Abbie Heller, ’14, never doubted that she was destined to work as a criminal defense attorney until she became a 1L. The resolve she’d felt since elementary school, that she belonged in a courtroom, wilted when she encountered the reality of law school. Was she in the right place?
But her doubts had little time to sink in, because a trio of mentors would soon convince Heller that she was on the right path. Criminal Law classes with Professor Donald Tibbs confirmed that a career in criminal defense was a perfect match for her values. Trial Advocacy classes with Professor Gwen Stern and Trial Team coaching from attorney Matt Leckman helped Heller hone her identity as an advocate.
Coached by Leckman, Heller advanced in multiple Trial Team competitions and gained confidence. Still, she marveled at her mentor’s feat.
“There’s a gap between knowing how to do something and imparting knowledge and skill,” Heller said. “Bridging that gap is one of the most difficult things.”
Leckman succeeded as a coach, Heller realized, by helping her write and deliver opening and closing arguments in her own voice and unique manner, making her advocacy credible.
“He gave me enough room to grow,” she said. “I wasn’t just a puppet.”
The coaching also painted a clear picture of how, exactly, Heller might be able to mentor others.
At Leckman’s suggestion and with Stern’s approval, Heller began coaching the Trial Team herself.
Once more, Heller came face-to-face with doubts. Though she had gotten a job with the Defender Association of Philadelphia, Heller had yet to try a single case before a jury.
“Why would these students take anything I’m saying seriously,” she wondered. And indeed, the first team outing did not go well: her protegés did not advance.
But in just her second semester of coaching, Heller and ’12 alumna Carla Wasko were assigned to coach the team that entered the American Association for Justice Student Trial Advocacy Competition in the spring of 2016. After the students won the uber-competitive Philadelphia region, Heller accompanied them to New Orleans, where they were crowned national champions.
“They were phenomenal people. They came ready to trust and learn, even though I wasn’t far removed from where they were,” Heller said, describing Katrina Mavroudis, ’16, Rachel Holt, '17, Kelsey Ashworth, '16, and Jill Schroeder, ’16.
Heller learned to identify each team member’s strengths and assign roles that would capitalize on those unique assets. She would repeat that process in the fall of 2016, when the National Board of Trial Advocacy invited the school to take part in the prestigious Tournament of Champions.
Along with Stern, Heller coached Holt, Phil Pasquarello, ’18, Brittany Green, ’18, and Rachel Greenberg, ’18, in the prestigious competition that features 16 schools with the strongest trial-advocacy track records in the nation.
Once again, Heller’s protégés were named national champions.
Heller intends to continue coaching, since she is convinced that mentoring students sharpens her own advocacy skills. But, paradoxically, her coaching success fueled a fresh wave of uncertainty.
“It has increased the pressure,” Heller admitted. “Is it a fluke, or am I actually good at this?”
In January 2017, Heller tried her first case before a jury, defending a client in a DUI case that lasted one day. The prosecution laid out a strong case, and Heller figured deliberations would last less than an hour. But Heller had underestimated her powers of persuasion. The jury deliberated for two and a half days before being declared hung.
Earth to Abbie: You are actually good at this.