Courtroom Stars Drawing on a strong tradition of interdisciplinary education and a student body who knows what it means to work hard, Georgia Tech's mock trial team — housed in the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts — ranks among the nation's best.

Despite having a small footprint on campus, the Georgia Institute of Technology's mock trial team is gaining an outsize reputation in the world of mock trial, frequently a training ground for the young attorneys and judges who will shape the judicial world for decades to come. The American Mock Trial Association, the governing body of the activity, placed the team No. 6 in the country in its 2018-2019 power rankings.

Georgia Tech has appeared in the semifinal round of the national tournament two of the last three years, narrowly missing a trip to the 2017 championship round that was eventually won by Yale University. That resurgence, after a decade away from the top spots in the mock trial word, helps explain why a record 32 new students tried out for the team in 2018 — despite the fact that Georgia Tech does not offer a law degree or provide scholarships for mock trial students.

"We have kids who may be deciding between Tech and Georgia or Tech and another school, and they are choosing us because of how good our team is and has been," said Will Warihay, an attorney, lecturer in the School of Public Policy, the president of the American Mock Trial Association, and one of the team's two coaches.

"Fundamentally, a mock trial case is a really big, 150-page problem that you have to try to solve, when it's kind of designed that there is no perfect solution. And so I think having people with really diverse educational and other backgrounds helps us to create a more creative solution to that problem because we have people who approach it from a wide variety of different perspectives."

The team is part of the pre-law program overseen by Robert Pikowsky at Georgia Tech's School of Public Policy, a unit of the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts. Its members come from all over campus, but the team operates with the kind of interdisciplinary approach to complex problem-solving for which the Ivan Allen College is internationally renowned. Team members draw on each other's strengths to help solve complex problems that can vex teams that tend to draw more heavily on pre-law student populations, said Sarah Stebbins, fifth-year Chinese and business major from Marietta.

"Fundamentally, a mock trial case is a really big, 150-page problem that you have to try to solve, when it's kind of designed that there is no perfect solution," she said. "And so I think having people with really diverse educational and other backgrounds helps us to create a more creative solution to that problem because we have people who approach it from a wide variety of different perspectives."

Doing well in in this hyper-competitive world requires a sharp and attentive mind, a willingness to put in hours of detailed preparation, and the ability to quickly adapt to changing circumstances. Those, of course, are all things the successful Georgia Tech student is already doing. Taking part in this activity is just another way to exercise those abilities in a fast-paced and competitive environment, Warihay said.

"The Tech students, just from a pure knowledge standpoint, they're just smarter than most other kids," he said. "They are predisposed to having the necessary analytical skills to quickly break down, to retain information, analyze it and be able to provide a solution. They don't waste time, and that's because they don't have time to waste because of how demanding Tech is as an academic institution."

Keep scrolling to see more pictures of the team in action, hear from team members, and learn more about why they do what they do, and how they do it so well.

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.
Andy McNeil, left, and Will Warihay, teach a class for mock trial team members and coach the team. They are both Atlanta-area attorneys.
Created By
Michael Pearson


Michael Pearson/Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts

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