Congratulations, you have been accepted to compete on a mock trial team at your law school! How exciting! Perhaps you’ve joined to become a champion, become better at the rules of evidence, or to meet new people. Either way, you should be ready for an experience that will help prepare you better to handle the real world as a litigation attorney.
First Things First. Mock trial competitions are not a joke. They are the closest thing law students get to “playing a sport,” and real life practice – and they are very competitive. Competitions are both challenging, exciting, and they have rules that MUST be followed. Your team will consist of three other students, some who who have either competed before or have taken all the necessary courses, and no one is here to play around.
When I took the trial advocacy class offered by Pace Law in the spring of 2020, my professor told us a phrase that has stuck with me ever since: “Trial Ad is the little leagues.” I pondered what he meant and decided to try out for a team with hopes of finding out. It turned out to be one of the most challenging and fulfilling experiences of my third year. The entire competition experience gave me a whole new perspective on what litigation work really means to trial attorneys.
Here are some lessons I learned along my competition journey…
Long Nights, Longer Days. You are going to lose sleep. It can depend on your coach, how quickly your competition is approaching, and whether your team is scrimmaging. Either way, you will probably lose some sleep to keep up with all your responsibilities. As a warning, practices may run until midnight and can last as long as four hours. Always keep in mind that your coaches have your absolute best interests at heart. They believe in you and want to see you succeed. Every time they correct you or push you a little further, remind yourself that they want to see you grow to your full potential.
Know The Facts Read the facts and then re-read them. Bored? Re-read your facts if you have some spare time. ESPECIALLY if you are playing a witness. Remember, your team is counting on you. As my competition coach told me once, an attorney can be working on a case for years and a new connection can stand out to them one week before the trial. You can always discover a new fact and that fact may make or break your case.
Do Not Get Attached To Your Work. Oftentimes, we know the concept we are trying to have the jury understand but we are not clear enough in our word choices, demonstratives, or the way we are presenting the evidence. My advice would be to read your examinations, opening, or closing out loud to someone removed from the case who will give you their honest opinion. If that person does not understand what you are trying to say or what concept you are trying to make the jury understand, then you need to change something because there is no guarantee your message will be clear to the jury. This is not a risk you should take. A trial is about striving for the best outcome for our clients and it is pertinent that we do not get attached to our first drafts. Working towards one direction and having to go a completely different direction can be frustrating but at the end of the day we do what is necessary for our clients.
Listen To Feedback, You Need It. Your team members will get to know your litigation persona better than anyone. I can say from personal experience that watching each other perform, especially in those heated moments when the other side won’t back down, is the most satisfying and uplifting experience. Outperforming your adversary is always a goal of mine and a pleasure to watch because most of the time, it means you will be victorious. To get better and become the best advocate you can be, you need to accept criticism and work towards making positive changes. We are all stubborn in our own ways, but we are just as special and unique. When a team member gives you advice, accept it gracefully. You do not need to apply their advice immediately but respect them by taking it into consideration. Try to apply their advice when you are alone and editing, and you will surprise yourself how much truth they may have offered you. Sometimes they have a clearer vision and a different lens. Let them help you.
Get Ready To Know Yourself Better. Throughout practices and preparation, you will learn your own strengths and weaknesses. You will also learn how to nourish them so you can thrive and get better. In doing so, you will create your best work product, you will learn how people perceive you (this is important for a jury), you will learn to remain calm, and you will learn how NOT to stress the small things. Your character will grow depending on how much you are willing to put in the work.
Don’t Be Married to Your Script. This is by far the most terrifying part of trying cases. If you prepare correctly and thoroughly, there is nothing to worry about. You can practice with your own witnesses and tell them what you want from them, but talking to the opposing party’s witness is diving straight into unknown. This is where digesting the facts of the case is key. Most likely, you will not deliver your direct examination exactly as it is written. You must marry the concepts you want the jury to grasp instead of your written questions word for word. During your cross examination, it is vital to have the lines of the opposing witness’s testimony handy in case they contradict themselves or deny their previous statements. You must be ready to impeach them. Remain calm. Smile. Take your time. Breathe. Keep trying until you make them agree with you. Do not yell. Do not be hostile. Expect the unexpected. Going off script will more likely than not happen, and if you are confident in the story you want to portray to the jury, it should not pose a problem and it will be more effective in the long run.
Active Listening. Listening to what the opposing team says is just as vital as your work. You need to listen when they are speaking and write down the important things they say. When you are discussing the same piece of evidence they are, try to shift the evidence back in your favor. When you are addressing the jury, utilize the power of persuasion combined with your strongest pieces of evidence. Acknowledge their arguments and quickly dispose of them.
If You Don’t Believe in Your Argument, No One Will. If you are hesitant, it will reflect in your speech and deliverance. The jury will see will see right through you. Believe your argument, believe your case, and believe your client. Knowing the case through and through is how you will be confident in arguments. Confidence in your work is vital to your success. Stand firm in your argument and do not budge for anyone. Anticipate the weak points and deal with them. Turn them into strong points, or fight them for what they are. Just remember, always believe in yourself, your argument, and your client. At the end of the day, we are all there to learn. There is no hostility. Do not let your emotions sway your behavior. Look good, always.
Know When It’s Time To Ask For Help. It is almost impossible for an advocate to be self-made. This is because practicing the law is not something you necessarily learn in law school or can study. You must learn from experience and others to become proficient. In my experience, I can say this with a lot of confidence because the people I have learned from learned from others and gained a wealth of information by experience. With that being said, there is an excellent resource available, known as other people. They may be your professors, your coach, or your friends who are going through the same situation. Most usually have what is called an “open door” policy. In an office, when your boss has an “open-door” policy it’s very obvious because their office door is quite literally always open and all someone has to do is knock. When you are a student or you need a mentor, finding these people can be just as simple. Pay attention to how they address your class. If your professors or mentors say things like: “text me if you need anything,” “call me if you need anything,” or “take down my number/email and don’t be afraid to reach out.” Those are people that really mean what they say. I have received the best advice from my mentors, but you have to be proactive by taking the first step and reaching out to them first. They will usually happily respond. Sometimes it may take some time and that is okay, we all have lives. Believe people when they say that you can always ask them for help.
Look Good. No, look great. When it’s time for business, always watch your courtroom demeanor and candor. Judges and your opposing counsel really appreciate when you are respectful and friendly. The best compliment I have ever gotten is when a judge thanked myself, my team member, and opposing counsel for treating each other well and treating the court well. Those who want respect, show respect. It can be hard, but the best attorneys are masters of controlling themselves. Always look good in front of the jury.
Time To Compete. Relax, the other side is just as nervous as you are. Do whatever it is you need to do to calm your nerves. You know what is best for yourself better than anyone else. What always works for me is to eat something before the competition, that way your stomach has digesting to do, instead of generating those nerve butterflies. Another tip is to walk around, move, or stretch. Do not remain in a seated position before the competition. Warm up by being on your feet. Always look good! Put on your best courtroom attire, best smile, and you will slowly feel the nerves calming down. Keep a glass of water near you at all times but be cognizant of the electronics and papers you have around it, being sure not to ruin anything with water damage.
Good Luck To You! You have prepared, you have worked very hard, you have rehearsed and rehearsed again. This is what it all comes down to. GIVE IT YOUR BEST SHOT. Try your best. You can never disappoint yourself when you only give your best.
Excellent write up. Given this comment, I note the idea of joining a trial team for reasons other than to compete and win, is discouraged. There is a lot of work involved – and expected. The results of same will be rewarding. That said, any less of an effort is not fair to your teammates or coaches. Come to win and put in the effort to do so – no exceptions and no excuses. No progress without sacrifice. Keep up the great work!