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Monday, February 17, 2014

A New Genre of Mock Trial Competitions: A Guest Commentary

Suparna Malempati, Director of Advocacy Programs at Atlanta's John Marshall Law School, contributed the following guest commentary about a recent small-scale interschool mock trial competition. I've blogged about this new style of competition (link here) in the past, and so have others (links here, here and here). The bottom line is that you can provide a superior competitive advocacy teaching experience for your students, free from the things that make many large-scale regional or national competitions unpleasant, if you find a couple of like-minded trial directors at other schools and plan your own competition.

A new genre of mock trial competitions has begun, and I am fortunate to be a part.  My mock trial team recently attended a wonderful competition hosted by the Southern Illinois University Law School.  This competition was the result of a unique collaboration between SIU, Northern Illinois University, and Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School.  Interschool mock trial competitions are a growing trend, one which provides great experience and fun.

Professor Chris Behan (editor of this blog) first suggested the idea of a collaborative mock trial competition to me last year when we met at the Educating Advocates: Teaching Advocacy Skills conference (EATS).  I was intrigued by the idea, but not sure how the logistics would work.  So, I smiled politely and nodded my head.  Chris asked again later, and then I gave it more thought.  I had at that time several students interested in a criminal law competition but did not have one lined up for the Spring semester.  I asked Chris if we could use a criminal law problem; he agreed and we were a go.

Chris wrote the problem and made all the arrangements for the competition, including lodging and meals.  All we had to do was show up prepared for trial.  We did and had an outstanding experience. 
Because we were collaborating, the professors had a great deal of control over the process.  We discussed the rules, scheduling, scoring, and other matters before, during, and after the competition.  The coaches agreed to take advisory roles as opposed to instructive roles while the students prepared.  The students were therefore on their own to develop their theories of the case, plan their strategies, and prepare their examinations.  Students were also required to negotiate jury instructions prior to the competition.  They actually had to communicate with each other and resolve disputes about the law!  It was challenging and true to life. 

For the competition, Chris selected actual judges or professors to preside over the trial.  How refreshing to see judges who actually knew the rules of evidence!  Another great aspect was the inclusion of lay jurors and voir dire, an area often neglected in traditional mock trial competitions.
After the competition, we were able to recognize individual advocates with additional awards.  And because of the smaller number of participants, professors and students from the different schools had the opportunity to get to know each other a bit.

Despite all the variations, the competitiveness was no less intense than at other mock trial competitions.  The students were no less prepared.  And the practical experience was no less valuable.
In fact, the interschool competition was unmatched in many aspects by the more formally organized competitions.  I am a huge fan of collaborative competitions now, and would absolutely say yes again. 

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