Mock trial team members Katie Burdette, Pranav Gandham, and Jacob Ward prepare before the start of their trial at the Tenth Annual Classic City Invitational mock trial tournament hosted by the University of Georgia at the Dekalb County Courthouse on Oct. 20, 2018. The team faced off against competitors from the University of Georgia.
Fundamentally, mock trial is just what it sounds like: a competitive approximation of a real courtroom trial. Each year, the American Mock Trail Association provides case materials for collegiate competitors to use. Competitors adopt the role of attorney or witness, each tackling a part of the three-hour trial.
Teams are scored by two judges, earning points as attorneys for mastery of trial techniques, understanding of legal issues, and oratorical skills, among other things. Witnesses are graded on their knowledge of what the witness knows, how faithfully they depict the witness, and how well they handle cross-examination by the other team's attorneys.
While teams work out complex case theories, not everything goes to plan. Attorneys need to be prepared to handle unexpected arguments from opponents, combative witnesses, and unfavorable rulings from a judge, all while staying cool, composed, and intellectually in the game.
A big part of being great at mock trial is when everything is going wrong in the trial, when you’re trying to make up a bunch of new stuff in your head on the spot because everything you had planned on doing went out the window, you still look like you’re confident, like you’re composed like you’re doing everything exactly like it’s planned.
Benjamin Felder, president of the Georgia Tech Mock Trial team
Gandham collects his thoughts while delivering opening statements during his team's trial.
It's not just for students who want to be lawyers. "It's an activity that teaches public speaking and critical thinking in a legal forum," Warihay said. It gets students to learn to think on their feet, and learn how to communicate effectively to people. We just happen to do it through a court case. Those are skills that anyone can use regardless of what they're going to do in life. You're going to be giving some sort of presentation no matter what you do. I'm biased obviously, but I think it's one of the most valuable things you can do in college."
Gandham gestures towards the jury box during his opening statement as teammates Mehir Dhoot, left, and Katie Burdette look on. Dhoot served as the defendant in the civil case during the trial.
Each role requires different skills. While being able to argue a case as an attorney is crucial, it's not always helpful as a witness, said Stebbins. "As a witness, it's ultimately very important to remain credible as a person," she said. Arguing too much to fend off questions that could hurt your team's case can damage that credibility, she said.
Team member Jessica Copenhaver, a second-year public policy student from Lake Jackson, Texas, enjoys taking on the role of expert witness because she learns a lot from it.
"Last year I was a cell phone expert," she said. "Also, a pharmacologist. And this year I’ve become a primatologist."
She said she finds that having the unique mix of liberal arts and engineering students the team attracts helps the team build explanations of complex issues in a way that's both watertight and persuasive.
For team members taking on attorney roles, the ability to deftly argue is one important skill. The ability to weave a captivating story is another, Felder said.
"We as opening attorneys get five minutes to give the jury a story, a framework, to put all that evidence into, so they can understand what's happening during that long and complex process. I really love doing that," he said.
Burdette cross-examines a witness.
Previous cases have run the gamut. Collegiate mock trial teams all argue the same case each year. The current case is a civil complaint involving the fatal mauling of a talk show employee by a chimpanzee. Last year's case involved a bank robbery. Previous cases have involved copyright complaints, bribery, and election fraud, among other topics.
"Every year the cases get more complicated," said Andy McNeil (BS Public Policy, 2001), an Atlanta attorney who lectures in the School of Public Policy and coaches the team with Warihay.
Not all mock trials are held in courtrooms, like this one, in Decatur, Ga. But aside from the setting, other aspects of a trial environment remain the same. There is a judge, and a jury box, and an audience watching from the gallery. While having a command of the facts, rules of evidence, and courtroom procedure are all crucial, being able to communicate effectively, advocate clearly, and bring humanity to sometimes complex, highly technical material is just as important. That it has to be done while dozens of audience members, critical judges, and opponents ready to pounce on an error look on only adds to the pressure.
There are a lot of things you have to pay attention to.