Using criminal law role-play to teach oral lawyering skills

Professor Anne Himes teaches courses on Criminal Law and Business Organizations in the American Law: Discourse & Analysis (ALDA) Program* for LL.M. students at St. John’s Law School. She has an English language teaching certificate from The New School, an M.A. and B.A. in German from the University of North Carolina, and a JD from Columbia Law School. She was previously a partner in the corporate department at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy LLP, a premier international law firm.

*The ALDA Program specializes in teaching LL.M. students substantive law with integrated language support. All four ALDA professors have a combination of extensive language teaching experience and legal practice experience.

In the Fall 2018 semester I taught an overview of US criminal law and the criminal justice process for St. John’s ALDA students that culminated in a new court role-play activity I designed in response to student difficulties with the main course materials on the criminal justice process side of things: New York Times articles that followed the shooting of an unarmed man by an off-duty NY police officer from the time of the incident all the way through the verdict of the jury.   

Those readings grew out of my searching for a way to put a face on our criminal justice process. I have found that random observation trips to court are hit or miss at best and certainly cannot show a full trial, much less the full criminal justice process; the best trial observation experience I have had with my students so far has been hearing the full testimony of an expert witness.

I had my students read and study those news articles, and we had in-depth discussions of them, but those news articles got us only so far.  The students struggled with some of the language, such as taking words literally and not considering them in context, and had understandable difficulty with the cultural/geographic issues –  a road rage incident, with racial overtones, on the Fourth of July, in a rough neighborhood. In short, they seemed to be getting a bit bogged down.

I landed on the idea of having the students  role-play the crucial part of the trial they had been reading about: the direct and cross-examination of the prosecution’s main witness (girlfriend of the victim, who witnessed the killing) and the direct and cross-examination of the defendant, who took the stand in his own defense. The students would take on roles of the lawyers and the key witnesses in a case that they were by then very familiar with. Continue reading