BY WALTER VILLA – Special to St. Thomas University
Anything but that.
“Talking in front of people was my worst nightmare,” St. Thomas University Benjamin L. Crump College of Law student Michael Rizo said. “I hated it.”
Everything changed for Rizo this past summer when he served as an intern for Judge William Thomas.
While working for the judge, Rizo saw an abundance of trials, and he observed that the lawyers who were comfortable as public speakers did better with the juries.
Once he returned to campus in the fall, Rizo decided to join STU’s trial team, and that really changed everything.
“I wanted to push myself,” said Rizo, a 25-year-old Miami native. “I knew that to be a good lawyer I had to be able to speak to the jury. I had to talk to the judge and my clients. I had to get out of what had been comfortable.”
Rizo went from a reluctant speaker to the person named Best Advocate at the 2023 Chester Bedell Florida Mock Trial Competition, which was held last month in Orlando.
“Michael is one of the most captivating public speakers you will ever meet,” said Gabriela Espaillat, a Miami-Dade County Assistant Public Defender who helps coach the STU trial team. “He is so charming, calm, and well-spoken. He can convince you of anything.
“That (award as Best Advocate) was all him. Coaching can only take you so far.”
The Bedell competition is regarded as the state championship for trial teams, and STU defeated all the heavyweights, including Florida State University, University of Miami, and University of Florida.
Rizo said he was proud when he heard his name called as Best Advocate. But he said he was even happier when the next announcement was made — naming St. Thomas University as the champions of the competition.
Seven other STU law students were at the competition – Conor Sloan; Valentina Grizales; Vanessa Guiracoche; Sophia Carrasco; Laura Marino; Gabriela Matos; and Natalie Godoy – and Rizo believes that any of them could have won Best Advocate.
But the STU trial team is much bigger than just those eight students.
Professor Houson Lafrance, the faculty advisor for STU’s trial team, directs 42 students. He leads a trial team that is ranked No. 23 in the nation, and that was before the Bedell victory.
“I believe we will be in the top 15 when the next ranking is released,” Lafrance said. “Objectively speaking, what we’ve been able to do is amazing considering other schools have three or four times our resources.
“It’s a testament to the work of everyone involved in our program and the support of our entire school and administration. It’s a team effort.
“We have to show up and show out each time we compete because we are underdogs every time. Our motto is: Excellence demands consistency.”
In actuality, the STU trial team has been nothing but consistent.
They finished first and second at the Florida Justice Association State Championships in November. STU’s Victoria Pineda was named Best Advocate.
Pineda, a 27-year-old Miami native, praised the STU coaches for teaching their students to become better advocates.
“I’ve been to three trial-team competitions, and I see what else is out there,” Pineda said. “I’m more convinced than ever that what we’re doing at St. Thomas is special.”
Pineda’s teammate, Matos, was named Best Advocate for the preliminary rounds at the Florida Justice Association State Championships in November.
Matos, like Rizo, is an example of how STU develops aspiring lawyers, transforming lives in the process.
Born in Cuba and raised in Spain, Matos is fluent in Spanish, and French. But when she arrived in Miami in 2015 at age 19, she spoke only basic English.
Eight years later, she still has a slight accent, which is something she has felt self-conscious about at times.
So, after majoring in Criminal Justice and earning a Bachelor’s degree from FIU, Matos decided on STU’s College of Law specifically because of its trial team.
“I googled trial teams, and I saw that St. Thomas University was nationally ranked,” said Matos, who is set to graduate in May and aspires to become a defense attorney.
“Because of my accent, I felt that I needed to push myself to speak English.
“As it turns out, I enjoy litigating. I don’t want to be the type of lawyer who is always in the office, doing paperwork. I want to be in court, trying cases.”
Matos, who is already working in the public defender’s office as a certified legal intern, said she appreciates that the STU coaches on trial team have worked with her when language issues become apparent.
“There have been times when the legal term is ‘X,’ but the coaches have helped me figure out how I can say the same thing by using words that are more natural to me,” Matos said.
As for STU defeating larger schools in trial competitions, Matos is not surprised.
“It’s going to sound weird, but I feel big when I walk into a competition and see these well-funded schools,” Matos said. “We’re just a small school next to Hialeah, but we’re always so well prepared. We know our evidence. We are always ready to fight and rebut everything that comes our way.”
Espaillat, who graduated from STU’s College of Law in May of 2019 and started helping coach the trial team three months later, said her alma mater is gaining a positive reputation.
“It hasn’t happened overnight,” said Espaillat, 29. “But it is now established. Everyone wants to hire from the STU trial team. I hear that from the Miami-Dade public defenders office and also the Broward PD, too.
“They know how well prepared these students are, and they want to recruit that talent.
“It would be an honor for me to try a case with any of these STU students.”
One of the best parts about the STU trial team is the coaching. There are 16 coaches – and 15 of them are STU graduates.
“These are practicing attorneys who work full-time, and they put in 35 to 40 hours per week with our students before their competitions,” Lafrance said.
Rizo said he has tremendous respect for the coaches.
“These are busy people, and yet they put in the time to work with us,” Rizo said. “When they selected me as part of the team, it was exciting and scary.
“But I respect their judgment. If they thought I could do this, I didn’t want to let them down.”
Jeff James, STU’s Assistant Faculty Advisor, said it is satisfying to watch students develop to become the best versions of themselves.
James, who has been working with STU’s trial team since 2011, also said that when schools have “random coaches” who shuffle in and out of programs they tend to underachieve.
“At St. Thomas University,” James said, “we have managed to have a consistent coaching style and technique for years.”
Espaillat knows how seriously STU’s students and coaches take their roles.
“I get goose bumps as I say this, but we’re training young lawyers to go out into the real world,” she said.
“Because we are a smaller school, our opponents don’t expect us to do well. But we like being the underdogs.
“They may not see us coming. But by the time the competition is over, they will know our name.”