The Legal Beat
Test Case: Who Am I To Judge? I Score Mock Trial Performances At My Alma Mater.
Posted on Friday February 17, 2017
Unlike some lawyers, I don’t have warm and fuzzy memories of law school. When I look back, it is mostly a blur of heavy textbooks, Latin words having something to do with doctors cutting off the wrong arm, and lifetime high achievers pretending not to be anxious.
But I do have somewhat fond memories of mock-trial competitions, which involved me bumbling over the admission of evidence and reading my closing pretty much verbatim from a stack of notecards. (The other kids apparently found time to practice that stuff while I was busy stress-eating entire bags of baby carrots.) It felt like a glimpse into the “real world” of trial work, without the trash circus of discovery and the near-guarantee of settlement.
With that in mind, I signed up to serve as a judge for a college-level mock trial regional round, held at the University of Washington School of Law, my alma mater. Walking into the building, I was immediately enveloped in the familiar cloud of nervous energy peculiar to law schools and fun-run starting lines. I tried to make it very clear to the organizers that I hadn’t judged a competition like this before, hoping to be saddled with as little responsibility as possible. It was a Sunday, after all.
The pre-trial training session occurred in the classroom where I attended my first-ever law school class, during which I was called on to talk about the Pennoyer v. Neff case. The same old feelings of academic inadequacy started creeping up, but I was mollified by the free sandwiches and my law degree. I was also pleased to see that my UW wi-fi log-in password still worked a decade after graduation.
At the end of the training, volunteers were broken up into groups of two: One person would serve as the “presiding judge,” and one person would be the “jury.” The presiding judge would have to rule on objections and pretend to be authoritative, and both volunteers would score each mock-trial participant’s performance.
I was initially assigned the presiding judge role, which sent a frisson of cold fear down my spine. The only thing I felt authoritative about that day was my knowledge of the nearest Starbucks location. And I hadn’t reviewed the federal evidentiary rules they sent out, naively confident that the presiding judge roles would go to… actual judges. Thankfully, another volunteer had a conflict and I was swapped out as a juror in a different courtroom. This was the best thing that had ever happened to me in my life up to that point.
The “courtroom” was full of about 30 people, including onlookers. (Are mock trials the new cheap Sunday afternoon date?) The participants introduced themselves as I clumsily organized a stack of carbon paper on which I was supposed to score people. The “presiding judge” job went to a bankruptcy trustee named Tom who had dreamy blue eyes and revealed himself to be very good at pretending to seriously consider evidentiary objections before letting everything in.
As the three-hour trial began, the first thing I noticed about participants is how they had memorized everything but still delivered it quite naturally. It was like someone had downloaded their entire opening statements and direct examinations into their brains. And they gave me—the sole “juror”—the sort of eye contact that you would expect at a marriage proposal. They even remembered to purposefully move about the “courtroom.” They were also very smooth with their use and admission of evidence. I started to become suspicious that they had come for our jobs.
The only way I knew we had spawned from the same planet: the initial spark of fear in their eyes whenever an objection interrupted the script. And they also stumbled a bit when applying caselaw to support their objection responses. It was nice to see that they were human after all, though I still wondered if they were genetically modified to be exceptional trial attorneys.
I was also really impressed by how the participants were able to capture the drama necessary to really sell a fake set of facts. They would be good presidential cabinet members. I remember struggling to inhabit the emotional space needed to serve as an effective advocate in a mock trial. I guess I need several months of miserable case preparation to conjure the sadness and outrage that goes along with an actual lawsuit.
Though I was thoroughly enjoying watching the trial—an age-discrimination case concerning an on-line magazine employer—I was still a bit uneasy with the scoring process. Who was I to judge which participant’s performance was superior? I had not been to trial in two years, and in that case, I used notes and didn’t even make any cool charts on poster board. I was basically someone’s great aunt who watches a lot of Law & Order telling people what they could have improved. And these students were so polished, it felt sort of like editing a really good piece of writing—I had to come up with criticisms just for the sake of having something to contribute.
As the trial wrapped up, I sat back and congratulated myself on being able to keep up with scoring all while maintaining an uncomfortable degree of eye contact with everyone. My last moment of panic was when they came back needing me to clarify a scrawled number, but fortunately I can read my own chicken scratch.
After we turned in our scores, Tom and I gave general comments and talked about law school and practicing law. It felt strange to give advice to college students who could probably dominate the average lawyer on presentation points in court, but a decade of practicing law has taught me how to dish out big pots of convincing-sounding rubbish. And I also had to keep in mind that those interruptions that tripped up the students are the sort of thing that we deal with every day as lawyers. Those interruptions are what make us “real” lawyers. Plus I was just so relieved to have been able to keep everyone straight on the scoring sheet that I had that reckless feeling one usually associates with a post-make-out session with a hot stranger during a tropical vacation. (Everyone is single in this metaphorical scenario.)
The Verdict: I would absolutely judge a mock trial again. From a personal-development perspective for someone who doesn’t go to trial often, it was a good way to stay familiar with trial procedure and presentation. It’s also nice to get to be the judge rather than be judged all the time, even if at first I questioned whether I had the background needed to pass judgment. (It turns out we can all fake competence once we get into the right mindset, which works for both participating in and judging a mock trial.) And it was a reminder that law can be fun and exciting, even though the truth is that most of us sit around emailing people all day.
My only concern is that perhaps my brilliant advice made these student-lawyers even better, and one day I will have to face them in court. Hopefully I can up my poster-board chart skills by then.
Allison Peryea is a shareholder attorney at Leahy Fjelstad Peryea, a boutique law firm in downtown Seattle that primarily serves community association clients. Her practice focuses on covenant enforcement and dispute resolution. She is a longtime humor writer with a background in journalism and cat ownership. You can reach her by email at Allison.Peryea@leahyps.com.