From a single, ten-person team to an elite program with three competing teams and more than 30 members, in just three years, AU’s Mock Trial Team has risen through the ranks of a highly competitive field. After qualifying as one of the top eight teams at a regional competition earlier this month, AU competed at the national before being eliminated.
“These students are at the same level as practicing attorneys. I wouldn’t want to face them in court,” said head coach Jessica Waters, Assistant Professor in the Department of Justice, Law and Society and a former litigator. Waters was recently named AU Honors Alumni Awardee this year for her work with the team.
The three teams, made up of AU undergraduates from all five schools and four graduating classes, compete in several mock trial competitions throughout the year, from local scrimmages against other colleges and universities to regional tournaments.
In January, AU’s A and B Teams competed in the University of Richmond's Invitational. Facing some of the best teams in the nation, from Princeton to Penn State, AU took home several honors, including a “best witness” award covering the entire competition.
The competition centers on a simulated trial in which students take on the roles of attorneys and witnesses, with opposing teams asked on the spot to play either the prosecution or defense. A panel of legal professionals judges the trials and evaluates the individual competitors.
Each year, a new case is announced to participating teams nationwide, who spend the subsequent months finessing their arguments and courtroom performances. This year’s case involved a child who ingested a toy treated with a chemical that decomposed into GHB, otherwise known as a “date-rape drug.”
Preparations are intense, and teammates’ commitment extraordinary. Students start out the year grappling with the rules of evidence, then work to prepare opening and closing statements, witness testimony, direct and cross examinations. “They’re always in my office tweaking statements and running through their arguments. It’s not unusual for them to spend four straight hours discussing strategies and rules of evidence,” said Waters.
While the work is hard, the rewards are many, according to Aileen George, 2010-11 President and one of the team’s founding members. “I’ve grown so much as a competitor and a leader. A lot of teammates use this experience to prepare themselves for law school, but I just love public speaking. There are other students who play the role of witnesses because they just like to act,” said George. “The benefits aren’t just professional either – the team is very close knit and supportive of one another.”
George’s proudest moment was placing in the top five of 22 competing teams in the Coast Guard Academy Guardian Invitational last fall, the team’s first invitational. “I wept; it was amazing to see how far we’d come,” said George. “No one had heard of us and yet we were clearing out the awards… we were the Cinderella story of the tournament.” The graduating senior attributes the team’s success to “ingenuity, persistence, talent and intense amounts of organization.”
By dealing with a single case over the course of year, students can go deep into the discovery process, and build up real expertise. “The experience builds a ton of confidence,” said Waters. “In the beginning of the year, students are often flustered by having to think on their feet. By the year’s end, their public speaking and writing skills are greatly enhanced.”
While highly competitive, the mock trial experience has also fostered a great deal of collaboration and cooperation. For example, the Washington College of Law’s own mock trial team is beginning to mentor students from the undergraduate team. AU’s team will also host its own invitational for the first time in the coming fall 2011, bringing together as many as 20 teams from Washington-area universities.
George, who will stay on as an assistant coach after graduating this spring, predicts continued success.
“Helping to grow the mock trial program is one of my proudest legacies at AU… Our team could just be the next powerhouse of the eastern region.”