By Andrew Cohen
For busy young lawyers like Emily Tienken ’12 and Suzanne Jaffe ’12, down time is a precious commodity. Yet when asked about serving as volunteer coaches for Berkeley Law’s trial advocacy program, both jumped at the chance.
Last month, that decision helped the school win the prestigious National Civil Trial Competition (NCTC) in Los Angeles. Each member of the winning team—DeCarol Davis ’17, Jared Ginsburg ’17, Colin Jones ’16, and Jason Wu ’16—hailed Tienken and Jaffe for paving their championship path. “Our coaches were amazing,” Davis said. “They were responsive and supportive, worked non-stop, and there wasn’t a question they didn’t answer.”
Now a prosecutor with the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, Tienken participated in student competitions with the law school’s Board of Advocates. Over the past several years, she has watched the trial program grow in both numbers and stature.
“We talked about this event as students just a few years ago,” Tienken said of the competition, which selects 16 top trial programs to participate in its annual tournament. “One of our big goals back then was just getting invited to the NCTC. Now, a few years later, the school not only gets invited, but wins the championship. It’s extremely gratifying.”
Classmates, close friends, and former competitors, Tienken and Jaffe spent an intense six weeks working with the team on everything from opening statements to exhibits and objections.
“They dedicated endless hours to strengthening the substance and style of our witness examinations and trial arguments,” said Ginsburg, who received the final round’s Best Advocate Award. “My advocacy skills have improved significantly as a direct result of their proactive coaching, guidance, and support.”
Making their case
The competition’s mock case was modeled after a 2013 Asiana Airlines flight that crash-landed at San Francisco’s airport. Davis and Jones argued for the plaintiff’s side, Wu and Ginsburg for the defense. The case involved a wrongful death claim against the city brought by the parents of a teenager killed in the crash, as well as issues of contributory negligence and third-party liability.
Berkeley Law’s team defeated American, Chicago-Kent, and Georgetown in the preliminary rounds, then Washington of St. Louis in the semifinals and Georgetown again in the final round—giving the school four national championships in the last three years.
“Whether it was advising us on what plays well in front of a jury, or helping us add that extra punch to the end of a cross-examination, Emily and Suzanne helped convert our half-baked ideas into cohesive winning strategies,” Wu said. “We all felt good about how much we prepared, so the final rounds were just a matter of getting into the courtroom and having a good time.”
Jones, who will join the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office next fall, appreciated how Tienken and Jaffe “probed every soft point in our case, forcing us to hedge, process, and strategize. They committed weekends and evenings to us, reviewed our pieces and sent them back promptly, and held us to a high standard at all times.”
Paying it forward
Jaffe—an associate in the Oakland office of Boies, Schiller & Flexner and a former Board of Advocates student director—has coached a Berkeley Law trial team in each of the past three years.
“One thing a coach once told me is that you’re about to go practice law with real consequences,” she said. “I represent businesses now, and there’s a lot of money involved. In mock trials, that’s not the case. It’s a perfect opportunity to explore new strategies and try new things. As coaches, we try to let everyone be themselves and maximize their individual strengths. You can’t try to turn everyone into the same sort of advocate.”
Both coaches credit Spencer Pahlke ’07, who directs the law school’s external trial competition program, for the surge in success. Under his leadership, the program has grown from two coaches and eight students to roughly 20 coaches and 30 students.
“When I was a student with the Board of Advocates, I remember attorneys coming over after work and dedicating a whole evening’s energy to our development and success,” Tienken said. “That really impressed me and gave me a leg up when I entered my current job. It was an easy decision to help these current students in the same way that other alums had helped me.”