About 50 Harrisburg campus law students got a valuable hour with an influential member of the Pennsylvania bar recently, when the Philadelphia District Attorney visited the Intensive Trial Advocacy Program
to share his tips for courtroom success.
R. Seth Williams, the first African-American district attorney to serve in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, told the students that trial performance is much more than the mechanics of stating an objection.
“Part of trial advocacy is learning your own voice. It’s learning how to talk to people, how to persuade people,” Williams said. “It’s about learning how to persuade even when the law or the facts are against you.”
Williams was given up by an unwed mother, placed in foster care and then adopted by a devoted and loving family. He grew up in a hard-working West Philadelphia neighborhood, attended Penn State University and then Georgetown University Law Center. He joined the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office after graduating in 1992 and went on to try thousands of cases.
He shared valuable lessons gleaned from his own courtroom experiences as a young prosecutor. Among them:
- He watched Saturday morning cartoons in search of ways to better relate to child-sex-abuse victims, who he needed to quickly like and trust him at a time when they were typically scared and preparing for the intimidating task of testifying.
- He turned Mondays into “all evidence Mondays” when he prosecuted cases in the felony waiver unit – a unit where bench-trial cases typically moved more quickly for lack of the procedural paperwork often associated with jury trials. He did the evidence procedural paperwork anyway, and it made him much more comfortable with the process.
- He turned Tuesdays into “reverse order Tuesdays,” when he presented evidence and witness in a different order than he would normally, to get him thinking critically about different ways to build a case.
Williams became Philadelphia’s inspector general, responsible for investigating allegations of corruption, fraud, waste and abuse in city government in 2005. He served for three years before entering private practice. Philadelphia voters elected him district attorney in November 2009.
He told the law students that no matter how nervous they are, they must always appear in control of their cases, even if they are taken off guard by an opponent, or by a judge’s question.
“Always appear confident, even if you don’t know what you are talking about,” Williams said with a smile. “It goes a long way.”