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The Practice Corner: What Mock Trial Has Taught Me This Past Year

by Daniel DeWoskin
Trial Attorney

Every year, I volunteer as an attorney coach for a nearby high school. As some of you may be familiar with my previous articles, I find my participation with mock trial to be among the most rewarding of my extracurricular activities as a lawyer. In addition to enjoying working with students as they learn the rules of evidence, the process of preparing witnesses and a case at large, and how to effectively work with their peers, there is a collective feeling of accomplishment for my fellow coaches and the students when it all comes together at the competition.

My team did not win this year, despite the fact that several of our students took awards for best attorney and best witness in our competitions. Another team, one with a phenomenal record, once again achieved the regional win. This other school has a history of being among the most refined, most prepared, and most practiced schools ever to participate. The school I work with has many, many dedicated students, but it is a small school and thus several of our competitors participate in other activities, such as theatre, ultimate Frisbee, basketball, and other extracurricular clubs that make demands on what might otherwise be additional mock trial practice.

Each year that I work as an attorney coach, I, like my students, learn new things. Sometimes, what I learn may just be a reminder of some of the things that I already know, but lose sight of as I go about my day. For instance, when observing the students, it is impossible not to see just how much real practice and application brings about competence, confidence, and understanding of the principles behind the application. Many times, the students want to see me and the other attorney coaches run through a direct examination or a closing. The trouble with this is that, while it reinforces the notion that there are many different ways to accomplish the same goal, some students may be stifled by the possibilities and merely mimic what they see.

This year, more than in years past, we encouraged the students to try new things. As always, we taught them not to fear “failure,” but to experiment freely without overthinking so that they might engage themselves and each other more creatively. We have a young team and will see almost the entire team back in 2014, so establishing the premise that creativity is essential should be quite valuable as our students become veterans of mock trial.

I myself, like so many others, fear failure. I fear trying new things when I get before judges and jurors. This is true despite the fact that if I do not get past these fears, I may merely be going through motions in my trials and expecting that somehow the jury will respond as others have in the past. This thinking is flawed. Every case is as different as every client. I need to challenge myself to constantly find new ways to engage my juries when I stand before them and advocate for my clients.

As my school’s students competed, I also saw once again that the law is not a math equation. We drilled our students so that they knew that being “right” in their understanding of the law and their explanation did not mean that they would prevail in certain objections, and that they would need to persevere regardless of the particular outcome. Indeed, we coaches observed some unusual rulings from those attorneys who were generous enough with their time to preside over the student mock trial competitions.

Once again, this is not at all different from what we trial attorneys experience as we practice law. There are times when we feel that no rational person could disagree with our reasoning, only to find that we will either need to adjust our rationale, our strategy, or our case, or alternatively start planning our appeal. These specific lessons may weigh heavier on the minds of some of the students than others. On the whole, the students learn as we practice and share our own real life experiences that the law and the unique factors involved in trials are not one-dimensional and that they can never take anything for granted.

Some of the students who were new to our team this year appeared to be less interested in the practices as time went on. For some, it was frustration with how long it was taking to really grasp the rules of evidence. For others, it may have simply been fatigue. In years past, the ability to scrimmage with other schools before the competition would rejuvenate the competitive spirit and show our students what it just might take to win. However, recently, the rules changed to disallow such scrimmages, making it more difficult for the students to know what to expect. This was especially difficult for a team such as ours, a team with just a handful of veteran participants.

I must admit that I had my doubts as the season progressed. Where we really needed to see the most dedication from all of our students, collateral demands on their time made it nearly impossible to get the entire team to the same practice. In the end, the leadership of our more experienced students just meshed well with the enthusiasm of our newer students, and the mock trial team performed wonderfully when the time came. I am always proud to see the students’ hard work pay off, as I am certain they themselves are.

The single greatest lesson that I revisit year after year with mock trial is that there is so much more that we as attorneys and as people can learn than what is on the written page. I study new ideas and approaches to trial work. I read articles and papers written by other attorneys who have had great accomplishments in trial, and yet there is still no better way to learn than by practicing and keeping an open mind. The end of mock trial always leaves me feeling refreshed and ready to continue improving my skills as an attorney.

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