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Friday, March 4, 2011

Mock Trial Competitions 2: increasing their Instruction Value

From Cheryl Wattley, Associate Professor of Law and Director of Clinical Programs at the University of Oklahoma College of Law. The second in a 2-part series on trial competitions.

One of the presumed benefits of mock trial competition is the fact that law students learn the trial process by doing. But, in our society, competitions exist for the purpose of elevation and promotion. We have watched the growth of the young girl beauty pageants, the spread of peewee football and little league baseball. We encourage competition and demand success. The proverbial soccer mom is less a parody and more frequently a neighbor.

Within the legal academy and profession, there is a similar drive and struggle to vie for position. LSAT scores, GPAs, law school and firm rankings, all act to create a framework that encourages an aggressive competitive spirit. With today's legal professional market, there is even greater pressure for personal achievement and accomplishments to distinguish one's self from other graduates. And, if the truth be told, most advocacy professors are former trial attorneys for whom the passion for winning was a life blood that carried them through many hours of trial. How then, in the structure of such competitions, can we assure the students' active engagement in the learning process while maximizing opportunities for success at the competition? Once again, it seems to me, that the balancing of valuable instruction with the desire to win can often collide.

We all recognize that improvement and a certain level of accomplishment can only occur with repetition and experience. However, for some law schools such as mine, many mock trial participants have not had a trial advocacy course. Students may enter competitions recognizing the learning value but they always approach them with the competitor drive to do well. The challenge is for the mock trial coach to take such a student and instruct them as to the fundamentals of the trial process while at the same time preparing them for a level of competition. But how, as a practical matter, do you do that?

From an instructional perspective, you want the student to labor through the creation of the witness examination; to edit it repeatedly and identify the significance of word choices; and feel the impact upon the rhythm of the testimony. You want them to learn the art of looping and the benefit of blocking and headlines. You want them to see how to integrate the doctrinal evidence course that they may have taken into their witness' questions. And, you want to take the time to record presentations and have students review them with you because seeing is one of the greatest teachers. For those of us who teach trial advocacy courses, we are challenged to teach these things in the one semester time frame. That challenge is only magnified when the preparation time is compressed; the academic credit value is lessened; and the "grade" will be your placement at the competition.

So how does a mock trial coach work with a competitor who has not had a trial course? Is there a point at which you abandon the traditional instructional method of having the student write, perform, edit, re-perform, revise, re-perform to have the coach become actively engaged in the scripting of a witness examination? Do we abandon the lessons that are learned by doing and have the coach provide the phrases and the words, hoping that an explanation will sufficiently substitute? Is there a point at which a witness examination is no longer the student's work product but rather the coach's words?

Similar questions arise with the other components of the trial. What if the coach defines the theory of the case and the various strategies to focus immediately upon the witness examination and arguments? What if the coach provides the theme for the opening statement rather than having a student grapple with the challenge of creating one? What if the coach writes the opening statement and closing argument? At what point does a zealous coach impede learning yet promote success at a competition? Are there tools that could be created to assist a coach with respect to both teaching and successful competing?

It seems to me that one such tool would be the recording of the final rounds of competitions.

Those recordings could be used to create a digital library resource that could be accessed by students to give them the opportunity to see a competition. Because it is the final round, the quality of the student presentations should be worthy of viewing. Having the case materials available to the students for them to review prior to watching the presentation will give them some insight as to the identification of issues, development of themes, and selection of exhibits. There may be some proprietary interest that would be impacted by the sharing of such recordings but it would seem that the prominence and stature of the competitions could be enhanced by publication of their rounds. Obviously, this would require a law school or some entity to assume responsibility for the site and arrangements for access would be needed, but I believe that the potential benefits would justify the cost.


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