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Celebration Marks Official Launch of St. John’s Center for Trial and Appellate Advocacy

Center for Trial and Appellate Advocacy Launches
L-R: Dean Michael A. Simons, Robert V. Tendy, Anthony A. Scarpino, Jr., Darcel Clark, Madeline Singas, Vice Dean Larry Cunningham
Friday, November 10, 2017

St. John’s Law alumni, students, faculty, and friends came together recently to celebrate members of the St. John’s Law family who have served as state and federal prosecutors, and to mark the official launch of the Law School’s Center for Trial and Appellate Advocacy. Special guests included Bronx County District Attorney Darcel Clark, Westchester County District Attorney Anthony A. Scarpino, Jr., Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas, and Putnam County District Attorney Robert V. Tendy '78C, '80G, '89L, who were recognized for their outstanding public service.

St. John’s has a proud history of educating students who go on to practice the art and science of advocacy in a range of the public and private settings.

It all began with the Practice Court, which convened in 1928 under the advisement of Professors Frederick A. Whitney and Edward J. O’Toole. “The student gains from it in proportion to the work he puts into it,” the 1931 St. John’s Law yearbook, Res Gestae, said about the new student organization. “If he is earnest, he will gain a great deal; for it is in the Practice Court that he learns to accustom himself to the trial courts in which he later hopes to appear.”

After World War II, the Practice Court evolved into the Law School’s Moot Court Program, with its focus on appellate advocacy competitions. Next came the Criminal Law Institute and the Civil Trial Institute, through which students participated in internal and external trial advocacy competitions. The two institutes merged in 2002 to form the Frank S. Polestino Trial Advocacy Institute (PTAI), named in memory of esteemed Professor Frank S. Polestino.

Students in today’s Moot Court Honor Society and PTAI continue to enjoy a wide range of opportunities to build essential lawyering skills hands on in competition and in the classroom—opportunities that prepare them well to join the thousands of Law School alumni who practice in courtrooms in New York, across the country, and around the world.

Now, to further advance its reputation as a leader in the field, St. John’s Law has established the Center for Trial and Appellate Advocacy.

Located in updated, spacious quarters just across the hall from the award-winning Belson Moot Court Room, the Center provides a home base for PTAI and the Moot Court Honor Society, and for courses and programs in appellate and trial advocacy.

“This is an exciting new forum for students who are interested in careers in advocacy, as well as for alumni and other distinguished practitioners in the field,” says Vice Dean Larry Cunningham, the Center’s inaugural director and PTAI’s faculty advisor. “It’s truly a collaborative effort. In the classroom, our students learn from a great core of professors with extensive courtroom experience and, to prepare for competitions, they’re coached by dedicated alumni who are seasoned advocates.” Assistant Dean Susan Landrum and Professor Christine Lazaro also support students interested in advocacy as faculty advisors to the Moot Court Honor Society.

The Center’s academic offerings include a number of foundational and upper level courses, such as: Criminal Law; Evidence; Legal Writing; Criminal Procedure: Investigation; Criminal Procedure: Adjudication; Trial Advocacy; Advanced Trial Advocacy; Appellate Advocacy; and New York Practice.

“By design, our curriculum is a bridge to real-world practice,” Dean Cunningham says. “We regularly add new courses and revamp existing ones so our students graduate with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed as advocates in diverse settings. For example, we’re one of the few schools to offer Advanced Trial Advocacy, which focuses on defined topics. Last spring, two judges co-taught a section on argumentation, and a homicide prosecutor taught one on direct- and cross-examination. This fall, we’re offering Advanced Trial Advocacy: Jury Selection, highlighting the importance of this skill.”

The learning continues outside the classroom as students build courtroom advocacy skills as participants in the Law School’s in-house and partner clinics, and through externships in local district attorney and public defender offices, in legal services organizations, and in private practice settings.   

The Center operates in close collaboration with the Law School’s Career Development Office, where career counselors with experience in criminal and civil advocacy provide individualized guidance. From the start of the 1L year, they help students identify courses, clinics, externships, and other opportunities for acquiring and honing their skills as courtroom advocates.

It’s a successful approach, as evidenced by recent job outcomes. Twenty-two members of the Class of 2016 are working as ADAs in New York City and on Long Island. Following in their footsteps, 19 members of the Class of 2017 started as ADAs this fall. Recent graduates also employ their advocacy skills as public defenders, as government lawyers, and as private practitioners. Honoring its Vincentian mission, the Law School offers a Loan Repayment Assistance Program to provide financial assistance to qualified graduates who work in public interest and public service positions.

"I developed a passion for appellate advocacy through the Law School’s Moot Court Honor Society, and I’m extremely grateful to the administrators, professors, and alumni who helped me achieve my goal of working as an appellate attorney upon graduation,” says Danielle O'Boyle '15, an Appeals Bureau ADA in Queens. “The launch of the Center for Trial and Appellate Advocacy presents a wonderful opportunity for members of the St. John's family to work together to continue the law school's long tradition of producing excellent trial and appellate lawyers who possess not only exceptional advocacy skills, but also a sincere desire to use those skills to uplift their communities and their clients.”

Pishoy Yacoub '05, a Bronx ADA who heads his office’s Litigation Training Unit, also recognizes the great value that the Center adds at his alma mater. “I’m delighted that the Law School now has an entire Center dedicated to trial and appellate advocacy,” he says. “The skills I developed from my mock trial experience at St. John’s gave me a huge advantage over my adversaries as a prosecutor in the courtroom.” 

Reflecting on the Center launch event, and on his experience in St. John’s Criminal Law Institute, John (Jack) Ryan ’74, Chief Assistant District Attorney in Queens, says: "Bob Tendy and I shared war stories about how we each won the outstanding advocate award. All these years later, that award still means a lot to us. The Center for Trial and Appellate Advocacy will pay dividends for future prosecutors for decades to come."

As it s inaugural year unfolds, the Center will host events focused on criminal defense and on civil litigation, among other topics. And, this month, it will present the first in its Dinner With an Advocate series that brings current students together with prominent alumni and practitioners in the field.

“One of the reasons our graduate do so well in the employment market is our integrated approach to legal study and career development. Our students first focus on a legal discipline; then gain hands-on experience through clinics, externships, and internships; and finally network with alumni and others through our co-curricular activities, programs, and events,” says Dean Michael A. Simons. “The new Center for Trial and Appellate Advocacy is a natural extension of this approach, and we look forward to making it a welcoming home and a vital resource for our students, for our alumni, and for the entire St. John’s Law community.”