Stetson: First law school in Florida, #1 in advocacy nationwide

Gulfport in Pinellas County is known for its laid-back beach attitude, quirky boutiques and restaurants, working artists and the Gulfport Casino, a vintage dance hall on the waterfront. So it’s a bit discombobulating to learn that the city is also home to the number one trial advocacy law school in the country.

Stetson University College of Law was founded in 1900, making it Florida’s first law school. But not until 1954 did the law school relocate from Deland, the main university campus in the middle of the state, to its current location in Gulfport.

The law school campus is spectacular, with iconic Mediterranean architecture, Spanish-tiled courtyards and fountains, banyan trees and tall arched entryways, all a testament to its first incarnation as the Rolyat Hotel, a luxurious 1920-era hotel modeled after a Spanish walled settlement. It was where wealthy northerners came to escape from the cold.

While the school’s cool history and its location in sunny Florida might be a plus, Stetson’s reputation for advocacy is the real draw for the 904 students enrolled there -- 832 pursuing a Juris Doctor of JD degree and 72 pursuing a Master of Laws degree or LLM.

“Stetson is known nationally for grooming students for advocacy,” says Jason Stearns, a graduate of the class of 2008 and now a complex commercial litigation attorney for Phelps Dunbar law firm in Tampa.

“I was serving in the U.S. Navy on a submarine and knew nothing about Florida or Stetson when I decided to become a attorney,” says Stearns, who grew up in New York. “My father was a police officer. But I wanted to be a trial attorney and I wanted to go to the best school in the country. So I picked up a copy of U.S. News and World Report. Stetson was ranked first for trial advocacy.”

Interscholastic competitions

Like most law schools, Stetson has competition advocacy teams in which students argue the law in simulated mock trials, competing with other law school students nationally and internationally.

In addition to a Trial Advocacy Board, there is also a Moot Court Board and Alternative Dispute Resolution Board or ADR. Tryouts for the teams are held annually.

The school’s record in interscholastic competition is impressive: five world titles, more than 60 national championships, 70 regional championships and 40 state championships. U.S. News and World Report has ranked Stetson number one in trial advocacy 17 times. The magazine also ranks Stetson the number two law school in the country for legal writing education.

Last November, Stetson law students Marissa Cioffi, Ryan Hedstrom and Greg Pierson won the best brief and placed second in the New York City Bar’s Annual Moot Court Competition, which makes them eligible to advance to the national finals this February.

“Advocacy teams have been the cornerstone of Stetson’s education for 30 to 40 years,” says Brooke Bowman, a Stetson graduate who is now a professor of legal skills and associate director of the Stetson Center for Excellence in Advocacy.

Bowman is also the law school’s Moot Court Advisor and co-director of Stetson’s International Environmental Moot Court Competition.

In April, the International Finals of the 20th Annual Stetson International Environmental Moot Court Competition will take place in Gulfport, after regional and national qualifying rounds in places ranging from the University of Nairobi Law School in East Africa and Victoria University in Australia to Federal University of Minas Gerais in Brazil, and additional law schools in Korea, Ukraine, Ireland and India.  

The competition is the world’s largest moot court competition devoted exclusively to global environmental issues. This year’s theme is confiscated poached elephant ivory -- certainly a pressing moral and ethical issue with international implications.

Mock trials hone real life skills

Darnesha Carter, Evan Dix, Adriana Foreman and Taylor Ryan are among students who are part of Stetson’s Moot Court team this year. The four students are impeccably dressed in black suits and white shirts as they get ready to present a simulated Moot Court “oral argument” in the Florin & Robig courtroom, one of seven courtrooms on the Stetson campus.

Ryan and Carter join Professor Bowman as the presiding appellate court judges. Dix serves as the “petitioner” while Foreman is the “respondent.”  

The mock argument was a reenactment of a portion of the team's argument from the Mercer University College of Law Legal Ethics and Professionalism Moot Court Competition that took place in late November. Carter tied for best “oralist” at that competition.

“Everyone knows what a trial is, they see it on TV,” says Bowman. “Moot Court is different. There isn’t the excitement of a trial with lawyers in front of a jury, but it’s a critical part of the judicial system. 

Exactly what is Moot Court?  “It’s what happens when the loser appeals and the case goes to appellate court,” says Bowman. “The lawyers file an appellate brief, which is a misnomer because it is not brief, but can be as many as 14,000 words.’’

Despite the extensive amount of preparation required to get ready for any type of advocacy trial, the law students say they thrive on it.

“Moot Court let’s me hone my skills, particularly in oral communication,” says Carter, a third-year student who received her undergraduate degree from Florida A&M University. “It requires a whole new level of preparation. You have to expect the unexpected and think on your feet.” Dix, a second-year student who received his undergraduate degree from the University of Tampa, agrees. “It’s about enhancing our advocacy skills, building confidence and being fully immersed in the experience.”

Ryan, a second-year student from Niagara Falls, NY, points out that it’s not only about competing with the best law students from around the country, but presenting an opportunity to be in front of judges who “are seeing what you’re made of.”

Strong faculty, alumni participation

Many competition advocacy teams at law schools around the country are student-led, with peers providing coaching. That’s where Stetson students have an edge.  

At Stetson, both faculty and alumni who are practicing attorneys are actively involved in mentoring and coaching.

“The alumni are busy with their practices and they don’t have to do this, but they’re stepping in to help us carry on the tradition of winning,” says Foreman, a second-year law student and University of Central Florida undergraduate.

The big law schools around the country -- Yale, Harvard, Columbia, University of Chicago and University of Pennsylvania -- offer an excellent education, says Stearns, but Stetson offers the additional advantage of a very practical application of the law.  

“When I was a student, I competed in Belgium, Vienna and all over the world and probably argued no less than 40 times in front of everyone from practicing attorneys to actual federal and appellate court judges,” says Stearns. 

Besides the adventure, there’s the very practical upside to experiences like this.  

Says Stearns:  “After Vienna, I was not intimidated as a first-year attorney going into a courtroom in Tampa.”

Paying it forward

Today, Stearns is one of many Stetson alumni who volunteer their time serving as a coach and mentor to current law students who are competing on the interscholastic teams.  

“The students are interacting with Stetson professors who are subject matter experts in their field and alumni like myself who are practicing attorneys or even judges,” says Stearns. “We’re meeting three to four times a week to prepare the students and spending about two hours during each session. By the time we head to competition, the students know their stuff.”

Read more articles by Janan Talafer.

Janan Talafer enjoys writing for a diverse group of clients, including print and online publications, nonprofit organizations and public relations agencies. One of the highlights of her writing career was flying with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa FL for a feature about this elite military team. A journalism graduate of Bowling Green State University (OH), Janan’s early career was in health care marketing and public relations for hospitals in Connecticut and Tampa Bay. She is an avid gardener, loves East Coast swing dance and enjoys touring around St. Petersburg on the back of her husband’s scooter.
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