When Sophia George (J.D. ’18) began her legal studies at the St. Mary’s University School of Law, she was set against doing litigation work after graduation.
“I didn’t want to argue in court,” said George, now an associate at Germer PLLC in Houston. “I was kind of scared.”
But in 2017 and 2018, George and her teammates, William “Billy” Calve (J.D. ’17) and Devin deBruyn (J.D. ’17) secured the national championship at the American Bar Association’s National Appellate Advocacy Competition two years in a row, a rare achievement for any law school. Calve was a member of both teams.
The team – one of many from St. Mary’s Law to earn national championships over the years – developed through a competitive advocacy program that the ABA ranked as fifth in the country in May. Earlier this year, U.S. News & World Report also put the St. Mary’s advocacy program in the top 25 percent of law schools nationwide. Advocacy programs prepare students to become lawyers by giving them the opportunity to practice litigation in a courtroom setting before mock judges and mock juries. Often, these students will even compete against other schools, regionally and nationally, like Calve and his teammates.
“Winning ABA even once is an honor,” said Calve, who now works as an associate at Norton Rose Fulbright in San Antonio. “To have come back and defended that title was an incredible feeling.”
Calve likened the energy of competition to riding a rollercoaster.
“There’s a lot of anticipation before you start. And then once you’re over that first hill … you just kind of buckle in,” said Calve, as George added, “and enjoy the ride.”
But the real magic of the advocacy program at St. Mary’s is not the wins. It’s the development of skill and confidence through hundreds of hours of effort, said moot court team head coach Ricky J. Poole (J.D. ’90).
Since the launch of the law school’s formal advocacy program, the St. Mary’s Law National Team, in 2000, St. Mary’s teams have brought home 30 state, regional and national championships – netting a major competition win nearly every year. Poole has been a coach from the start and has seen the transformation in students unfold time and again.
“You have some students who come in and are talented but not at their potential,” Poole said. “I can see them progress from one level of talent to something that’s absolutely extraordinary.”
Poole said deBruyn, for instance, came into the program wanting only to write briefs. But he ultimately snagged the title of second-best speaker at a competition, as well as earning recognition for writing the fifth-best brief in the nation for the ABA championship.
The St. Mary’s Law National Team prepares students for three types of competition: mock trial, negotiations, and moot court.
For those uninitiated in the world of advocacy, mock trial mimics the kinds of situations TV viewers are most used to seeing – think Perry Mason. Students on negotiations teams receive a legal problem and must act as lawyers representing a side.
Moot court tournaments, like the ABA competition, reflect the appellate courtroom, such as the U.S. Supreme Court, in which students argue the law before a judicial panel and write a brief to convince the court to decide in their favor.
DeBruyn, who is now a law clerk in the Office of Administrative Law Judges for the Drug Enforcement Administration, said moot court participation allows students “to get underneath the law in some ways, to explore the underlying reasons or rational or policy considerations behind the law.”
Beyond the trophies and glory, students emerge from the program knowing how to think like a practice ready lawyer, said Hardy Director of Advocacy A.J. Bellido de Luna, J.D.
“We don’t tell them, ‘Here’s what you’re going to do.’ We train them to do the case analysis and how to come up with their own theories,” Bellido de Luna said. “We help them find their voice, so when they graduate, they’re practice-ready.”
The program’s recent national rankings are a confirmation of that, Bellido de Luna added.
“Our goal is to be consistently ranked among the best programs in the country,” Bellido de Luna said. “There’s always new ideas and thoughts on how to present an argument. It’s up to us as coaches to continue to expand our knowledge and then pass it on to our students.”
Justice Beth Watkins (J.D. ’02) of the Fourth Court of Appeals was on the moot court team that took home the ABA championship in 2002 – the first time St. Mary’s won the trophy – and was recognized as the competition’s best speaker.
Describing herself as “painfully shy and terrified of public speaking” before joining the team, she credits that experience as the reason she became an appellate lawyer and credits the program with bringing tremendous prestige to St. Mary’s.
“I was not born with great public speaking and advocacy skills, but as a result of countless practice rounds, I developed those skills and eventually won a national competition,” Watkins said. “Now, those skills form the foundation of my livelihood.”
She is one of the hundreds of students ushered through the advocacy programs over the years who benefited from being armed with advocacy skills. Through the journey, students also find new meaning in the law they’ve studied in order to compete.
At one regional competition, a girl from the audience came up to George and told her the fictional case that the team had been arguing about a college student sexually assaulted at a party was similar to an experience she had endured. The girl told the team that she was glad there would be lawyers like them advocating for people in her situation. That comment, with its real-life repercussions, sticks with George still.
“When you graduate, it’s not about winning a round. It’s about getting justice for your client,” George said.
Learn more about St. Mary’s University School of Law by visiting law.stmarytx.edu.