Prof. Susan Poehls '89 Goes Full Circle

When she reminisces about her time as a Loyola student, Professor Susan G. Poehls ’89 recalls when she and her trial teammates won Loyola’s first regional championship. “Loyola’s team had never won a regional competition and we were completely blown out of the water in the National Trial Competition (NTC); I knew we could have done better,” she said. Following graduation, she became a team coach with a mission to revitalize the program and apply new training techniques. But first, the team needed a name, so she dedicated it to the Hon. Matthew Byrne, Jr., who taught a trial advocacy team at Loyola and devoted himself to the advancement of legal education. With that, the new Byrne Trial Advocacy Team was born.

Her legal career began in the litigation department of O’Melveny & Myers in Los Angeles in 1989. Two years later, she joined the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s Office and later moved on to the LA Alternative Public Defenders office, where she worked as a felony trial attorney. Poehls tried over 50 cases as a public defender while working as an adjunct professor at Loyola.

Since Poehls took the reins 22 years ago, the team has climbed the ranks to become one of the top trial advocacy teams in the nation. This year, the Byrne Team marked its 20th regional championship in 25 years at the NTC, and Poehls’ couldn’t be prouder. For some the mission may seem complete, but for her, “My motto has always been: How can I make my class better?”

Her dedication has not gone unnoticed. Stetson University College of Law presented her with its prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in Teaching Advocacy. She accepted the award at Stetson’s annual seminar called “Educating Advocates: Teaching and Advocacy Skills,” which invites trial advocacy professors to learn and develop new teaching techniques and network with scholars across the country.

For Poehls, it’s been a 24-year commitment, and she has loved every minute of it. “It means so much to be recognized by my peers for something I’m passionate about. I really feel like I lucked out,” said Poehls. For Poehls, it’s the countless hours spent grooming her students for the courtroom that gives her the greatest sense of fulfillment.

“I love seeing their growth, she said, “I liken it to how a mother feels watching her child take its first steps. Some start off really struggling. And once we work on their control and confidence, you can see their transformation into a lawyer.”

Many alumni recount the profound impact that the team had on their life. “The Byrne Team was invaluable to my career. Using the evidence code, preparing witnesses, examining witnesses, speaking to the Court and jury, and feeling confident in what I do are all skills I learned from Byrne that I use daily,” said Kristin Walker-Probst ’99, partner at Severson & Werson.

Poehls also spearheaded the Hobbs District Attorney Clinic, in which competitively selected students receive classroom training one semester followed by an externship in the second semester. Students work as certified law clerks in the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office and receive valuable courtroom experience.

Many alumni find that skills learned through experiential learning programs prove to be invaluable once they enter the “real world” after graduation. “Recently, I had to ‘Green’ a witness, and it was the first time since Hobbs in spring 2010 that I had to do it,” said Devin Campbell ‘11, referring to a method by which prior inconsistent statements may be admitted at trial. “Without my training, I would have been completely lost and probably would have lost the trial. After the trial, the judge complimented me on the way I handled the witness.”

Another former student, Christina Catapang ’13, published an op-ed in the Daily Journal about her experiences in Loyola trial teams and clinics. “With Hobbs [District Attorney Clinic], I was given extra practice on how to develop my own theory, plan my examinations and run my own trial without coaches. All of the techniques Professor Poehls taught me on the team and in her class worked,” she said.

This level of confidence in the courtroom develops over hours of practice every week. Poehls insists that the team’s successes rely on support from a dedicated group of Byrne Team alumni who serve as team coaches.

John Henry ’99 became a coach as soon as he graduated from Loyola because he felt a duty to pay it forward. “The Byrne team was an integral part of my law school experience. Being on the team was one of the things that gave me the confidence to know that I had what it took to be a successful prosecutor. Given that the Byrne Team played such a critical role in my development as a law student and a young lawyer, I wanted to give something back to Professor Poehls and the program,” he said.  

Her colleagues speak her praises, as well. “Susan Poehls works tirelessly to train our students to be excellent, ethical trial lawyers. She makes a profound impact on future generations of trial lawyers and is 100 percent committed to our student’s success. We are lucky to have her,” said Associate Dean for Clinical Programs and Experiential Learning, Jean Boylan.