Distinguished Alumnus of the Year: Judge Jim Roberts, J.D. ’94
The Distinguished Alumnus Award is given to a Cumberland School of Law graduate who has distinguished himself/herself in the practice of law, service to the community, and leadership in the profession.
When you think of Cumberland School of Law’s nationally recognized trial advocacy program, it’s no doubt that student accomplishments immediately come to mind. But what you may be less familiar with are the dozens of coaches who volunteer their spare time to prepare the students to become the best advocates they can be—in competition and in life. And, behind it all is the steadfast leadership of Judge Jim Roberts, J.D. ’94, director of National Trial Teams and our 2023 Distinguished Alumnus of the Year.
Judge James H. (Jim) Roberts, circuit court judge for Alabama’s Sixth Judicial Circuit, has been a mainstay of the program since 1998. During his tenure, Cumberland’s trial teams have won numerous regional and national trial competitions, several professionalism awards and many individual advocacy awards. Cumberland has been consistently ranked as one of the top 10 trial advocacy programs in the country by U.S. News & World Report (currently 4th for 2024), Fordham University’s Trial Performance Rankings and Hofstra University’s GAVEL Rankings.
Roberts is also a well-respected figure in the national trial advocacy community. He serves on the board of directors for the Tournament of Champions, and served on the organizational committee that created the National Association of Legal Advocacy Educators and on its inaugural board of directors.
In 2022, he was selected by advocacy educators across the nation as only the third recipient of the Cornerstone Award, which recognizes unwavering commitment to protecting the right to trial by jury and the development of training opportunities for trial lawyers and was recognized by the American Association of Justice with a special award for his work to revive the Student Trial Advocacy Competition. The impact he has had on the trial advocacy community goes far beyond his success as a trial team director and coach. As Sara Williams, J.D. ’06, visiting director of Advocacy Programs, explained, it is Judge Roberts’ philosophy on advocacy education the makes him special and Cumberland’s program unique.
Williams said, “While as his student, I knew that Judge Roberts was special, it was not until I began practicing that I realized how unique his teaching methods were. Instead of attempting to create trial advocacy robots, he takes a different approach. Judge Roberts seeks to unearth the powerfulness that each student already has within them and teaches us to honor and celebrate our differences rather than shy away from them or attempt to conform.”
Matt Woodham, J.D. ’15, assistant director of advocacy programs, said, “Almost everything that makes Cumberland’s advocacy program what it is today can be directly traced to Judge Roberts. When he began teaching, we had two trial team coaches and, if we were lucky, Cumberland was represented in two national competitions each year. Twenty-five years, and many championships later, our program consists of 16 extraordinary coaches who lead our students in roughly a dozen premier competitions each year. All of those coaches have one thing in common: we are all Judge’s students. We are all better lawyers, better teachers and better people because of the incredible contributions that he has made to Cumberland.”
Williams continued, “Judge Roberts teaches us that trial advocacy encompasses the ability to have empathy for both those you represent and those you oppose. Through this, he develops and inspires his students by teaching everyone he encounters that their superpower is being themselves, that their voice is worthy of being heard, that they are worthy of taking up space in any and every courtroom in this country.”
Through his extensive individual success, Roberts’ passion for inspiring future Cumberland lawyers shines. He said, “We encourage them, we inspire them, and, if all things go well, we ignite in them a passion for being a real lawyer, representing real people with real problems. Ultimately, they get to affect lives long after we’re all gone, and through that, what we do lives on.”
Distinguished Young Alumna of the Year: Hilaire Armstrong ’12, J.D., M.B.A. ’16
The Young Alumna/nus award is given to a Cumberland School of Law graduate who received her/his J.D. within the past 15 years, and who has distinguished herself/ himself in the practice of law, service to the community, and leadership in the profession.
Hilaire Armstrong, a native of Hoover, Alabama, is a two-time graduate of Samford University. In 2012, she received her bachelor’s degree in political science and Spanish. Then, in 2016 she received a joint degree from Samford’s Brock School of Business and Cumberland School of Law. During her time at Cumberland, Armstrong served as president of Women in Law and as the 2015-16 southern regional chair of the National Black Law Students Association.
Armstrong’s career has focused on public interest work. Explaining her passion, she said, “It’s what I love to do. I believe everybody has a purpose in life, and mine is to help people.” Armstrong’s public interest passion led her to internships with the Jefferson County Public Defenders’ Office, the Alabama Senate, and the Jefferson County Family Court. After completing a postgraduate fellowship at Cumberland, she became the first law clerk for newly elected Circuit Judge Javon Patton.
Armstrong then went on to join Legal Services Alabama as a staff attorney, sharing that this experience was “a great opportunity to help people with legal issues that affect their livelihood and ability to provide for their families.” Her next career move led her to serve several years as the first Alabama Bankruptcy Assistance project coordinator for the statewide Chapter 7 Bankruptcy Project. These days, Armstrong works for the Alabama State Bar as its first pro bono clinic coordinator, concentrating on expanding access to justice by increasing the number of lawyers doing pro bono work and broadening client services.
While Armstrong is active in the legal profession, she still finds time to volunteer at Cumberland School of Law, provide valuable insight to law-related discussions and CLEs and model professionalism before students.
Volunteer of the Year: Bill Bensinger ’98, J.D. ’03
The Volunteer of the Year recognizes an alumnus/na who has demonstrated exceptional loyalty and commitment to Cumberland School of Law through volunteer service to the school.
Bill Bensinger graduated from Samford University in 1998 and again in 2003 with his J.D. from Cumberland School of Law. After graduating from Cumberland, Bill received his LL.M. in bankruptcy from St. John’s University School of Law in 2005.
Bensinger is currently a partner at Christian & Small LLP in Birmingham, Alabama, where he focuses his practice on commercial dispute litigation, and commercial bankruptcy and restructuring litigation. He represents debtors, trustees, creditors, franchisors, landlords, unsecured creditors’ committees and financial institutions in a wide variety of bankruptcy matters, including preference and fraudulent transfer actions, workout transactions, and insolvency matters. Bensinger represents franchisors in bankruptcy, including matters concerning the assumption of franchise agreements, and represents landlords in bank matters concerning the assumption of commercial leases. His work on behalf of financial institutions includes general creditor’s rights litigation, collection, lien enforcement, cash collateral, relief from stay, and plan confirmation issues. Bill also maintains an active appellate practice and has argued cases before the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the Fifth and 11th Circuits, and the Supreme Court of the United States.
For 15 years, he has given back to his law school by mentoring students as a coach of moot court competition teams. Since 2008, he has coached teams that compete in the Duberstein Bankruptcy Moot Court Competition at St. John’s University School of Law in New York. As a coach, he has helped students prepare for oral arguments by talking through difficult issues of bankruptcy law, organizing practice rounds with local lawyers and bankruptcy judges, and sharpening students’ presentations. He holds his teams to high standards of preparation and professionalism. In 2023, Bensinger’s team advanced to the round of 16 and both members of the team won individual awards for outstanding advocacy. His volunteer service has enhanced those students’ law school experiences while also meeting Cumberland School of Law’s educational mission.
Friend of Cumberland: Carla Crowder
The Friend of Cumberland award recognizes a person, who though not a graduate of Cumberland School of Law, has contributed time and resources to enhance the quality of the law school and the educational experience of the students.
Carla Crowder is the executive director of Alabama Appleseed, a nonprofit law center. Crowder joined Appleseed in 2019 and directs the organization’s policy advocacy agenda and legal efforts centered at the intersection of poverty and the criminal justice system.
A native Alabamian and graduate of the University of Alabama School of Law, Crowder has three decades of experience in criminal justice reform as a journalist and civil rights attorney. She has represented dozens of incarcerated Alabamians and recently won release for 12 men originally sentenced to die in prison.
Prior to joining Appleseed, she was a staff attorney at the Equal Justice Initiative. She also had a 16-year career as a newspaper reporter at statewide newspapers in New Mexico, Colorado and Alabama, where she was twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. As director of Alabama Appleseed, Carla has grown the small nonprofit from a staff of four to a staff of 12, added an office in Birmingham, and added legal representation of incarcerated people and reentry services to its mission.
As a friend of Cumberland School of Law, she speaks to first-year students in criminal law classes, has offered internships to students, and has served as a mentor to many. When speaking of her experience of connecting to Cumberland School of Law students, Carla noted, “it's important to me as an advocate for criminal justice reform in Alabama to help law students understand the immense human rights challenges in Alabama's prison system. These future lawyers have the ability to shape our state in ways that will create more justice, equity and mercy for future generations of Alabamians. Every time I speak at Cumberland and visit with students, I'm encouraged by such deep and heartfelt interest in creating a more just and fair Alabama.”