Federal Court's Hillman Advocacy Program marks 2018 as another successful year


by Michelle Benham
Chief Deputy Clerk
United States District Court
Western District of Michigan

Thirty-seven years ago, the late federal district Judge Douglas W. Hillman, responded to the call of then-Chief Justice Warren Burger and an investigatory committee of the U.S. Supreme Court for “a need to take positive steps to improve the quality of advocacy in the United States District Courts.”

Judge Hillman was determined that such criticism not be leveled at the trial practice in the Western District of Michigan, and so he enlisted the aid of his fellow jurists and several leading trial lawyers to form an instructional workshop where attorneys could learn by doing. In Judge Hillman’s own words, “Trial lawyers are made, not born.” This was the genesis of the Hillman Advocacy Program.

The program is a learn-by-doing seminar patterned after well-known techniques developed by the National Institute of Trial Advocacy (NITA) in Boulder, Colorado. It gives new lawyers a unique opportunity to develop courtroom skills under the guidance of federal judges and some of Western Michigan’s top trial lawyers – all of whom volunteer their time.

The federal courthouse in Grand Rapids supports the annual program, and all of the federal judges participate. A district judge, magistrate judge and/or circuit court judge is assigned to each class of students and, over a box lunch provided by the workshop, the students have the opportunity to engage in conversation with the judges on an informal basis. Students and judges alike mark this lunch as one of the highlights of the program.

This year’s program was January 17, 18 and 19. Attorney Jeff Muth of Miller Johnson chaired the Hillman Steering Committee. The Committee is made up of federal district judges, lawyers, legal assistants and court staff. Each year, the Committee begins with planning meetings in September and by January, they are ready to roll out the program. Program Coordinators Melissa Kidd and Michelle Smith, play a critical role in keeping the planning on track. This year fifty-six students graduated from the program.

First-time participant Herman Hofman, an associate at Varnum, commented, “I thoroughly enjoyed participating in the Hillman Program and found it to be a very valuable learning experience. I loved the way the program gave us the opportunity to practice oral advocacy in real courtroom settings while receiving almost instantaneous and personalized feedback from some of the most talented and experienced litigators in Michigan.”

The Western Michigan legal community is proud to offer this annual program and looks forward to more years to come. Additional program information can be found online at www.hillman