You are sitting in a courtroom watching a trial proceed. Attorneys are standing to make objections and witnesses are getting emotional on the stand. It is only the participants’ young faces that remind you that this isn’t a real trial – it’s a mock trial being acted out by high school students.
Every year, an estimated 43,500 students from 52 U.S. states and territories participate in high school mock trial nationwide. The program gives students an “insider’s view” into the judicial system by having students act out a civil or criminal trial for either the prosecution or defense, against another team of the opposing side. Students take on the roles of attorney, witness or timekeeper.
Trials are judged by practicing attorneys and law students, and they are often hosted at a local courthouse in a real courtroom. A high school mock trial program is usually sponsored by a state or local bar association, a local YMCA or a county department. All competitions depend heavily on attorney volunteers.
Each fall, teams are given a full case packet that includes everything in a real case: charges against the accused, witness statements and exhibits. The cases always include interesting character witnesses and are based on real life events.
Depending on the year, the case might be civil involving a dispute between two parties, such as a car owner suing an airport park-and-fly for breach of contract for failing to safeguard the owner’s car during a hailstorm. The case could also be criminal, in which someone commits a harmful act. For example, a disgruntled hospital employee is charged for manslaughter when he/she hacks into the hospital’s system and holds patient records hostage until the hospital pays a ransom. While the hospital deliberates paying and records remain hidden, a patient dies.
When the case is released in the fall, students begin reading and dissecting it for arguments that could help either side. All teams work on the same case until district or regional competition in early spring. Students must learn the plaintiff/prosecution side – the side making the charges and bringing the case to court, as well as the defendant/defense side against which the charges are made.
On competition day, teams arrive at the courthouse dressed in their business attire, ready to try both sides. Teams that advance from regionals continue to the state competition to compete for the chance to represent their state at the National High School Mock Trial Championship (http://www.nationalmocktrial.org/).
A mock trial round starts with opening statements, in which each side introduces themselves and lays out their case. This is followed by direct examinations and cross examinations, during which witnesses for each side go on the stand and are asked a series of questions. Finally, the closing statements give the jury a review of what each team has argued and why jurors should rule in their favor, something like a scene from Law & Order where the attorney stands before the jury and gives a final emotional plea for his or her client or position.
Sitting in the head judge’s chair is a presiding judge ready to sustain or overrule attorney objections. In the jury box, a panel of attorney judges score the trial. You do not win a mock trial by having your client be ruled Guilty or Not Guilty. You win by giving the best presentation and showing the most advocacy skills.
Throughout the trial, student attorneys earn points off their opening and closing statements and questioning. Witnesses earn points on how well they answer questions and stay in character during direct and cross-examinations. To be truly successful in mock trial you have to put time and effort into learning the competition rules and Rules of Evidence – rules used to govern the admission of proof (i.e., oral or physical evidence in exhibits).
One of the newest components of high school mock trial is the courtroom artist contest. As an additional member of the mock trial team, the artist sits in the jury box and creates a drawing of a scene in the trial. This provides a great opportunity for artistically gifted students who want to participate in mock trial but aren’t ready for a speaking role. This contest is offered in 12 states and qualifies for the national competition. Past artwork can be seen at https://nhsmtcinc.wixsite.com/nationals/courtroomartist.
While there are many elements to mock trial, there are also many resources available online, including how-to videos and coaching handbooks. Perhaps the greatest resource of all is a local attorney willing to volunteer and practice with the team. This Attorney Adviser can help a team learn the components of the case, proper courtroom etiquette and how to formulate arguments. An Attorney Adviser can be found through your school’s alumni association or your city’s local bar association.
There is perhaps no other cocurricular activity that can give students a more real-life look into a profession than mock trial. Many participants have gone on to be attorneys and then come back to volunteer at their alma mater. However, mock trial isn’t just for students who want to be lawyers. The critical thinking, ability to think on your feet, and effective public speaking that you gain from doing mock trial are skills that transcend any profession.
As part of the Texas High School Mock Trial Competition’s 40th Anniversary year, alumni of the program were asked how mock trial affected their lives. Genie Smith, Mock Trial alum and IT Applications Administrator, said, “Mock Trial was a very positive influence for me. It helped me form arguments and listen intently to what people are saying. I’ve made great friends from it and still keep in touch with our sponsor/coach and a few of my classmates. I grew up with English as a second language, so this whole experience really helped me develop my understanding of arguments and public speaking.”
To learn more about mock trial and find your state’s mock trial program, check out the National High School Mock Trial Championship website under State Coordinator contacts.
Melissa Garcia is the State Coordinator for the Texas High School Mock Trial Competition. You are welcome to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.