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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Coaching a Trial Competition Team - Why Do It?

Lee Coppock, the trial team fellow at Stetson University College of Law, wished to offer the following commentary for the anonymous person who wrote in to the Advocacy Agony Aunt recently.  I find it so helpful that I thought that I would begin a new thread of discussion for the group.
As you read it you will quickly see why Lee is one of the great treasures of my school.  thanks Lee!

The question for the Advocacy Agony Aunt concerned whether or not it was really worthwhile to bother with coaching trial teams given the problems with simulated experiential learning, particularly as they relate to ethics, here is Lee's response:

1.  Some of what you have heard is certainly true.  You might also have heard from others that mock trials are remarkably like "real life" at least in many respects including:

      a.  The unexpected is to be expected and preparing for those times is great practice and good preparation for the real world;
      b.  Winning takes preparation - lots of it.  AND some are more willing to pay that price than others.  Those are the ones who predictably come out on top - just like real life.
      c.  Not everyone we oppose has the same ethical views as we do.  In other words, some opposing counsel come to the arena prepared to cut throats and others come with an expectation of putting the facts in front of the trier of fact with honed advocacy skills and then let that trier of fact make a call.  When opposing counsel tries to manipulate the system, we must be prepared to expose that behavior and exact a cost for it.  It is hard to imagine a lawyer stepping into a real life arena very often without the need to do exactly that.
      d.  SOME measure of "dog and pony" can help communicate to a jury what would otherwise be boring and ineffective direct examinations or opening statements and closing arguments. 

Most of us who are committed to mock trial competitions see great value to the skills that are learned and honed when the preparation is thorough and focused. 

2.  The method of preparation depends in large measure to the level of skills and natural talents of the advocates.  For true rookies, very small things like foundations for personal knowledge when directing a witness, litanies for introducing evidence or refreshing recollection, the purpose and form of mid-trial motions - as examples, need lots of time.  The successful advocates must be able to initiate and respond (just like in real life!) almost without conscious thought.  For those advocates who are more experienced, it is good to consider carefully the more subtle tasks like the rebuttal to an objection or the nuance of a rule of evidence.  In other words, since the objective is a skilled advocate, appropriate preparation requires a commitment on the part of the coach and the student to do whatever it takes - whatever that is.

3.  There are some variations - depending on the competition and rules of the event, but it hard to visualize a circumstance when preparation as though it were a real trial would be ineffective.  Certainly one should remember that the "jury" is usually made up of lawyers - which (thankfully!) is NOT real life.  However those lawyers usually try to evaluate as though they were "Joe six-pack" jurors.  At the same time, anyone who has done this any length of time has found that those juror/lawyers have a very wide range of views and what one of them may find laudable the one sitting next to her/him finds to be a reason for harsh criticism.  Of course that also happens in real life, doesn't it?

Certainly mock trial competitions are not for every law student anymore than trying cases in real life is for every lawyer.  Having pointed out the obvious, let me hasten to add that many who have gone through the fires of competition in law school have found those experiences to be very similar and great preparation for those great arenas in the big time - a.k.a. "real life."


Lee Coppock


  1. I agree with what Lee has said about how trial competitions can teach students to deal with uncertainty, unethical behavior by others, the importance of preparation, and the like. I haven't been coaching very long, but I have noticed stark differences in the ethics and professionalism of teams at competitions, and it seems to me that many law schools have a recognizable competition persona, for good or ill.

    What I worry about at these competitions is that the articifial nature of the case file and the constraints provided by the rules seem to incentivize, or at least not provide meaningful penalties for, bad behavior. This can be discouraging for some students.

    I am still trying to develop coaching techniques to help students deal with these situations at competitions. I know it can be done; I've seen the success of teams that do everything right and manage to rise above the fray at competitions. In the meantime, though, all things being equal, I'd much rather that my teams had their lunch handed to them by an ethical, above-board team than by a bunch of cutthroats with questionable professional standards.

  2. Professor Woody WoodruffFebruary 21, 2011 at 9:18 PM

    As one who has tried civil cases in federal court, taught advocacy in law school for almost 20 years, and coached law school trial competition teams for that long, I think I have a perspective on your question. Trial competitions are not like real trials. The "judges" at any given competition may not be experienced advocates, or even advocates at all. What they think is good advocacy may simply be the way they do it or the way they've seen it done in their local jurisdiction's trial court. I resolved years ago to teach my students how to try a case, not to win a competition. Sometimes we've been quite successful and for whatever reason our case garnered favor from the "judges" who happened to be in the box in our courtroom. Other times, not so much. But at the end of the day my students left knowing how to try and case and that's what most of them would be doing after graduation. The students appreciated the skills they learned and the experienced they gained even though they didn't win. They'll face weird jury verdicts in real life just like they experienced in a trial competition. Something they do in a trial will appeal to some jurors and turn others off for no apparent reason. Those lessons, coupled with good advocacy training in preparing for the competition will make them better lawyers regardless of the outcome of any competition.
    January 31, 2011 5:48 AM