For Dramatic Effect: Trial Advocacy Team

Trial Advocacy
Students in Trial Advocacy develop the skills to prosecute and defend in criminal and civil trials.
There are many professions within the law that do not involve trying criminal cases, introducing evidence, arguing before a jury, or any of the other activities laypersons recognize
from countless police and courtroom dramas. Students on the Trial Advocacy Team, however, prepare themselves to do exactly those things. As second- and third-year students, they showcase these skills in competitions throughout the country.

Trever McSwain

Trever McSwain

3L Trever McSwain, chairperson of the Trial Advocacy Team for the 2015-2016 academic year, has already amassed a wealth of experience in these areas. “There’s never been a doubt in my mind about wanting to be a trial lawyer and I’m even more convinced now that I can do what I’ve always wanted to do,” he says.

Being a part of the Trial Advocacy Team is a superb way to get hands-on experience in civil and criminal proceedings, McSwain says. He adds, “With this experience in hand, if I had to go to trial for my clients in the Criminal Clinic, I could represent them as well as someone who’s been practicing law for a few years.”

In McSwain’s opinion, trial advocacy competition is a complement to live client clinic experience. “We want to be trial lawyers in the future,” McSwain says. “And while the clinic is a great experience in actually being a trial lawyer, a lot of those techniques are refined and discovered through this trial advocacy experience.”


Trial advocacy includes elements of mock trial, but moving through the scenarios and fact patterns presented for competition often involves going off script, says McSwain, explaining, “While trial advocacy pulls from those theatrical aspects, we come up with a lot of our own material.”

Because trial advocacy competitors argue before a jury (in which competition judges sit unidentified), tactics differ from the comparatively staid proceedings of appellate advocacy competitions. According to McSwain, this often translates to a positively dramatic performance.

Attorney Ryan Rowan (‘11 J.D.), coached Valparaiso Law’s Trial Advocacy Team at the 2014 California Attorneys for Criminal Justice National Criminal Trial Advocacy Competition in San Francisco. He also emphasizes the theatrical aspects of trial advocacy competition. Speaking of the difference between a direct and a cross-examination of a witness, Rowan says, “I would want my witness to win Best Actor or Best Actress, and I would want to win Best Supporting Actor.” In a cross-examination, Rowan says, “The lawyer is the star of the show.”


McSwain is looking to change minds in and out of the courtroom. “I think that in this world today, there’s a serious shortage of lawyers involved with criminal law that are in it for something other than money,” he says.

I want to take that back and I want people to see that there are still lawyers out there that are concerned about their clients’ well-being.

McSwain’s desire to be a trial attorney comes from firsthand experience with poverty’s effect on people’s ability to procure adequate legal services. “I grew up in a really poor neighborhood,” he says, “So I saw people around me getting into legal trouble and having what they thought was poor representation. I want to be there and defend people to the best of my abilities.”

Rowan certainly shares the calling to invest his time and skills in his community. As a law student, Rowan completed 174 hours of pro bono service, nearly three times the number of hours required. Today, he is Deputy Prosecuting Attorney for Porter County, as well as a First Lieutenant U.S. Army Judge Advocate Officer, and an adjunct professor at Valparaiso University Law School and Ivy Tech Community College. His real trial experience, however, began at Valparaiso Law with an externship in the Lake County Public Defender’s Office. He also served in the New Orleans Public Defender’s Office as part of Professor Derrick Carter’s pro bono work-study program. Rowan says, “That was a wonderful opportunity to grasp the concepts I learned in the classroom and put them into practice.”

Rowan attests to the impact that aspiring to serve others can have on a community. He says,

The more involved you are, the more you learn how important it is to be involved in your community. It’s easier to write a check, but it’s harder to give back your time.


Rowan and McSwain both speak highly of the coaching and faculty support received through their involvement with the Trial Advocacy Team. Attorney Trista Hudson (‘88 J.D.) is a prosecutor in Porter County, and a longtime coach of the Trial Advocacy Team at Valparaiso University Law School. McSwain says, “She’s the reason we know how to include a demonstrative with a witness, she’s the reason we know how to cross, and she’s the reason we can stand up and say we will be great lawyers one day.”

Rowan’s career is proof of that. It was through Hudson’s involvement with the Trial Advocacy Team that he originally connected with the Prosecutor’s Office, and he credits Hudson with coaching him up as a law student from a self-described “long-winded” debate veteran to a trial attorney capable of composing an objection in the heat of the moment and communicating it succinctly.

Professor David Vandercoy

Professor David Vandercoy

Valparaiso University Law School Professor David Vandercoy is the faculty advisor for the Trial Advocacy Team. McSwain credits Vandercoy with imparting knowledge crucial to becoming a successful trial attorney—that is, how to be an evidence expert. “The people who are really good at this are evidence experts,” McSwain says. Speaking of what he has learned from Professor Vandercoy, he says, “I owe him everything I know about evidence.”

Valparaiso University Law School Dean Andrea Lyon is also a staunch ambassador for trial advocacy, with a personal stake in the careers upon which these students will soon embark. “Dean Lyon is really invested in the Trial Advocacy Team, as she was a defense lawyer. She knows the value of these experiences and we’re really grateful to her,” McSwain says.

Through intense preparation both in the classroom and in competition, members of the Trial Advocacy Team acquire the tools that will make them successful advocates for their clients. McSwain has an additional, short-term goal, however: to win competition gold this academic year. “My vision is to bring us back into that winning category,” he says. “Just look out for us.”

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