Southwestern Law School Los Angeles, CA

American Association for Justice

The Southwestern chapter of the American Association for Justice (formerly known as the Association of Trial Lawyers of America or ATLA) provides students with many opportunities to develop trial advocacy skills. Membership offers many exciting, career-building programs and services for law students. The American Association of Justice understands student needs and offers a variety of ways to help students build their legal futures. Benefits include:

  • monthly legal publications
  • law student newsletter
  • educational seminars
  • student mentor programs

Students, faculty and staff of Southwestern may view a list of current Student Organization contacts on MySouthwestern (log-in required). All others may contact the Student Affairs Office at (213) 738-6716 or for additional information.

Civil Litigators Expect the Unexpected

Seasoned trial lawyer Peter Gelblum ('82) says that the heftiest file he carries to court is a metaphorical one, labeled "Things that you didn't know were going to happen." Gelblum and his colleague Yvette Molinaro ('90) visited Southwestern Law School August 31, 2004, to speak at the Association of Trial Lawyers of America's opening meeting. They assured students that, although trial litigators continually grapple with the unexpected and sometimes lose, the lessons learned are well worth the struggle.

Gelblum and Molinaro

Now partners at Mitchell, Silberberg and Knupp, Gelblum and Molinaro both worked with Dan Petrocelli on the Fred Goldman v. O. J. Simpson wrongful death lawsuit. "When I got the phone call from Petrocelli offering me the assignment, I literally flew down the stairs," Molinaro said.

The "marquee" case, which began in 1994, was Molinaro’s first experience with examining a witness in court. She still keeps an artist’s charcoal rendering (unlike the criminal case against Simpson, cameras were banned at his civil trial) as a memento of a personal milestone. "You will also be very proud of your own significant cases as a trial lawyer," she promised.

Molinaro’s first case soon after graduating from Southwestern in 1990 was a far cry from O.J., but no less memorable for her. "I learned a lesson well - don;t talk to your own jurors." When working with a senior attorney on a wrongful termination case, she was put on the spot when a juror asked her an innocent question in the hallway. Although she knew she was forbidden to converse with the jury outside of court, she gave a brief reply out of courtesy. Then, devastated and convinced that her career was over, she confessed to the senior attorney. The wheels of justice ground to a temporary halt while Molinaro testified on the stand, behind closed doors, to her mistake. She was forgiven, praised for her "full disclosure," and the team went on to win the case.

According to Gelblum, courtroom attorneys are put on trial all the time, at least figuratively, through the constant challenges they face. "In court, you are making literally hundreds of decisions every day, operating at hyperspeed. It’s exciting, and it's physically demanding."

Molinaro agreed, pointing to the "bobbing and weaving" litigators must do on the spot when witnesses don't testify exactly as planned.

Although all litigators must think on their feet, civil litigators put in hours of careful preparation before trial, Gelblum pointed out. "Public defenders will literally pick up the file on the way to court - that's very different from what we do in civil litigation."

Part of the game plan is finding a "theme," Gelblum said. "The first thing you do when you get a new case is write the closing argument. It gives you a goal, a standard by which you can judge your actions during a case."

But evidence is by far the most important part of the strategic puzzle, he added. "Although it is hard for non-lawyers to understand, and although it may sound terrible, the issue is not really what happened. The issue is what the evidence shows. Attorneys do their best to present the evidence to their clients' advantage, and then we trust the legal system itself to discover the truth."

The Southwestern chapter of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America provides students with opportunities to develop trial advocacy skills, including guest speakers, seminars and mentor programs.