Articles
Bench & Bar of Minnesota is the official publication of the Minnesota State Bar Association.

Mock Trial: A Recipe for Growth, Satisfaction, and Civic Education

With the onset of a new school year, students, teachers, and attorney coaches in MSBA’s High School Mock Trial Program are dusting off their advocacy skills, pondering lessons learned from last year’s competition, and recruiting new students and volunteer attorneys to commence a new season.  Some students attended the Mock Trial summer camp in August to hone their skills and understanding of the legal system, while others will start afresh this month without much more than a taste of Judge Judy to inform their outlook on trials, lawyers, and the judiciary.

As the accompanying articles attest, Mock Trial can be a transformative and satisfying experience for students and attorney coaches alike while simultaneously filling worrisome gaps in students’ knowledge of the law and our judicial system.  Registration for Mock Trial teams for the 2012-13 season is open until October 17 and registration forms and information can be found on the web at www.mnbar.org/mocktrial.  Attorneys interested in exploring opportunities to serve as a coach or Mock Trial judge are urged to contact Kim Basting, MSBA’s Mock Trial Manager, at kbasting@mnbar.org.

Satisfactions of Coaching

By Pat Lowther

See the girl in the adjacent picture? Take a long look at her certain smile. It shows confidence where previously there was self-doubt; pleasure has pushed away disappointment; confidence crowds out uncertainty. This is a glimpse of the coming of age of my student, Courtney.

It all began five years ago, when she came out for the Mock Trial program at Sleepy Eye High School, where I have volunteered as attorney coach for the last 22 years.

Mock Trial, a 26-year-old program sponsored by the Minnesota State Bar Association, involves about 113 teams from 80 high schools, each working on the same case, with a new case every year. After months of preparation, in January the trial schedule starts in earnest. Schools are organized into regions. Each school is guaranteed three trials, and the four teams that come out on top move on to regional playoffs. Round 4 winners play in the regional championship, the winner of which goes to the “big dance” (to coin a phrase—the state tournament). Rivalries are made; pressure-packed trials—especially in rounds 4 and 5—are the norm. Winners often come out ahead by one or two points, with judges saying they wish both teams could win. “High test” is the best way to describe the process.

Growth Opportunity

Mock, as we call it, is complicated. It’s scary (the pressure of going to court), exhilarating (the thrill of victory), agonizing (defeat), and freeing (when confidence comes). Students progress through many stages, from the time they first go out for Mock, typically in grades 7 to 9, to graduation from high school.

Pure terror and confusion dominate the first year—the student is a fish out of water. The legal system is foreign to the vast majority of people, so it’s not surprising that the young and unworldly would be totally lost. Indeed, the only way to classify the first year of Mock is as “the lost year.”

The second year is better, but not by much. Just like learning a language or how to read music, catching on to the legal mumbo-jumbo takes persistence. The junior and senior years in high school are the time to shine. The language and the process come together. Add to that the growing maturity of the kids, and good things start to happen.

Courtney’s lost year was 8th grade. A quiet, tiny, bespectacled young lady, Courtney was terribly timid and barely said a word, unless she had something to contribute. Because she was usually right when she did speak, we started calling her E.F. Hutton, after the memorable television commercial of the time. That first year, Courtney was a witness on the B team, and while her performance was less than remarkable, her actions were those of an engaged, interested, excited “Mocker,” doing her level best to succeed.

Individual Effort

During my 22 years of Mock Trial, I’ve coached hundreds of students, many of whom have become very successful. Some of them were spectacular students, but only Courtney came from nowhere to become a star.

But she had to work for it. In her second season, Courtney was an attorney on the B team, and while she improved, her shyness left me wondering if she would ever come out of her shell.

Then, on the first day of practice of her third season of Mock, a suddenly assertive Courtney showed up, pressing to have an attorney part on the A team. I didn’t say anything at the time, but I had her pegged as on B team again. Because I was so blown away by her bold appeal, I said yes. My delight slowly faded during the season, however. Instant success eluded the young attorney aspirant, and her season was a struggle as older, more experienced students had her for lunch.

That year left a lasting impression on Courtney, and in her fourth season she again demanded an attorney part. This time she wanted an opening statement too. I hesitated. Our team was stacked with seniors and we had an excellent chance at getting to the state tournament, where we had been two years earlier. But there’s more to coaching than the single-minded pursuit of returning to the big dance. Growth of the kids is just as important. So I agreed to her request. And in that fourth year, something wonderful happened.

The Pay-Off

Although the A team missed State by two points, the decision to give Courtney an opening statement turned out to be a game changer for her. On a cold day in early January 2011, our teams rode the bus to a Mock Trial tournament in Lakeville. During the A team’s second trial of the day, Courtney gave the opening statement of her life, and the judge rewarded her with a perfect 10! Brimming with excitement on the bus ride home, I heard Courtney proudly boast to her mother about her perfect 10. When she turned to look at me, I took “the picture.” On display was a young woman with renewed confidence and a sense of genuine pride. I could see the change in her eyes. And you can see it for yourself in her smile.  No longer would we see the shy Courtney. No longer would she be walked on by older students. Courtney would do the walking from then on.

Our 2011-2012 season was Courtney’s fifth year, and she was our undisputed superstar. In every part she performed, Courtney’s scores were in the upper strata—9s and 10s. Players and coaches from other teams marveled at how good she had become. Once again, we missed State by an ultra-slim margin, but the incredible distance Courtney had come over the last five years was all I needed to be satisfied.

Now, younger students on our team want to be like her. What a stunning role model she has become.

Check out her picture one more time. Her smile says it all.

Patrick Lowther is an attorney in Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, practicing with the law firm of Somsen, Mueller, Lowther & Franta, PA. He coaches high school Mock Trial for Sleepy Eye High School and St. Mary’s High School, Sleepy Eye. He is a certified civil trial specialist (MSBA).  

 

From the Inside, Out

By Courtney Rossbach

Chilly air stung my eyes as I stepped off the bus.  Weary from a drawn-out loss, knowing any small thought of it could pierce my composure, I was desperately suppressing tears.

It was my second year of Mock Trial, and the rest of my team was celebrating what had been an exciting day in court.

I looked to Pat, my attorney coach, knowing he could sense my disappointment.  My first trial had been rough, I was crestfallen, and the scores I saw delineated my mood.  Telling me I could be his daughter for the day, Pat offered comfort, and we ate together and talked about the trials.

I was a ninth grader who had only just gotten used to the often chaotic, seemingly immense high school world.  Preferring to live in my imagination, I was shy and unassertive: the girl who, at an earlier age, couldn’t muster the courage to tell the ponytail-sporting bus driver he’d missed her stop at Grandma’s house.  Possibly to try and remedy that, a teacher had suggested I join Mock Trial.  I took her advice, but my own expectations paled in comparison to the transformative power those five years had.

First Steps

My first year of Mock Trial, I took on the role of Darby Flook. Convicted of several drug possessions, Ms. Flook was brash, crass, and testifying against a former best friend.  Requiring a huge leap out of my timid personality, she was a challenge to portray, and Mock Trial lawyers had no problem twisting my words to submission.

I always knew of my inner desire to influence and persuade, and I had really wanted the role of an attorney that first year. My timidity kept me from speaking up, but luckily, the charisma and dedication displayed by my coach and my peers brought me back for a second helping, where I got the part I had coveted.

In my second year, on our B team, I portrayed an attorney and was extremely eager to learn my part.  I diligently read through our case materials, came up with questions, and absorbed as much as I could.  Pat helped me write an opening statement, and when my work was done, I anticipated the big trial.

Things unfolded in a much different way than I’d anticipated.  Nervousness overcame me, and I rushed through my opening statement, running from the limelight and scrutiny.  In the scenes I still remember, I’m trembling, reaching blindly for the right responses to objections, stumbling along a direct and cross; praying for the end of the trial.

A New Beginning

That evening, buoyed by Pat’s kind words, I marked a new beginning.  As Pat shared that he had overcome difficult circumstances in his own life, I gained hope that I could overcome my own shyness.  My newfound interest in politics led us to share many debates on bus rides to and from tournaments, and his attention to and consideration of my opinions was a major confidence booster.  Most helpful were our talks on life and on finding confidence, which inspired me to trust and value his insight.

Though I had yet to find confidence and assertiveness in and out of court, I somehow convinced Pat to let me be on the A team that next year. Even letting me take the opening statement, the speech which had tried me most, he worked with me to refine my materials in preparation for our first trial.

Being on the A team was a completely different experience.  Teams we played were much more knowledgeable in objections, and though I also had gained much knowledge, I had yet to learn to apply it on the go.  With that realization of mine came anxiety before trial, and with that anxiety came a greater tendency to passively rush through roles.  I needed to learn how to command attention, and Pat told me this often. Through our continuous work on opening statements, I came closer to a breakthrough.  Final rounds came and went; my team missed State by a few points; and for the first time, I was saddened to see the end of the season.

Our work continued into the next season, and “daughter for a day” continued to be the signature attribute of my Mock Trial career.  At one particular practice, following a somewhat unsuccessful trial, Pat and I were again talking about channeling strength and conviction, finding my inner tiger, and capturing the attention of judges.  To our elation, the success we’d been waiting for struck at a tournament that following weekend, on a crisp winter day.

Finding Success

That day, when I rose to give my opening statement, I felt all worry melt away.  I focused on the judge and lived in the present, with the confidence and knowledge that I could deal with the unexpected in stride.  I felt a beaming satisfaction when I finished, and this feeling was confirmed when Pat handed me the score sheet: the judge had scored my opening statement a perfect 10!

Through the bus ride home in that evening’s deep sky , Pat and I couldn’t stop smiling.  Remembering our efforts and celebrating the defeat of the old me, we talked, laughed, and imagined what the future held.  I had finally taken on the confidence and conviction that had always lived deep within me, and this success continued into my final year of Mock Trial.

Judges and coaches would comment on my skill and performances.  I was scoring consistent 9s and 10s, and each trial would end with Pat and me smiling, laughing, and dreaming about the future.  I became a leader on the team, and we continued to push ourselves towards a victory and the state tournament.

Then one early morning in February, I looked at my reflection, letting my thoughts settle on the great transformation I had undergone. Giving a quick last glance into the mirror, I grabbed my materials, drove through a watercolor dawn, boarded the Mock Trial bus, and talked with Pat—on the way to what became my final trial.

As a team, we were dealt a loss.  But for me, those five years were a victory over fears, a metamorphosis, and a time of confidence, all thanks to Pat, my coach, the man who took time to know, encourage, and transform me.  In a bright bath of sunshine, my eyes watered over as Pat and I embraced and said goodbye to my Mock Trial career.  It is a victory for which I will be forever grateful.

A 2012 graduate of Sleepy Eye Public High School, Courtney Rossbach was a five-year MSBA High School Mock Trial participant, as well as a paid intern at The Legal Professionals, Somsen, Mueller, Lowther, & Franta in New Ulm, MN. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, writing poetry and short stories, and of course, Mock Trial. Courtney looks forward to beginning a prelaw major at Hamline University this fall.

 

 

Leave a Reply

Articles by Issue

Articles by Subject