California Western --

LLM in Trial Advocacy Faculty

The LL.M. in Trial Advocacy was co-founded by California Western Professors Mario Conte and Justin Brooks. Conte and Brooks teach classes in the program, oversee the curriculum, facilitate Federal Defenders Office clinical placement for each student, and provide personal guidance to prepare students for a career in federal criminal defense.

Our dedicated faculty, all experience criminal defense litigators, are committed to providing students with the skills and knowledge need to practice in federal court. By limiting enrollment to 10 to 15 students each fall, our faculty are able to provide a great deal of individual attention, instruction, and clinical supervision to each student, while preparing students to maximize their employment opportunities after graduation.

Meet the Co-Founders

Professor Mario Conte
Co-founder, LL.M. in Trial Advocacy

Mario Conte received his B.A. from St. Michael's College, his M.S. from New York Medical College, and his J.D. from the University of Connecticut. He clerked for a Federal District Court Judge in Connecticut for one year before joining Federal Defenders of San Diego, Inc. as a trial attorney. He later became the chief trial attorney and then served as FDSI's executive director from 1991-2004. Conte has taught at trial advocacy programs throughout the United States for over 15 years. He joined California Western in 2005 as a full-time faculty member teaching in both the J.D. and LL.M. programs.

Professor Justin Brooks
Co-founder and Director, LL.M. in Trial Advocacy
Executive Director, Institute for Criminal Defense Advocacy
Project Director, California Innocence Project

Justin Brooks received a B.B.A. from Temple University, his J.D. from American University, and an LL.M. from Georgetown University Law Center. After law school, he practiced as a criminal defense attorney in Washington, D.C., and has continued to practice throughout his teaching career. Brooks has taught at Georgetown Law Center and was the assistant director of Georgetown’s Street Law Corrections Clinic. He then spent six years teaching at Thomas Cooley Law School, where he taught Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure, Corrections Law, Law and Literature, and ran a death penalty clinical program in which students worked with him on death penalty cases. Brooks has been a visiting professor at Interamerican University of Puerto Rico Law School and a visiting scholar at the University of Sheffield in England. He has published extensively on the death penalty, corrections and sentencing law, and other criminal law issues.

Message from the Co-Founders

"As the former Executive Director of Federal Defender’s of San Diego, Inc., one of the handful of offices in the country that hires attorneys directly out of law school, I can say that even with a rigorous in-house training program, it still took over a year to prepare these attorneys to handle the basic core of trials they were assigned. This is, in large measure, due to the fact that law school graduates, despite law school experiences, are simply not equipped to handle a trial caseload with all it entails. They are not familiar with the rules of procedure, the substantive criminal law, motions practice and the Sentencing Guidelines, to name just a few areas.

This intensive, one year LL.M program, covers all of these areas and more, while also honing trial skills in a very realistic and advanced environment working with actual cases that have been tried. The most unique feature of the program is that after the first semester, our graduate students go to a federal defender office or criminal law office somewhere in the country to work with practicing attorneys on real cases for four months. The feedback we have received from these offices has been uniformly very positive. They state that they were getting someone whose training in the LL.M. program gave them the skills to practice federal criminal law right away. Finally, with an LL.M. degree in hand, our graduates’ hiring rates at federal defender and state defender offices as well as private firms is over 90%."

-Professor Mario Conte

"Federal criminal defense work is fascinating, fast-paced, and extremely formal. Law schools often fail to prepare graduates to meet the demands of this work. Most law school graduates have not studied substantive federal criminal law and simply know the common law crimes. Criminal procedure in most law schools is limited to reading Supreme Court cases on the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments. Evidence study is usually limited to a cursory understanding of the rules. Our LL.M. program is designed to give graduates the advanced knowledge, skills, and real life experience they need to be successful federal criminal defenders. We teach our students substantive federal criminal law, applied evidence advocacy, federal trial skills, federal motions practice, federal pre-trial procedure, and give them live client work through the clinical internship. Our graduates are prepared to defend."

-Professor Justin Brooks



Program Faculty

Elizabeth M. Barros is a Supervisory Attorney/ Trial Team Leader at the Federal Defenders of San Diego, Inc.  She received her J.D. from UCLA School of Law with a Concentration in Critical Race Studies.  Ms. Barros joined Federal Defenders of San Diego, Inc. in 2003.  She was initially drawn to the office because of her passion to defend immigrants and the criminally accused.  The high number of criminal-immigration matters handled by Federal Defenders allows her to pursue her interests in both areas of the law.  In 2010, she was recognized by the San Diego Daily Transcript through a peer-nomination process as one of the best young attorneys in San Diego County.  She oversees a team of seven trial attorneys, assisting them in all aspects of their practice. She also maintains an active trial and appellate caseload, and has handled cases ranging from criminal-immigration matters, drug and firearms-related offenses, racketeering, bank robbery, fraud, rape, child pornography, assault to international extradition.

Kasha K. Castillo is a Supervisory Attorney/Trial Team Leader at the Federal Defenders of San Diego, Inc.  She received her B.A. from the University of Portland and her J.D. from the University of San Diego School of Law and joined Federal Defenders in 2000. Prior to coming to the office, she worked in San Diego for a private firm doing criminal defense work at both the state and federal court levels.  She has been intensely involved in training and mentoring new attorneys and has lectured on a variety of topics, ranging from substantive criminal law to trial skills and practice.  Kasha became a Supervisory Attorney/Trial Team Leader in 2004. She oversees a team of seven trial attorneys, assisting them in all aspects of their district court practice. Additionally, she continues to maintain a significant district court caseload that permits her to litigate a wide array of cases through the motions and trial stages. Kasha joined the LL.M. in Trial Advocacy faculty in 2009.

Kurt David Hermansen received his B.A. from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in political science and his J.D. from Loyola Law School of Los Angeles where he served on the Law Review as the Chief Note and Comment Editor and authored a published law review comment.  He dedicated five years to helping his clients and honing his trial skills as a Trial Attorney at the nationally renowned Federal Defenders of San Diego, Inc. (FDSDI).  Before joining FDSDI, he worked for five years as a research attorney for the federal district court and two years for the state court in San Diego.  Professor Hermansen is certified as a Specialist in Criminal Law by the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization.  He has his own law office dedicated 100% to criminal defense in state and federal trial and appellate courts.  He is responsible for a dozen published opinions, and has argued numerous times before state and federal appellate courts.  He has also argued before the California Supreme Court and will argue before the United States Supreme Court in October 2012.

Alex Simpson is Litigation Coordinator for the California Innocence Project.  He received his B.A. from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and received both his J.D. in and his LL.M. in Federal Criminal Law from California Western School of Law.  He currently oversees all active cases currently in litigation on behalf of the Project.  Simpson was named as a Top Attorney in 2009 by the San Diego Daily Transcript and received the Post-conviction Lawyer of the Year (Joint Award) from the Board of Directors of the Criminal Defense Bar Association of San Diego in 2006.  He has co-authored two law review articles "Find the Cost of Freedom: The Struggle to Compensate the Innocent for Wrongful Incarceration and the Strange Legal Odyssey of Timothy Atkins," 49 San Diego Law Review 3 (2012), and "Blood Sugar Sex Magik: A Review of Postconviction DNA Testing Statutes and Legislative Recommendations," 59 Drake Law Review 799 (2011).  Simpson was also a panelist at the 2011 Innocence Network Conference, addressing the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and its application to state inmates seeking relief in federal courts.


  • Recognized by the Judges Advocate General Corps (JAG)
  • Offers Exclusive Training by SD Federal Defenders Inc.
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Program Highlights
  • San Diego Federal Defenders Clinical Placement
  • All Faculty are Federal Defenders
  • Longest Established Trial Advocacy Program
  • Study on the beach!