Published on November 28, 2022 by Matt Woodham, Interim Director of Trial Advocacy
One hundred and seventy-five years ago, our law school was founded with a vision unusual for its time. Founder, Judge Abraham Caruthers, referred to the school, now known as Cumberland School of Law, as an “adventure” and an “experiment.” Caruthers’ description of a law school, separated by almost two centuries and a four-hour drive from the one we know now, proved to be prescient.
In his inaugural address, Judge Caruthers expanded on his view of the Cumberland experiment: that “the law will be studied practically; so studied I mean as to prepare the student for practice.” In that era, apprenticeships constituted the primary method of legal education. In short, novices learned the law by trial and error, often at the expense of their clients. Instead, Judge Caruthers sought to educate students to “be prepared to enter at once on the duties of the profession” and focused the educational experience on intensive trial preparation.
The Cumberland experiment worked. Two Cumberland graduates sat on the U.S. Supreme Court. Another won the Nobel Peace Prize, after his efforts to found the United Nations. Dozens more became judges, governors, senators and representatives.
Despite its success in its first 114 years of existence, the law school needed a new home. Samford, then Howard College, intervened. For the first time in American history, one institution purchased a law school from another. Ensuring the feat would never be outdone, the sale remains the only one which included the transfer of the tombstone of a dog with a postgraduate degree.
In 1961, the spirit of Rascal (class of 1937) and Judge Caruthers’ experiment arrived in Birmingham. The law school remained focused on practical legal education, preparing it for the changing advocacy landscape. In 1975, the Texas Young Lawyers Association began the National Trial Competition, the first law school mock trial competition of its kind. Students were invited to apply their advocacy skills and to learn the practice of law through trial and error. But unlike the era of apprenticeships, no client’s fate hung in the balance.
Mock trial competitions presented a new means to educate law students to be “prepared to enter at once” into the actual practice of law. Cumberland jumped at the opportunity. Six years after the inception of the first national mock trial competition, Judge Charles Malone ’81 and Jack Stewart ’81 brought home Cumberland’s first national championship in advocacy. Three years later, Ottie Akers ’85, Mark Rowe ’84 and Hill Sewell ’84 did it again.
In the 41 years since that first championship, Cumberland has won 41 regional trial competitions and at least a dozen national titles. Records from those early days are sparse, but the trophy case in Robinson Hall evidences an impressive and consistently maintained track record of success. Among those championships are two National Trial Competition national titles, five American Association of Justice national titles, two National Civil Trial Competition national titles, two National Trial Advocacy Competition national titles, and a Tournament of Champions national title.
That success was built on Cumberland’s faithful commitment to the vision on which it was founded: to prepare good people to become excellent lawyers. As Judge John Carroll '74, former dean of the law school put it, “The prevailing philosophy is simple: Practical skill outweighs raw knowledge, and application transcends erudition. If the goal were to produce great law students, the tenets might be exactly the opposite. Our goal is to produce exceptional lawyers.”
Today, Cumberland continues to lead in advocacy education and graduating exceptional advocates. Cumberland’s trial advocacy program is the highest ranked program by U.S. News & World Report at Samford, ranked as the 10th best trial advocacy program for 2023. The program is consistently ranked as one of the top 10 programs in the country. Cumberland is also ranked 4th in the country in the Trial Competition Performance Rankings, a reflection of Cumberland’s success in mock trial competitions.
The current success of our mock trial program is due in no small part to Judge Jim Roberts ’94, head of National Trial Teams. When asked to reflect on his 24 years of advocacy education at Cumberland, Judge Roberts said, “What began as an adventure 175 years ago has become the foundation of Cumberland’s excellence—preparing students for the practice of law. Our program is special because we don’t simply focus on winning competitions but rather, we strive to meet Judge Caruthers’ goal to prepare students for practice. And so, that means not only teaching students the skills necessary to be a great advocate, but also unlocking their full potential by creating an environment where students can learn these skills while being their true, authentic selves and giving them the freedom to express their individuality through the prism of trial advocacy.”
The core principles of the mock trial program are reflected today, as they were in Judge Caruthers’ time, by the curriculum provided for all students. Associate Professor Ramona Albin said of Cumberland’s commitment to advocacy, “Cumberland’s storied tradition of excellence in advocacy education continues as we train the next generation of outstanding advocates. Through curricular innovation, hosting national advocacy education conferences, clinical opportunities, and competing at the highest level in mock trial competitions, Cumberland continues to innovate, lead and prepare our students for 21st century advocacy.”
After 175 years, Judge Caruthers’ experiment is still going strong. That experiment has had a life-changing impact on generations of trial lawyers. But the true test of that experiment’s success will always be in the lives of the clients that Cumberland lawyers are trained to represent. For that reason, Judge Caruthers’ experiment will continue at Cumberland.
Samford is a leading Christian university offering undergraduate programs grounded in the liberal arts with an array of nationally recognized graduate and professional schools. Founded in 1841, Samford is the 87th-oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. Samford enrolls 5,791 students from 49 states, Puerto Rico and 16 countries in its 10 academic schools: arts, arts and sciences, business, divinity, education, health professions, law, nursing, pharmacy and public health. Samford fields 17 athletic teams that compete in the tradition-rich Southern Conference and ranks 6th nationally for its Graduation Success Rate among all NCAA Division I schools.