Published: April 22, 2016

University of Colorado Law School and DU Law students saw a side of the judicial system that is usually reserved for judges and attorneys earlier this month, when they had the rare opportunity to observe and walk through the proceedings of a civil motions hearing with the judge and counsel.

As participants in the Colorado Open Courts Observation, an initiative of the Chief Justice’s Commission on Professional Development, law students observed a civil motions hearing presided by Federal Magistrate Judge Craig Shaffer at the Alfred A. Arraj United States Courthouse in Denver.

They heard arguments regarding the defendants’ motion to dismiss in the case of Rodolfo Llacua, et al., v. Western Range Association, et al. Because this was a multi-defendant case, students had the opportunity to observe numerous lawyers with a range of presentation styles, tactics, and approaches.

“One way to become a better lawyer is to watch other lawyers practice their craft, and what students saw today was a great example of effective oral advocacy,” Judge Shaffer told students. “Taking classes in law school is only a small part of learning to practice law.”

Following the hearing, Judge Shaffer opened the court up to a discussion of the proceedings with students and counsel for both the plaintiffs and defendants. Students asked questions ranging from why counsel approached an issue in a certain way to what documents the judge has access to behind the bench. Judge Shaffer also asked students which issue they would have tackled first, and walked through how he would have laid out the arguments it if he were the lawyer.

“Observing appellate attorneys practicing their craft in real time, seeing how they structured their arguments, how that preparation came through, and how they responded to the adversity of incredibly tough questioning from the judge was incredibly valuable,”  said participant Travis Weiner (’18). “Listening to how well they had internalized various case law standards, and the nuances, was extremely impressive. I learned a great deal and feel like it was an invaluable experience in my legal education.”

Judge Shaffer said he welcomes visitors—including law students—into his courtroom. “As fewer cases go to trial, the public’s connection to what we do as lawyers and judges is disappearing,” he said. “There’s a misconception that our job operates behind closed doors, but it’s completely open to the public. I post everything on my docket online, and welcome the public to come and watch hearings any time.”

“This was a terrific opportunity for law students to go behind the scenes of a hearing and put theory into practice,” said Melanie Kay, director of the Daniels Fund Ethics Initiative at Colorado Law, who organized this year’s observation. “Getting the judge’s and attorneys’ take on their case and strategy immediately after a hearing is an incredibly rare and valuable opportunity.”

Alex Hood, director of litigation at the nonprofit law firm Towards Justice and one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, urged law students to gain trial experience after law school and offered advice to students preparing for a trial: “You should be well prepared, but don’t ever expect to follow your outline of notes in front of you. Be ready to act on your feet based on what information seems relevant to the judge.”

The Chief Justice’s Commission on Professional Development identifies and addresses opportunities for legal professional development through seven working groups comprised of members of the judiciary, the bar, and local law schools. The next Open Courts Colorado observation will take place at the Colorado Supreme Court in the fall.