The Hillman Advocacy Program

2021 Program Notice:

The 2021 Hillman Program has been canceled, due to safety and public health concerns caused by the COVID19 pandemic. Please check back next year, for program updates regarding the 2022 Hillman Advocacy Program, when we hope to return stronger than ever.


The Hillman Advocacy Program has been completely full for the entirety of its 35+ year existence educating over 2,000 students, and it continues to draw some of the brightest legal minds in West Michigan.

Program Sponsors: Each year the program is sponsored by the Western District of Michigan Chapter of the Federal Bar Association and the United States District Court for the Western District of Michigan.

The Hillman Advocacy Program is financially supported by many generous law firms, corporations and individuals.

The Hillman Advocacy Program

The Hillman Advocacy Program is an annual three-day seminar that has provided high-quality, professional courtroom training to hundreds of trial lawyers.

Formerly known as the Trial Skills Program, this learn-by-doing seminar is patterned after well-known techniques developed by the National Institute of Trial Advocacy (NITA) in Boulder, Colorado. It gives 62 new attorneys a unique opportunity to develop courtroom skills under the guidance of some of Western Michigan’s top trial lawyers – all of whom volunteer their time. We keep the number of participants low to maintain a 3-to-1 student to teacher ratio.

Some years ago the Chief Justice of the United States called for improvement in the courtroom skills of trial lawyers. Responding to this challenge, Judge Hillman was determined that such criticism should not be directed to the trial practice in the Western District of Michigan. 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 1981 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 should not be directed to the trial practice in the Western District, and so he enlisted the aid of his fellow jurists and several leading trial lawyers to form an instructional workshop where young attorneys could learn by doing. In Judge Hillman’s own words, “Trial lawyers are made, not born.”

About the Program

The Hillman Advocacy 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 62 new lawyers a unique opportunity to develop courtroom skills under the guidance of some of Western Michigan’s top trial lawyers – all of whom volunteer their time.

The size of each group is limited to ten students in the Basic classes and six students in the Advanced classes. Each participant conducts direct- and cross-examination of live witnesses (played by volunteers consisting of area lawyers, paralegals and court personnel), and performs exercises involving impeachment of witnesses and introduction of exhibits. Their performances are videotaped and reviewed with the student and critiqued by a faculty member.

This workshop has received national recognition and has the active support and cooperation of the state and federal judiciary in the Western District of Michigan.

All of the district’s federal judges actively 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.

In addition to the workshop sessions, the program features two demonstrations in which faculty members deliver closing arguments and conduct direct- and cross-examinations for the workshop participants.

What Makes the Hillman Advocacy Program Special?

The FBA of West Michigan, together with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan, sponsors and supports the Hillman Advocacy Program which is similar in format and approach to other trial practice workshops, except:

The FBA of West Michigan knows of no other program where the entire bench of a federal district court dedicates its full attention, courtrooms and facilities for 2 ½ days to the mission of teaching and improving trial skills.

The Hillman Advocacy Program faculty consists of volunteers–the leading trial lawyers in West Michigan from both the civil and criminal bar–as well as a nationally renowned expert of communication skills who, in addition to his opening instructional presentation, circulates among the courtrooms to provide one-on-one feedback to students.

Prosecutors and criminal defense lawyers, as well as civil plaintiff and defense lawyers, work together with judges and magistrates in one forum for one purpose – to teach and improve the skill sets of new lawyers.

Typically, 5 basic classes of 10 students each and 2 advanced classes of 6 students each are offered. The advanced classes conduct a one-day jury trial and observe through closed-circuit TV the jury’s deliberations.

The student/teacher ratio, remarkably, is 3:1.

The Hillman Advocacy Program endeavors each year to achieve on the faculty a diverse representation within the Western District.

Year after year, the Hillman Program teaches and mentors students from small firms and large firms, the U.S. Attorney’s and State Attorney General’s Offices, and even new attorneys still looking for professional assignments.

Hillman Advocacy Program Faculty and Lecturers

The Hillman Advocacy Program is proud to bring together some of the top trial attorneys in West Michigan to help up and coming lawyers garner the skills needed to try a case in Federal Court.

We are very happy to have world renowned public speaking expert, Brian Johnson as an integral part of the Hillman Advocacy Program team. Brian K. Johnson coaches more than 1,000 trial lawyers annually to improve their persuasive skills.

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He works with attorneys exclusively. His international consulting practice includes teaching advocacy skills to trial lawyers and public speaking skills to transactional attorneys who need to be articulate, fluent, and confident communicators.

Johnson’s clients in the U.S., Canada, and Europe include Kirkland & Ellis; Arnold & Porter; Alston & Bird; Kaye Scholer; Duane Morris; Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi; Dorsey & Whitney; Fulbright & Jaworski; Hogan & Hartson; O’Melveny & Myers; Morgan, Lewis & Bockius; Woodcock Washburn; and Borden Ladner Gervais in Canada.

He has taught for the Law Society of Upper Ontario and the Law Society in Dublin, Ireland, as well as the Institute for Professional Legal Studies in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He also teaches at the European offices of U.S. law firms.

As a trial consultant, Johnson works with trial lawyers preparing witnesses to testify at trial. He has consulted on cases involving computer patent infringement, internet browsers, breast implants, medical devices, financial services, and the airline industry.

In 2003 and 2004, his work on patent infringement cases helped two clients win jury verdicts that exceeded $500 million each.

Thank You To Our Sponsors
The Hillman Advocacy Program has been financially supported over the years through generous donations from law firms, big and small, and solo practitioners.

The program benefits from very generous and important corporate donations.

Thank you to everyone who has made the Hillman Advocacy Program possible.