The Academy of Trial Lawyers of Allegheny County had its genesis in an effort to correct what has unfortunately been the general public’s historic perception of lawyers: mistrust and anger. In 1958, the post-war explosion of litigation, resulting largely from an increase in automobile use, had resulted in a substantial backlog. The Courts were inadequately staffed, exacerbating what was rapidly becoming a desperate situation. The media focused the public’s wrath on both the judiciary and civil trial attorneys. The festering situation appeared to have no solution, especially after Common Pleas Court Judge Henry Ellenbogen excoriated the civil trial bar in an article run in a local newspaper on a Sunday, resulting in President Judge McNaugher’s continuance of many civil cases due to commence the following Monday as a result of the prejudicial publicity.
In an effort to address the judicial and public animus to the civil trial bar, James McArdle, Sanford Chilcote, Robert Brennan and Joseph Weis, Jr. met for lunch in the fall of 1958. At that luncheon meeting, agreement was reached that a larger meeting of the civil trial bar should be convened. In February 1959, 60 lawyers who actively tried civil matters in Allegheny County met at the University Club. That meeting resulted in a consensus that an organization of trial lawyers separate from the Allegheny County Bar Association was necessary. The Academy of Trial Lawyers of Allegheny County was thereafter formed. From the start, the Academy included both plaintiff’s and defendant’s attorneys, and membership was by invitation only. Ultimately, a “cap” on membership, which currently is 250 active members, was established.
Over the years, the Academy has sought to improve the civil litigation process in Allegheny County, both by partnering with the judiciary to improve the civil trial process and by enhancing the quality of trial advocacy. Historically, during the 1980’s and 1990’s, members of the Academy served as special masters presiding over the jury trials of arbitration appeals where the parties consented. The Academy is also the source of most of the arbitrators for the Western District’s mandatory non-binding civil arbitration program.
The Academy sponsors numerous continuing legal education programs each year, the most visible of which are the Annual Trial Advocacy Program in State and Federal Court, the Symposium on Civil Trial Practice, the State and Federal Appellate Court Program and the Federal Practice Program. Topics of an educational nature are presented at the Academy’s monthly meetings and the Academy holds an Annual Trial Advocacy Retreat at Nemacolin Woodlands. Annually, the Retreat features a discussion of a prominent national case by the attorneys and judge involved in the trial.
The Academy also sponsors an Annual Mock Trial competition at the Federal Courthouse in Pittsburgh. The Competition requires each team to prepare and present a civil case to volunteer jurors and judges. Typically, 12 to 14 law schools participate in the Competition. The judges of the Competition are Federal and State Court Judges and members of the Academy. Local physicians provide their services as witnesses, court reporting students record and transcribe the trials and local high school students serve as jurors, including deliberations and the rendering of a “verdict” in their cases.
The mission and function of the Academy has been succinctly summarized by former President Dennis St. J. Muvihill: “We are a community of lawyers concerned with excellence. The excellence cultivated within our Academy in turn serves the larger community, which relies upon the skilled civil trial lawyer to avoid and to resolve disputes. We organize ourselves as an Academy in recognition of the fundamental importance of our profession.”
The above History is taken directly from an article prepared by Academy member Gary M. Lang, Feldstein Grinberg Stein & McKee, which also acknowledges the efforts of Academy members Joseph P. Weis, Jr. and Edwin L. Klett in preparing "A Reflective History of the Academy of Trial Lawyers of Allegheny County".