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Friday, June 6, 2014

Mock Deposition Provides Chance for Students to Put Their Law Studies to Practice

From left, Boyd students Michael Lin and
Elizabeth Wo Do and Professor Ann McGinley
It’s not every day that a law student walks into a classroom and asks a classmate, “So when did he grab your butt?”

Unless it’s during Professor Ann McGinley’s Employment Discrimination class at the William S. Boyd School of Law, in which case it’s par for the course.

The class of 34 second- and third-year law students recently took a hands-on approach to learning about Title VII by participating in a two-day mock deposition classroom experience based on a fictional sexual and racial harassment case. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids discrimination based on sex, race, national origin and religion.

“I don’t think any of them had ever seen a deposition before,” said Professor McGinley. “So not only were they dealing with this new set of legal issues, but they were trying to figure out how to prove their case and ask questions about it.”

Written by Professor McGinley, the fictional case involved a young African American woman who alleged she was sexually harassed by her supervisor at a bar outside of work. To complicate the issue, she had engaged in a consensual, sexual relationship with the man prior to his promotion to supervisor.

Though such subject matter can be uncomfortable to the lay person, it’s the lawyer’s job to give a voice to the client, explained attorney Kathleen England. England rallied 12 attorneys (including herself) from the Las Vegas law community to act as coaches for the students during the mock depositions.

“These are the day-to-day issues with which we deal,” said England, past president of the Nevada State Bar. “We deal in very sensitive subjects, in aspects of people’s lives that are unpleasant, and most people wish had never happened to them.”

Depositions typically take place in an attorney’s office, but the mock depositions took place in three classrooms at the law school. After reviewing the case and the laws surrounding it, students were broken into groups to take the deposition, defend the deposition, and to act the role of the deponent.

“There are a lot of questions to ask on both sides,” said Professor McGinley. “There were all these light bulbs going off for the students.”

During the first session, for instance, one student who was acting as the plaintiff lawyer was sitting there very quietly.

“And then something happened,” said attorney Cayla Witty, a 2012 Boyd graduate. “He said, ‘Can we take a time out?’ And he asked, ‘Is it OK if I object?’ And I’m like, ‘Absolutely, you have to jump in, you can’t be afraid.’”

Clockwise from left, attorneys Marjorie Hauf (Boyd Class of 2002), Miriam
Rodriguez (Boyd Class of 2003), Carol Davis Zucker, and Christian Gabroy;
Professor Ann McGinley; Attorney Kathy England; and students Michael
Lin and Elizabeth Wo Do
Witty said the hesitation to assert oneself is something a lot of new attorneys go through, and that makes having a practical platform such as a mock deposition invaluable for law students.

“A lot of people go into law school viewing the legal profession with a very skewed understanding of what happens on a day-to-day basis,” said Witty, “so getting a chance to do it in a controlled setting where you can ask questions, where you can make mistakes, where you can get pointers, is a great experience.”

On the second day, after all the students had a chance to play each of the roles in the deposition, the lawyers spoke about the purpose of depositions and put on a mock deposition of their own. This gave the students a chance to observe practicing lawyers approach the deposition process. 

“One part of learning how to practice law is looking around and seeing how other people do it,” said England. “Some people use humor, some talk faster than others. You have to develop your very own style and continue to hone it and hone it and hone it.”

Every lawyer has a different personality, added Witty, and “you can definitely see that in the students as well.”

Student Elizabeth Wo Do described the mock depositions as a tremendous learning opportunity and a chance to unleash everything she’s learned in law school up to now.

“It was a really good experience to practice what we know and also learn from the mistakes that we made,” she said. “In an actual setting things didn’t always go as we expected so we had to make adjustments in that moment.”

Attorney Marjorie Hauf, a 2002 Boyd alumna, said it was a learning experience for the lawyers as well.

“It’s always helpful even when you’re out there practicing to go back and revisit your basics,” she said.

In general, the Employment Discrimination course covers a variety of topics from disparate treatment to disparate impact. Professor McGinley said she often tries to incorporate practical exercises to help emphasize certain doctrinal issues. She felt the topic of harassment best lent itself to the deposition process, which is considered one of the most important discovery tools for an attorney.

“It’s a difficult course in that the students have to learn a significant amount of theory and doctrine,” said McGinley. “But after they’ve learned it they need to learn how to apply it in a more practical situation. I don’t think they really understand it or internalize it until they have an opportunity to put it into practice.”

Student Jose Martin said the mock deposition really helped add some perspective to the class materials.

“There are many skills that are critical to our future jobs, if we get jobs, that one does not learn reading or reciting 10 more cases, or 100 more,” he said, adding that he appreciated being able to read the materials in the context of a deposition versus a law exam. “Nobody pays you to take law school exams.”

Employment Discrimination defense attorney Nick Crosby said he was not only really impressed by the overall structure of the mock exercise but also the way the students handled it.

“I didn’t expect that level of confidence from people who have never taken a deposition or maybe have never seen a deposition,” said Crosby, a 2004 graduate of Boyd. “I can tell we have a high caliber of student and it’s pretty evident that the professors care about the success of those students.”

Las Vegas is a small legal community, added Crosby, and Boyd graduates will eventually become colleagues. Ensuring they are getting a great education is in everyone’s best interest, he said.

There may be a lot of things an attorney can argue with, but as Crosby put it: “You really can’t argue with the benefit of having better attorneys.”