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Courtroom Drama

Mock Trial lets undergraduates 'lawyer up.'

There is a reason John Grisham is a best-selling author and a dozen legal shows are on tv. A reason why, as a nation, we couldn’t stop talking about Casey Anthony all summer, and why we know who Nancy Grace is, what Propofol does and what happens if the gloves don’t fit.

Two words: Courtroom. Drama.

Trials are fascinating things because they appeal to both our emotional and analytical natures. Media coverage of actual trials places us in the role of juror, feeding us arguments in real-time, leaving us to make a decision. Legal novels, movies and television programs let us be the lawyer, with the narrative providing all the requisite information needed to build a case. Either way, the sheer weight of judgment pulls us in.

Mock trial participants assume the roles of attorneys and witnesses, and
argue before a bench of practicing attorneys.

These same qualities make mock trial appealing to thousands of college students across the country. The intercollegiate legal competition for undergraduate students uses real legal practices and procedures to argue fictional court cases in a simulated court of law.

Mock trial participants go beyond living vicariously through characters in a book, in that they literally become attorneys and witnesses and play out a trial as if it were real. However, instead of a conviction or an acquittal, these cases end with a score awarded by a panel of practicing attorneys, reflecting the quality of a team’s presentation, litigation techniques and knowledge of case material.

Using a case file provided by the American Mock Trial Association (AMTA), mock trial teams of six to 10 students develop characters for witnesses, prepare opening and closing arguments, and anticipate challenges they may receive from rival teams in head-to-head competitions. To make things more difficult, teams must prepare to argue both sides of the case, prosecution and defense.

“You have to learn the case inside out,” says Tabitha Moody, a senior biology major from Windsor, Ohio, and attorney on the mock trial team. “You get teams that like to throw curveballs, and you have to be ready. You have to have all the facts memorized, everything.”

Much like intercollegiate athletics, mock trial has a competition season with teams traveling to attend competitions throughout the fall and early winter.

This year, ONU has traveled to the University of St. Francis, Illinois State University, Eastern Kentucky University and Ohio State University for mock trial competitions. On January 14-15, 2012, ONU will host the sixth annual Polar Bear Invitational Mock Trial Tournament. Invitational competitions are like regular-season games for a sports team and work toward preparing a team for regional competitions, which determine the schools that will compete at the Opening Round Championship and, finally, the mock trial national tournament.

At the Polar Bear invitational, teams from 25 colleges and universities are scheduled to attend, making it one of ONU’s highest profile events nationally each year. The competition is special for many of the teams visiting in that it affords an opportunity to compete in an actual courtroom. ONU’s Claude W. Pettit College of Law generously offers its two courtrooms, the moot courtroom and the newly remodeled trial courtroom, for the competition each year.

From left: Lucy Jarvis, Tabitha Moody, Lisa Bradley, and Franklin Howard.
Not pictured: Amarilla Fair, Kellie Holbrook, Lauren Lightcap, Bill Metz,
Melody Smith and JaMesha Williamson.

Most invitational competitions use classrooms for mock trial, as will ONU due to the number of teams participating and a format that calls for each team to compete four times, but according to JoAnn Scott, professor of political science and mock trial advisor, AMTA is encouraging more invitationals to use courtrooms. Having these facilities gives ONU an advantage — not that it will necessarily help our team.

“I’m not going to let our team compete in the courtrooms because we already practice in there,” says Scott. “Our team wants other schools that may not otherwise have an opportunity to compete in a courtroom to get that experience.”

That kind of sentiment is what mock trial is all about. It encompasses competition at its best, with teams spending time together and sometimes even competing together in a pinch.

“Northern Alabama came to our invitational last year, and one of their members came down sick, so they needed an extra person to compete on their team,” says Moody. “I filled in and competed with them for the weekend.”

With this kind of camaraderie, it's no surprise that team members from different schools develop friendships, stay in touch via Facebook and sometimes even attend law school together. But not all students in mock trial go on to attend law school. In fact, as strange as it may sound, one doesn’t even need to be interested in law.

“You don’t have to be interested in law at all to be interested in mock trial,” says Moody. “I’m a biology major. We’ve got accounting, political science, history, music, education and pharmacy majors on the team. I don’t plan on going to law school, but I love mock trial. The competition can be so intense, and it gives you real-life experience.”

Polar Bear Invitational Mock Trial Competition

January 14-15, 2012

Allegheny College
Baldwin-Wallace University
Benedictine University
Bowling Green State University
Central Florida University
University of Chicago
University of Dayton
Drexel University
Eastern Michigan State University
Elon University
Indiana University
Kennesaw University
University of Kentucky
Loyola University
Manchester College
Miami University
University of Michigan
Michigan State University
University of North Alabama
Northwood University
University of Pittsburgh
Sullivan University
The Citadel
Wilmington College
Xavier University

Indeed, mock trial does teach students more than just rules of evidence and courtroom procedure.

“Mock trial teaches them how to think on their feet, how to do critical analysis on the spot, and how to feel comfortable and confident speaking in front of people,” says Scott. “I’ve seen students come into mock trial in a shell. By the end of the year, they are so outgoing and feel so comfortable speaking in front of people.”

These skills benefit students not only in the courtroom, but their other classes, internships they may have and even into their careers. For those students who do go on to to law school, the experience they gain doing mock trial gives them a substantial leg up," says Scott.

“Mock trial gives them an upper hand when they are in law school, because mock trial is trial advocacy. They are going to take trial advocacy or appellate advocacy in law school. They are going to be arguing before the bench. They are going to do legal research. These are things they are already doing in mock trial,” she says.

More and more law schools are beginning to offer scholarships for participation in mock trial because they see the success those students have. It’s law school’s equivalent of undergraduate research.

At ONU, participating in mock trial coincides with a class that students can apply toward their major or take as an elective. The class is taught by the mock trial team coaches, attorneys Autumn (Long) Manley, BA ’07, and Nicole (Boals) Winget, JD 09, and lasts the entire year. This time together gives students the time needed to learn the rules of the court as well as the case material. Communications experts are brought in to teach presentation skills and theatre professors help teach character development for witnesses. It’s a unique and rewarding blending of curricular and extracurricular experience.

“Mock Trial has so much to offer students,” says Manley. “The students learn to work as a team, manage their time, and have confidence in themselves and their teammates. We literally mold these undergraduate students into impressive professionals who are comfortable and confident when performing in actual courtrooms. They have very bright futures ahead of them, and we look forward to providing them with as many advantages as we can.”
To get the most out of it, Moody recommends students learn about mock trial as early as possible.

“It’s a good way to meet people. For freshmen, it helps you get used to college quicker, too,” she says. “If I would have known about it as soon as I came in, I think I would have gotten involved sooner.”

To learn more about ONU Mock Trial, contact Jo Ann Scott.