by Daniel DeWoskin
This year I have been volunteering as an assistant coach with the Georgia Mock Trial Competition. In the past I have volunteered as a judge during the competitions, but this year I have been more actively involved in dissecting the problem and helping a student team shape their case. I can now say, without a doubt, that the experience has been one of the most fun, engaging, and rewarding volunteer opportunities in which I have ever taken part. Other than the fun that I have had, I have learned far more from the student participants than I ever anticipated. I am fortunate in that the students I have been working with are extremely bright and enthusiastic. When I was in high school, I think I would have been overwhelmed by the procedural constraints, performance anxiety, and the sheer amount of information that must be processed to prepare and compete. I am continually impressed by the way the students consult with and rely on one another to better their understanding of the problem and the law itself.
As those of you with some experience with the Mock Trial competition may know, the problem is written so that virtually all testimony is self-contained in affidavits, reports, and other evidence that the students pore over and commit to memory. The problem is not designed to allow student witnesses to make unreasonable conclusions or let their imaginations run wild. While discussing the similarities and differences between Mock Trial and the actual practice of law, a topic many students are curious about, I explained that by far the most significant difference was that no lawyer is ever certain what a witness will say once he or she takes the stand. One student remarked that if that were possible, there would likely be far fewer trials.
The students are very receptive to constructive feedback, not just from attorney coaches, but from each other. They experience some of the same frustration and relief that comes from the structured rules of evidence and rule of law that practicing attorneys experience each day. From week to week, as they prepare their witnesses and rehearse, their improvement is remarkable and their level of comfort increases exponentially.
It is refreshing to observe how the respective strengths and weaknesses of the students form a balance and give the team character. During practice, I and other coaches will occasionally challenge the students with objections, some more reasonable than others. In fact, sometimes we might make an objection that has little or no merit just to prepare the students for such an occasion. Of course, we assure them that in a real trial, no attorney would ever make an objection that lacked merit.
Even when they are caught off guard, or when they struggle for an answer or response that is on the tip of their tongues, the students learn, adapt, and improve. For many of their questions, the students want us to provide them with yes or no, black or white answers. They quickly have come to learn what we as attorneys know, but sometimes forget. The law is subject to interpretation. We can only represent our clients by knowing the law and the facts, preparing our cases accordingly, and anticipating what might take place in the courtroom.
The Georgia Mock Trial competition has reminded me that justice is impossible without collaboration, open-mindedness, and initiative. I selfishly look forward to meeting with the team to practice, not so that I can tell the students how I would do something so much as to see how they may do it. It is easy to lose sight of how much room there is for creativity in trial work. Watching as these students have learned how to tell a story through direct and cross-examination has been captivating.
Although I often work with other lawyers on cases, there are many cases in which I find myself studying reports, documents, and evidence alone as I prepare for trial. It is not unusual for me to sit at my desk with a file and meticulously obsess over a transcript, or instead over the possible testimony at trial. My time with these students has reminded me that there is no substitute for the insight that comes by working with others. In practice, we can all engage in this type of work with focus groups, consulting with our peers, or even talking with our non-lawyer friends.
We lawyers do this frequently without giving it much thought. Yet, there is a big difference between asking for opinions and ideas in a general sense, and observing testimony play out before you. These students have shown me something I should have been able to recognize all along. I cannot represent my clients to the best of my ability if my work and preparation is conducted in isolation.
I encourage everyone to take a few moments to learn more about the Georgia Mock Trial Competition, or perhaps even to volunteer as a judge. I guarantee that your time will be well spent and that you will be impressed by the talent and hard work that the high school participants have invested.