“Feel the rush, break the rules, the thrill kills.” The first line of my opening statement at my first mock trial competition. Well… I certainly felt the rush to say the least! As I stood up to deliver my opening statement, my legs were shaking and I had probably finished an entire bottle of water just during appearances, house-keeping, and motions in limine. My mouth was dry and I was internally freaking out. Again, I was really feeling the rush. I thought to myself, “how do people do this?” The pressure was on, and honestly, I was a bit terrified, but I pulled through. I recited my opening statement perfectly the way I practiced, and even spiced it up a bit! I knew then, it was going to be a good round.
The weekend of September 23, 2022 I competed in my first ever mock trial competition for the Pace Law Advocacy Program. The competition was Drexel Kline Law School’s “Battle of the Experts” Mock Trial Competition. I represented the defendant, an amusement park that was being sued for a strict liability offense regarding the death of a young girl who died on one of their rollercoasters – quite the case for someone afraid of rollercoasters! But I loved every minute of it. I gave the opening statement, cross-examined the decedent’s best friend/plaintiff’s eye-witness, and directed our expert witness. I was so proud of myself overall for how I performed. I received mostly 7’s-9’s for individual scores, including two perfect scores on my direct examination. While we did not win, I took away something much more valuable; I learned a lot about myself as an advocate and how to improve competitively in the future. With that, I developed 9 key take aways for the next advocate approaching their first competition! Some of my points are going to seem obvious, but they are things that we are told so often you almost become numb to how important they are- and in the midst of things, it is easy to forget their importance.
What I Learned
- Practice, Practice, Practice (and put the computer down!) – I know what you are thinking – every person and their mother has told you to practice. I mean it when I tell you that really is the only way to memorize your parts of your case in chief and get comfortable. I memorized everything and became so comfortable with my parts by asking family members, friends, and classmates if I could practice my opening statement for them – on the phone, in the school courtyard, or in my living room. That is the best way – and it gets you comfortable in front of new people. It is one thing to practice in the mirror or alone, but for me, once I got up in front of someone, I would forget things. To fix this, I practiced my opening for so many different people that eventually my fear of “blanking” evaporated. By competition day, the three random scoring judges will feel like everyone else you practiced for. Another important thing – put the computer down when you practice. You know more than you think. If you are holding notes or a laptop, you will use them (even if you say you won’t) and you will be more likely to forget, pause, or trip up on what you are saying. Put it down. It will flow and sound natural.
- Listen to Your Opponents – Another thing that I am sure you have heard plenty of times – but the judges really do like this and take note of it. I listened to my opposing counsel’s theme, and was able to flip it and throw it into mine, making it about my case instead. Nit-pick every single thing that they bring out and put it into your direct and cross examinations, opening statement, and closing argument. Another point of good feedback I received was how in my re-direct, I attacked everything the opposing counsel brought out on cross-examination. It shows that you are not only listening, but you know the holes in your case, and are good at thinking on your feet and turning everything around once more for your team.
- Prepare for Objections – This was one of the most important and helpful things I did. I took every line of questioning and every piece of evidence I planned to bring in and thought of all the possible objections I could receive and responses I could make. As someone who has not completed the Evidence course yet, this was probably one of the parts of competing that scared me the most. How could I prepare for a hearsay objection or make thoughtful objections when I didn’t even understand them myself? My teammates and coach were so helpful with constructing good arguments to respond to any objections I could possibly receive. Preparing in this way allowed me to have one less thing to worry about on competition day, and in fact, two of the judges told me that I dealt with objections and evidence so well that they were shocked I had not taken it yet! Prepare, make yourself comfortable and do not be afraid to ask for help. If you want to make objections, do not hesitate. More often than not, you will have sensed correctly. One thing I learned was that I did not make as many objections as I could have – and my coach made me realize that I knew more than I thought. If you make an objection and the opposing counsel has a good argument, do not back down – stand your ground. The judges even told the other teams; the worst thing you can do is give up. Do not be deterred from making objections, even if you have not taken Evidence yet!
- Balance Sympathy – The most common constructive feedback I received was that two judges felt I was a bit harsh at times or did not take into consideration enough that there was a young dead girl in the midst of the case. This was specifically regarding my opening statement and cross-examination of her best friend. For me, this is certainly one of the key things I want to work on as an advocate in the future. How do you stay an effective advocate for your own side, while remaining sympathetic for the opposing? It is a tough balance. I took this advice and tried to add a bit to my opening statement the next day – receiving the same comments from one judge, while another thought it was fine. When I watched my teammates compete for Plaintiff on my off-rounds, the judges actually said that the defense was too sympathetic. It definitely comes down to style, but it is definitely a factor you need to consider.
- Court-Room Etiquette – Something that came up a lot amongst all of the teams I observed, as well as within my own rounds was courtroom demeanor. Judges love when you have perfect courtroom etiquette. Again, this somewhat goes without saying, but you must always ask the judge for permission when beginning something, showing opposing counsel, and use clean cut verbiage for things such as introducing evidence and making clear objections with grounds. The judges (even though they may not be a real judge) want respect and good courtroom demeanor. All of this is so easy to forget in the heat of the moment, but if you make sure to do it constantly in practice, it will become second nature. Despite the content or theme of your case, a clean-cut, or polished look could make or break your chance of winning. Without etiquette, the judges will forget all of the great things you have argued, and unfortunately will not see all of your hard work shine in the same light. Judges also critiqued most teams on where advocates stood during direct examination and cross examination. Each trial room is different, and the physical setup can make things a little bit uncomfortable, but the judges did not like it if you blocked the jury, or stood too close to the witness or presiding judge. Be conscious of your movement always, and as my teammate and coaches reminded me – make every movement you do have purpose.
- A Theme, Through and Through! – The advocacy program at Pace does a great job at emphasizing early on how important a strong, central theme is. I remember preparing for tryouts and boot camp, and everyone constantly reminded me how important it was to have a tight theme for your case. While both my side, and my team on the plaintiff’s side had great themes, so many teams did not and that was something we were proud of. One of the judges also emphasized how important it is to make sure whatever you say theme-wise in your opening, you repeat in your closing. This is a good trend that Pace instills in all of us – the better your theme, the more you will stand out!
- Rebuttals – While I was on the defense side, I did not have a rebuttal. But, most of the judges critiqued rebuttals after closing arguments. Their main point was that you should not get up there unless you have a concrete point to be made and you are 100% confident in it. Otherwise, it is not necessary and could leave a poor, lasting impression instead. Do not get up there again unless you truly have something to say.
- Demeanor & Sportsmanship – Another common remark made by the judges was in regards to the advocates’ attitudes and sportsmanship behavior (yes, this truly was like a sport). Never show you are losing. If something does not go your way, do not show frustration! You never want to make it look like your case got derailed. If you do not show it, the judges will honestly have no idea! It’s similar to what I learned during my time in high school theater – the audience has no idea if you mess up unless you show them. Otherwise, they think it is part of your act (mock trial feels pretty similar quite often if you ask me)! If you are flexible and put on a poker face, it shows the judges that you can perform through any curveball thrown at you. The worst thing you can do is show that something went wrong, or that the case is not necessarily going your way, etc. Having a good, positive attitude is the key to it all. It shows confidence, and that you are proud to be there – as well as you are a good sport to the other team. Be respectful, whisper with your co-counsel or pass notes if necessary, and even if the other team does not play as nicely – be the bigger, better advocate; play nice and put on a good show!
- Finally, and Most Importantly, Have Fun! – When I say I truly enjoyed every minute of my competition, there is no exaggeration. On the second day, I had a hard time getting a key piece of evidence admitted for our case – and it certainly threw me for a loop – but I moved forward and let myself enjoy every moment of my last round. If you want to make objections, make them. Take control. When it was time for my last part – my direct examination – I got up there and I just knew that I had one last shot to prove myself. All or nothing. I knew this was the strongest component of our case. I got up there, smiled, and decided I was going to take control of the judges, the jury, and the whole room. Trust yourself, have a positive demeanor, and let your confidence show – the judges will notice it too. Once I had that attitude, everything came together. I received two perfect scores, and the presiding judge even commented on how my energy showed in the room despite our exhaustion in the 4th, final round. Show them that you belong there and they will agree!
While a lot of these tips are things that have been told to all of us over and over, it really does not sink in until you do your first competition and grab the reins. Remembering some of these tips, and listening to every piece of advice given to you, you can only improve. My first competition was an incredibly rewarding experience, and I am so lucky for all that it taught me. I learned so much in a wonderful, exciting, and fun environment (that really can’t compare to law school classes). No matter what happens or what the outcome is, you will have a fun and rewarding experience with new friends, new skills, and you will become a better advocate than before. Once it is all over you will return to the more dull life of reading cases and outlining until next semester!