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Saturday, April 23, 2011

Learners as Leaders: Some Thoughts on Building a Competitive Mock Trial Program

Some readers of this blog might find themselves in a position or situation similar to mine: building a competition trial advocacy program from the ground up. Two years ago, my dean gave me the responsibility of directing our school's mock trial competition teams. I was excited by the opportunity, but remarkably ignorant of the scope of the task ahead of me. Although I had substantial trial experience and had taught trial advocacy for many years, I had never even attended a mock trial competition.

So I am learning how to coach a trial team the hard way, in the unforgiving crucible of a trial competition. It is a painful thing to watch a team lose a round, not because they are untalented, but because of something I overlooked as a coach or did not know enough to prepare them to face at competition. For example, in all my years as a prosecutor and defense attorney, including many cross-examinations of hostile witnesses, I never once faced a witness who had perfect recall on direct examination but total amnesia on cross-examination; but in competition, I learned the hard way that some teams coach their witnesses to act this way. I carry a notebook with me and pay careful attention to what successful, ethical teams are doing. I have learned quite a bit from facing well-prepared teams that do everything right and win while still taking the high road ethically. That's how I want my teams to be, and I learn so much about coaching just by watching these teams perform. I also pay attention to the unscrupulous tactics used by some teams so I can prepare my students to fairly and honorably meet the challenge. I won't name those schools here, but there are a few of them in our region, and I now know enough to give my teams a scouting report that at least lets them know they are about to encounter opponents who will make a mockery of all we've tried to teach our students about professionalism, ethics, collegiality and fair dealing.

On top of my inexperience as a coach our school does not have a strong mock trial tradition. Our appellate moot court teams have traditionally been competitive both on a regional and national level. Students write briefs and make appellate arguments their first year of law school and can try out for the moot court team the fall of their second year (as part of an extremely rigorous advanced appellate advocacy course). The moot court program is well-funded and well-organized; some of our faculty members have coached teams in the same competitions for several years running.

Our trial teams, in contrast, received fewer resources and have faced structural and curricular barriers that prevented them from reaching their potential. There is no first-year trial advocacy experience to compare with the first-year appellate briefs and arguments. Furthermore, the mandatory prerequisites for participating on trial team ensured that for the most part, only students in their final semester of law school would be eligible to compete; students had to take, in lockstep order, evidence (a 2L class), then trial advocacy (a 3L class). Thus, even though my predecessors had talented students on their teams, their lack of experience often proved to be their undoing at competitions, particularly when facing experienced opponents from schools with strong mock trial traditions. Basically, every year the program had to start over from scratch—not a recipe for sustained excellence and success.

With the assistance of a pair of associate deans and the support of my colleagues on the faculty, we've been able to remove the structural and curricular impediments to trial team success. We hold a closing argument competition that is open to first-year students, and students are now able to participate on our mock trial teams beginning in their second year of law school. This coming fall, our trial team will have returning members for the first time in many years. I think this will make a great difference in building the future success of our team.

We held our third annual closing argument competition this past week. The competition serves two primary purposes: (1) to increase enthusiasm for and interest in our trial advocacy program; and (2) to identify talented students to join the trial team.

Here's why I'm excited: The quality of the closing arguments was the best yet, even though the majority of the competitors were first-year students with no trial advocacy training or experience. Case analysis, use of theory and theme, organization, evidentiary inferences, use of jury instructions, eye contact, voice, pacing, use of notes—across the board, competitors demonstrated strong skills in these areas.

I believe their high performance was the direct result of coaching and mentoring by current members of the trial team. We started offering our trial team members as mentors in last spring's competition, and there was a noticeable difference in the performance of students who used mentors last year compared to those who did not. In fact, most of the members of our current team were mentored last year. This year, nearly every competitor requested mentoring and coaching from the current trial team.

I believe this bodes well for the future. We're building a foundation based not just on classroom instruction, but on student learners-turned teachers. The students now have enough experience and skill to start training their successors. The student mentors, all of whom have participated in interschool competitions, know what to demand of their mentees in terms of performance. When our competition cycle starts next year, we will begin at a higher level than years past, and those students will demand even more from next year's crop of mentees. Since the students are the ones who compete, it makes sense that they should take a leadership role in helping to prepare the next generation.

In addition to that, I now have the luxury of former trial team members who live in the area, know what the program expectations are, and are willing to help guide and coach our competition teams. I look forward to working with them in the years ahead to build a successful—and competitive—program.

Building a competitive program from the ground up means taking some hard knocks from the school of experience. It also requires a solid foundation built on student leadership and learners-turned-teachers.

1 comment:

  1. Great post Chris. I could not agree more with the following: "We're building a foundation based not just on classroom instruction, but on student learners-turned teachers."

    Three additional examples that I use and hope to expand upon include: (i) student teaching assistants to demonstrate and mentor in basic skills courses, such as trial advocacy; (ii) post-bar graduate assistants to coach and mentor mock trial competitors; and (iii) area graduates in litigation to serve as guest lecturers, judges, coaches and adjunct professors.