A few weeks ago (see my post of November 16, 2012), I told you about the thrilling win of Northwestern Law’s Bartlit Center Trial Team (including my former student John Mack) at the Buffalo-Niagara Mock Trial Competition.
I’m delighted that John has written the following guest post for my blog, telling you all about his exciting experience trying out for the team and preparing for the trial competition – and why you should consider trying out yourself!
Here’s John’s guest post:
Bartlitt Center Trial Team
By John Mack, Northwestern University School of Law 2L
If you’re considering trying out for the Bartlit Center Trial Team at Northwestern Law, there are a few things that you should know. First, our practices are long and inefficient, but that’s a good thing. Our coach, Rick Levin, seems to wear our inefficiency as a badge of honor. Rick and our assistant coach Adam Riback are partners in their own Chicago law firm (Levin Riback Law Group), and are also adjunct professors at Northwestern Law School. Our team starts every weekend practice with breakfast at Rick’s favorite restaurant, and then spends the rest of the day in the basement of his home, alternating between working really hard and wasting lots of time having fun.
The second thing you must know is that Rick loves dogs, specifically big ones. Rick and his family have seven dogs at home that weigh, on average, about 100 lbs. It is made very clear during tryouts that if you don’t like dogs, then being on the trial team probably isn’t for you. The last thing that you must know is that when you are on the team, you’ll receive fantastic legal training, get to hang out with amazing people, and have one of the best experiences of your law school career.
To be honest, I only tried out for the trial team because a friend was doing it. When I attended the informational meeting about joining the team, all of the talk about dogs and long, inefficient practices did not seem to be a ringing endorsement for the team. Usually 40-60 people try out for the team each spring and the tryout is held in two phases. First, everyone is given a brief summary of a problem and asked to write and perform a short cross examination of a witness and a 5 minute closing argument. For the second round, the group is narrowed down to 12 or 15 people, who are again given a summary of a trial problem and asked to write and perform a short cross and closing. It was somewhere during the first tryout when I realized that I actually wanted to make the team. It is now clear, however, that despite making the team, my teammates and I had no idea what we were in for.
When our practices began in September, I was paired on a four-person team with Allison Freedman, Kevin Jakopchek, and Joy McLellan, all 2Ls like myself. Looking back on the past few months of preparation for our Buffalo Niagara trial team competition, I discovered that process of preparing for a trial is, in many ways, similar to the process for legal writing. The ultimate goal of legal writing is for the final product to be as good as it possibly can be and convey the exact message that the author intended. That inevitably requires a process that is sometimes lengthy, sometimes difficult, sometimes repetitive, but always valuable. That’s also the best way to describe the process that we went through for our competition preparation.
After we receive the case problem that will be argued at a competition, similar to good legal writing, we begin our preparation with the basic facts. We go through each witness and ask questions like: what is this witness saying, why is it good, why is it bad, what’s missing? We literally sit around the table debating/yelling at each other. It is a fantastic and thought-provoking process. Often the easy thing is to jump to the end and think about what the final product will look like, but that is a guaranteed way to miss important details. We build our case from the ground up, not the top down. The beauty of the process it is that we benefit from having multiple perspectives. An issue that may seem to be a big deal to me might be easily explained by one of my teammates. A fact that initially has little significance may end up being the key fact in a closing argument. The process requires constantly reading and re-reading the information. As I learned, there is an important difference between memorizing the information in front of you and knowing it. The goal of the initial phase of our practices is to develop a clear theory of the case that will dictate how we structure our arguments.
Once we have the information down and have our theory, we then move on to drafting our direct and cross examinations of the witnesses. Each team member takes turns alternating between giving the direct/cross examination and playing the role of witnesses. Like good legal writing, it is critically important part of our preparation to have other ears listening to our questions and arguments. Something that might have sounded good or been clear to the writer when it was initially drafted may take on a completely different feel when it is spoken out loud or heard by a different set of ears. In a trial, the closing argument is often the highlight, but the direct and cross-examinations are the vehicles through which the material of the closing is developed. If you fail to execute the direct or cross-examination appropriately and the final product of your closing argument will suffer.
The last things that we write are our opening and closing arguments. Again, this process is similar to good legal writing. For me, the most difficult part was learning to be succinct and to the point. Not every great point or argument can be included. Often, the best legal argument requires including less information instead of more. Like a great movie, there are always going to be great scenes or lines that are sacrificed to the cutting room floor for the sake of creating the best overall product. After eight weeks of practicing 15-20 hours a week, we were ready for our competition.
When we arrived in Buffalo for the tournament, none of us knew what to expect, this being everyone’s first competition. Our coaches kept telling us that we were good enough to win. However, we weren’t sure if they were being honest or just trying to boost our confidence. What we discovered was that we had prepared well and with each successive round of the competition, we became more relaxed and more confident in our ability.
The competition included teams from 32 law schools and the problem being argued was a murder trial. When our team was assigned the role of prosecution in a match, Allison and I would argue the case while Kevin and Joy played the roles of our witnesses. When we were assigned the Defense side, Allison and I would be the witnesses, while Kevin and Joy argued the case. The outcome of each trial was determined by a three-person scoring panel made up of the trial judge and two jury members. We were judged primarily based on opening statements, direct examinations, cross-examinations, closing arguments.
We won our first two rounds fairly easily before dropping a close decision in our final preliminary bout against the team from Campbell University. After the preliminary rounds concluded Saturday afternoon, we were announced as one of the 16 teams advancing to the playoff rounds on Sunday. As the competition progressed, we could see our preparation paying off; there was noticeable improvement in our performance from round to round. We started the playoff round with another close win against the University of Texas on Sunday morning, before winning our quarterfinal match later in the day. We left the competition venue on Sunday night with the realization that we were one of just four teams left in the competition, and for me, it finally began to sink in that we had a real shot to win. When we got back to the hotel Sunday night, we had a team workout in the fitness center (one of Rick’s superstitions), ordered up room service and then spent a few hours fine-tuning our material for the last day of the competition.
On Monday morning, we won our semi-final match against Georgia to advance to the finals against St. John’s, who had just beaten the Campbell team that beat us earlier. Allison and I were set to argue the final trial. As I mentioned earlier, one of the crucial lessons that I learned was the ability to know, rather than memorize information. This was made clear during our final. In the competition, each side had 80 minutes to argue its entire case. When I got up to perform my closing argument, we only had 17 minutes left. My closing argument usually went about 19 minutes in length and the judge denied my request for additional time. When you present information that you have memorized, you can only present it one way. When you know the information, you are able to be dynamic with it, emphasizing various points depending upon the audience. When performing a closing argument, knowing it allows you to add in certain statements or arguments that occur during the trial. More important on that date, however, was the ability to take out certain information. Though it was far from my best performance of the weekend, I managed to get through the entire closing argument with about a minute to spare. After the judges deliberated for a few minutes, it was announced that, by a 3-2 score, we had won the championship. It was great to know that our weeks of preparation and practice had paid off. However, even if we hadn’t won, we would all agree that being on the trial team helped prepare us to be great lawyers. I would encourage anyone interested in being on a mock trial team to give it a try; especially if you like dogs.