Court proceedings put a premium on decorum and civil discourse, but the skills and dispositions that set the stage start long before the attorneys and parties enter the courtroom. That is why federal judges and attorneys collaborated with Duke Law School to bring the Judiciary’s Civil Discourse and Difficult Decisions program to law students for the first time.
“Civility is a vital skill in the courtroom, the classroom, and the community,” said U.S. Magistrate Judge Shaniek Mills Maynard, of the Southern District of Florida, who helped facilitate the recent program. “It is a critical pathway to reaching consensus and agreement on important issues that have an impact on everyone and their quality of life.”
During the three-hour program in Durham, North Carolina, students identified and practiced the civil discourse skills they will need throughout their legal careers. All of Duke Law School’s roughly 240 first-year students participated in this interactive exercise with federal judges and attorney volunteers.
“Using the program for all first-year law students is a strong statement from Duke Law School that it values civility, and that professionalism is a core component of the legal profession,” said Judge Robin L. Rosenberg, of the Southern District of Florida, who presided over the event and helped launch the national initiative in 2016.
“Duke Law School is committed to providing our students with active, hands-on opportunities to practice the professional skills they’ll need as attorneys – and the ability to engage in civil discourse is one of the most important, no matter the type of practice or setting,” said Amanda Lacoff, assistant dean for academic initiatives at Duke Law School. “Participating in the Civil Discourse and Difficult Decisions program conveyed the ways that maintaining civility, especially when discussing contentious and weighty topics, will make students more effective advocates and problem-solvers, now and in the future.”
The program uses a courtroom simulation to expose students to the practice of civility and professionalism – as judges, jurors, and lawyers. Judges and attorneys opened the program by talking about their reasons for pursuing careers in the law and why civility is a critical legal and life skill, as well as a professional value and responsibility.
Students prepared for a courtroom simulation by discussing civility and setting ground rules for their interactions. Attorneys coached student advocates, who argued a fictional scenario based on the First Amendment cases Elonis v. U.S. (2015) and Counterman v. Colorado (2023). The program culminated with deliberations in which all students engaged in robust and respectful discussions.
“Participating in the civil discourse program was a really unique and insightful opportunity,” said Fernanda Yanez, a Duke Law School student who attended the event. “When thinking of the legal field, people tend to only focus on the adversarial aspect of it, but what most people don’t realize is just how important it is to be able to discuss legal issues in an orderly fashion.”
As a result of the program’s success at Duke, Federal Bar Association members in the Eastern District of North Carolina plan to host additional programs for high school students throughout North Carolina.
“This program is a perfect vehicle to introduce and reinforce civility in the law,” said Michael McAuliffe, a Florida attorney who helped facilitate the event. “I hope it proves to be a template used by other law schools.”
Civil Discourse and Difficult Decisions is a national initiative that is active in almost every federal circuit across the nation. The program, originally geared to high school students, has reached thousands of students in middle schools, high schools, and universities since it was first launched in the Southern District of Florida.
The Federal Bar Association partners with the federal courts in the implementation of the program across the country. Interested law schools may contact the federal courts’ national educational outreach manager, Rebecca Fanning at the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, to find a participating federal court.
Related Topics: Public Education