‘WELCOME TO LITIGATION’
Each year, Director Veronica Valentine McNally initiates a new cohort of 2L law students into the Geoffrey Fieger Trial Practice Institute (TPI) at Michigan State University College of Law: “Welcome to Litigation,” she says. Her words give weight to the journey that lies before these aspiring litigators and set the stage for two years of intense practice-preparatory programming.
Students hit the ground running in the Fieger TPI, learning the ins-and-outs of trial law through hands-on exercises and thoughtful training, preparing them for practice and bridging the gap between classroom and courtroom. Alumni have described the program as the closest experience to actual practice in law school. Success in Fieger TPI demands an exceptional level of commitment from participants.
“The program is very rigorous and not for the weak-hearted. It’s for people who really want to do this work and learn about it because it is going to test you,” said Alyssa Grissom, ’12, who, today, serves as an assistant attorney general for Michigan’s Department of the Attorney General. “The professors that are spending their time to teach you are going to expect excellence out of you, and that expectation is going to help you to be a better writer and a better speaker in court. That experience is just invaluable.”
The Institute was founded at the College of Law in 2001 with a $4 million gift from alumnus Geoffrey N. Fieger, ’79. "Michigan State University is a great institution,” he said. “The Law College gave me the education I needed as a foundation to represent my clients successfully in the courtroom.”
Director McNally, who also serves as MSU Law’s assistant dean for experiential education, graduated in the Class of 2004 and was one of the very first students to take part in the Fieger TPI. Today, she continues its legacy for new generations of advocates.
“In a lot of ways, the design of the program has remained the same. We have, however, evolved the curriculum in the same way that the practice of law has evolved over the years,” she explained. “We know that a very small percentage of cases end up going to trial so the curriculum is designed in a way that makes the students very familiar with the pre-trial process but also prepares them to present in any forum they should find themselves in in the future – whether that’s a board meeting or some administrative law hearing. All the skills are transferable.”
LEARNING FROM LEADERS IN LAW
Skilled judges and legal practitioners teach Fieger TPI students how to approach the pre-trial process, navigate the courtroom, present themselves in front of a jury, and valuable people skills that will aid them throughout their careers. By the time they finish the program, students have completed both a full civil trial and a full criminal trial.
Adjunct Professor Ann Sherman, ’04, serves as the deputy solicitor general for the State of Michigan and has practiced in the U.S. Supreme Court, Michigan Supreme Court, Michigan Court of Appeals, and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. As a Fieger TPI alum, and now an instructor, her experiences from her time in the program and in practice motivate her teaching.
“One of the reasons that I teach in Fieger TPI now is because of the value that I found it had for my career going forward and I really didn’t appreciate that when I was in the program as much as I did when I got out,” Professor Sherman explained. “There were so many threads that I could trace back to Fieger TPI. I think the melding of legal knowledge and the practical experience far surpassed anything I did in law school.”
While the program asks students to put their very best foot forward, it is understood that mistakes are inevitable when learning new skills, and Fieger TPI provides the arena to make them before the result is a risk to their client.
“I feel comfortable practicing and doing exercises in class because there isn’t an expectation for me to be perfect,” said Breanne Gilliam, ’21. “After every exercise I am given valuable feedback that allows me to work towards being better. Looking back to my first semester in Fieger TPI compared to where I am now, I can notice many ways that I have grown as an advocate, as a writer, and as a young professional in general. Fieger TPI created the environment that allowed me to grow in those ways.”
For students who put their heart into the program, the return is conclusively worth the effort. Fieger TPI challenges them to face their shortcomings, learn when to trust their intuition, and apply the unique talents they will bring to the profession.
“It’s a program that really demonstrates the gaps that you need to fill in both your knowledge base and your skill base. Sometimes that’s difficult, and the workload is hard,” said Professor Sherman. “I feel their pain, but I don’t overcoddle them because I know that it’s going to pay off in the end – and I know that because it did for me.”
PREPARED FOR PRACTICE
The Fieger TPI experience allows students to branch out beyond the classroom and exercise the skills necessary to thrive in practice. For many, that’s one of the central takeaways from the program: the ability to graduate and transition confidently into their careers.
“When I got out of law school, I felt like I could hit the ground running and I did thankfully get a job as a prosecutor in Chicago. I think having that experience and that certificate set me apart from other people,” said Grissom. “I got specific training on how to present before a jury and how to write a motion that would be persuasive to a court.”
“Everything outside of Fieger TPI is very academia: textbook reading for class, prepping to be cold called,” said Myles Baker, ’17, an associate attorney in Dickinson Wright’s Detroit office. “Fieger TPI really taught me how to be a lawyer and the things I still use today.”
The knowledge and skills gained in Fieger TPI set MSU Law students and alumni apart and often put them in the position to take on work that other new lawyers can’t do. Matthew Nagel, ’21, has worked for several prosecuting attorneys’ offices during his law school career and credits the Fieger TPI curriculum for providing him the ability to successfully, and independently, complete assigned tasks.
“It has been a huge confidence booster to know how to begin researching and to present a motion that assistant prosecuting attorneys have needed me to work on but didn’t have time to show me how to write. They didn’t have to,” said Nagel. “I was able to draw from my own experience and produce a product that met or exceeded expectations.”
THE HEART BEHIND THE PROFESSION
Nearly two decades of MSU Law students have come and gone through the Fieger TPI program, each taking something of their own from the experience into their post-grad career – whether it’s a new skill, or several, or an invigorated passion for the profession. But the mission of the program remains true to the inspiration behind its inception at the College of Law: preparing students to excel in the field as justice seekers and advocates for others in need.
“I feel it is the calling of trial lawyers to champion noble causes, as well as the forgotten and the damned,” said Fieger. “The foundation of our American legal system depends on the right of individuals to have their day in court, to have their cases judged by juries of their peers.”
Beyond assignments and getting the grade, as impossible as it may seem to some students in the moment, the intensity and weight of the program and its curriculum is intentionally and thoughtfully designed to mimic reality so that when they step into the courtroom for the first time as attorneys, in front of a jury with the power to make or break their client’s case, they’re ready.
“The level of commitment that you put forward in Fieger TPI, it shouldn’t be just for a class grade. It should be because now and going forward, you’re going to have clients who need your help. If you talk about the heart behind the program, that’s it,” said Professor Sherman. “Frankly, that’s the heart behind the profession.”