The Bionic Lawyer Institute

Posted by Michelle Eisenmenger Mapes
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I have now been back in Kentucky for just under two weeks, having returned on May 27th from an eight day seminar in Houston, Texas. I think I am almost fully recovered. A friend of mine has referred to this trip a few times as a “vacation,” and each time he has received a swat to the head or upper arm. “Vacation? Vacation???!!!!” I yelped with each swat. “I worked harder during those eight days than I have since I studied for the bar exam, and experienced nearly as much anxiety!” Never having been on stage in a courtroom, he remains unable to empathize. He has learned, however, to avoid the swat by not using the word “vacation” in connection with the seminar.

Do not misunderstand me. The experience was more than worthwhile, extremely beneficial, and after the first few days, even had strains of fun. I will describe this in greater detail below. Nonetheless, it was less like a typical business convention and more like legal boot camp. One of the faculty members, my fantastic group leader Ken Lester, warned me before the Institute began to “leave my ego at home.” Me? Ego? Pshaw. Okay, well, maybe a little (like most attorneys, I think!) Nonetheless, I thought I heeded his advice—I have always known that the law can feed even an insatiable appetite for knowledge, so there is always more to learn. However, one aspect of that admonition escaped me. Not only did Ken mean “be prepared to learn from some of the best lawyers in the country (the faculty),” but also, “be prepared to have three of those lawyers and seven of your colleagues watch your courtroom performance, voice objections to your examination questions, and critique your performance, all while having a video camera trained on you, then to watch the videotape in another room with another member of the faculty, who will provide further critique.” If your reaction to that is not a cringe or worse, then I haven’t effectively described it.

After the first of these “Exercises,” I thought I was going to be the shining star of our group. I received very complementary remarks from the faculty on the strength of my voice and my courtroom presence. Anyone who knows me knows that in all other aspects of my life, the “strength of my voice” has rarely been a complement. Being the youngest of five, I’ve always spoken with a voice so that I will be heard! It’s now my natural voice, and I can sometimes be heard a block away, I think. In our Exercise, I was told that it lends an air of confidence and strength to my courtroom presence.

The following days’ Exercises would demonstrate that there would be no shining stars, only lumps of coal in varying stages of becoming diamonds. All of the individuals in my group (including me) evolved dramatically from the first days, including Misty Hedspeth from Raleigh, North Carolina; Tom Tuttle from Orange County, California; John Spurgeon from Pasadena, California; Shannon Eckner from Cincinnati, Ohio; Ryan Doherty from West Palm Beach, Florida; Dylan Mitchell from New York, New York; and my creative and bold mock trial partner, Yolanda Torres from Orange County, California. We each watched how vastly improved our trial presentations would become from changes great and small: in bodily stance and voice projection; using physical movement only in planned, demonstrative ways; keeping unwavering eye contact with the judge or witness, and innumerable other tips, subtle and obvious.

Lectures from the faculty similarly improved our abilities. “The faculty” included some of the best lawyers and judges from around the country: Stephen Kolodny, who apparently earned the nickname “Darth Vader” for his imposing courtroom presence (but who engaged with the participants as if he was our stern but proud uncle); Lynn Gold-Bikin, whose cross-examination had the participants shrinking in their seats as we empathized with the pain of the witness; Sandy Morris, with the amazing ability to grow her petite frame to great height with the strength, confidence and dignity of her courtroom presence; Judge Bonnie Hellums, the personification of why not to mess with Texas; and Ken Lester, whose kind and patient manner, wisdom, and humor helped us to laugh at ourselves as we learned to improve. As a victim of and a slave to pop culture, I was excited to learn that one of the faculty was Oprah’s go-to guest attorney in child custody matters, and that one of the faculty had been employed to place a goodwill value on the world’s most famous movie star. Many other immensely skilled and able attorneys, judges, psychologists and business valuators participated on the faculty, voluntarily donating their time to improving the trial skills of individuals such as myself, and I thank each of them.

Though I returned from the trip thoroughly exhausted, I also returned a greater trial lawyer, with new friends and colleagues from around the country.