty-gritty of objections, witness impeachment, openings and closings, and motions advocacy. The program on expert witnesses involves accountants, occupational therapists, and psychologists. There are even sessions on public speaking and communications skills. In each session, teams of no more than five practice techniques introduced by a senior litigator at the session’s outset.
“The programs teach you to break down scenarios in ways that are not taught in law school,” McConkey says. “And participants get insight into the perspectives of opposing counsel as well as their own cases.”
That puts participants a step ahead of many of their peers.
“I was an articling student when I enrolled in the Club,” McConkey says. “And, when I ran across other students, I could see the difference in the professional confidence and comfort I felt from truly understanding my material – which is the fundamental thing you learn at the Club.”
Each May since 2013, the Advocacy Club has held retreats at the Ottawa Courthouse. Participants include about 60 Club members, the local judiciary, executives and senior lawyers.
“The retreats are a forceful presentation to the Bar and judiciary of the emergence and leadership of junior lawyers in the community,” Hollander says. “Each has been a major opportunity for intergenerational networking and collegiality.”
COVID-19 and the emergence of ZOOM presented an opportunity for the Club to go national. Early in 2021, the Club initiated a law school voluntary extracurricular program, engaging 13 students from Queens and Lakehead universities. Junior litigators, themselves Club graduates, lead small breakout groups of four in 90-minute ZOOM encounters.
“Virtual sessions are the future of continuing professional education,” says Hollander, who laments the profession’s “slow adoption” of practical training. “The Bar had better get with it.”
And to seal the deal: fees at The Advocacy Club are nominal.
Julius Melnitzer is a Toronto-based legal affairs writer, ghostwriter, writing coach and media trainer. Readers can reach him at [email protected] or https://legalwriter.net/contact.