Four Fordham Law students representing the Brendan Moore Trial Advocacy Center swept the competition at the New York regional level of the Texas Young Lawyers Association (TYLA) National Trial Competition, which took place on February 5 and 6. The two teams—composed of Dominic Conoshenti ’22 and Chehak Gogia ’22, and Dean Corrado ’22 and Thomas Rukaj ’23—went undefeated throughout the tournament, besting 22 other New York-area teams.
Each region allows law schools to enter two teams of two students each and—for the first time ever—Fordham Law claimed both spots, with both teams selected and advancing to the national competition that will be held in Fort Worth, Texas on March 30 through April 3.
The TYLA National Trial Competition holds special prestige in the world of trial competitions, bringing together teams from more than 140 law schools across the country. This year, at the regional level, Fordham Law went head to head with law schools including Cornell, Yale, and New York University.
“Because it’s the oldest and biggest competition in the country… every school sends their best,” said coach Adam Shlahet ’02. “It’s very rare for one school to claim both top spots.”
“It’s the first time in the program’s history that we’ve ever had a win like this,” added coach Jeff Briem ’05. “It was very exciting.”
Competition Prep, Alongside Alumni
To prepare for the competition, the two Fordham Law teams carefully went over the details of their assigned case, drafted their cross examinations, direct examinations, and speeches, and then spent hours practicing their arguments. They then took their preparation one step further, enlisting the help of experienced alumni to moot against them.
“Because the [TYLA] case involved felony narcotics possession with intent to distribute, we brought in a number of young ADAs who prosecute narcotics on a regular basis,” said Shlahet. “When you try the case in front of them, they really know what they’re talking about, how these cases work, and what arguments are effective. That was really valuable.”
Thorough preparation is the cornerstone of their approach, said Gogia, noting that the teams would sometimes practice six days a week ahead of competition.
“Our coaches are phenomenal and they work around the clock with us,” she said. “We worked really, really hard, and it panned out for us that we had two teams that won.”
The team always went the extra mile during preparation, which later allowed them to stand out from the competition, according to Rukaj. “As we would go into practice, we’d always have one more question, one extra line in a speech, one extra response to an objection argument,” he said. “It showed a lot of preparation on our part, which became confidence, which became fluency. A lot of other teams weren’t ready for those extra questions, and I think that’s what made it obvious to the people in the courtrooms that we were the better teams.”
Preparing for In-Person Nationals
The next round will come with its own unique challenges for the Fordham Law competitors. It will be the first time that any of the team members will be competing in-person at the law school level, since all of their other competitions have been virtual due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I think it’s going to be exciting, trying to add that aspect of the in-person courtroom performance to the team,” said Briem.
“We’re going to be working on standing up on our feet, learning how to use the courtroom, and using the space and our bodies to great effect—that’s going to be a real challenge,” added Shlahet.
For both Rukaj and Gogia, who competed on trial advocacy teams at the undergraduate level, the Texas competition represents a huge achievement. “The pinnacle of your trial advocacy career is making Nationals at TYLA,” Gogia said, “It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
The advancement of the two teams draws on a long-standing legacy of trial advocacy work at Fordham Law, which has sent teams to the TYLA competition on four other occasions—though never with such a sweeping victory.
“I couldn’t be happier for this amazing group of students,” said James Kainen, the Brendan Moore Chair in Advocacy and founder of the trial advocacy team at Fordham Law.
“They are a pleasure to watch, and it’s a testament to Adam and Jeff’s meticulous coaching and the students working so well together to bring out their best.”