Late on the afternoon of Thursday, March 29, I found myself sitting with a few lucky colleagues in the ornate chambers of the Rhode Island Supreme Court. The small gallery was packed to overflowing, with an adjoining room set up with video monitors for those members of the crowd who arrived too late to grab a wooden chair. It had been a while since I’d been in the beautifully appointed courtroom, for while the decorated Wheeler Mock Trial program had captured eleven state titles up to now, it had been quite a few years since one of our teams had survived the playoff rounds and made it to the final. The three witnesses for this side of the case, decided by coin toss, were seasoned seniors, but the trio of lawyers consisted of a junior, a sophomore, and a freshman, generally a roster for a “rebuilding year.” I worried that the venue, to say nothing about the presiding Supreme Court Justice and an all-star jury of distinguished barristers, would be intimidating to the youngsters. That worry was laid to rest the moment our sophomore began her opening statement.
I’ve been watching school mock trials since I coached Wheeler’s first teams in the ‘80’s. I know that the moments in the spotlights of real courtrooms presided over by real judges, scored by real lawyers, are preceded by many hours of practice, analysis, rehearsal, and rewrites of lines of questioning. The poise, the grace, the confidence, the razor-sharp skills don’t come out of nowhere. There is sweat equity behind each trial, built over months of collaborative work, all done outside the business and pressure of regular schoolwork. The team members and coaches squeeze out practice times between sports games, play rehearsals, chess matches, college visits, and chores.
Why do our kids go through this? Some of them, of course, love the idea of law, of argument, and a few will go on to enter the profession. A few decades back, as I recall, two strong Wheeler teams faced each other in the playoffs. The Senior Room was electric in the week leading up to that match, in the days before “trash-talking” was an everyday term. From that cohort eight Wheeler kids went on to become lawyers.
There’s the excitement of dramatic performance, to be sure. An opening argument and set of questions asked of a friendly witness are performances. They are memorized and tweaked over time. Characters are developed and made believable, nuances are added, cases are outlined and honed.
But the real thrill of mock trial comes from spontaneous sparring with ideas, from thinking on one’s feet (or witness chair) and creating logical scenarios from shifting sets of admissible evidence. The closing argument and the cross-examination are not scripted. Responses, objections, questions on redirect -- all are determined by the flow of what is happening in real time. Quick adjustments, the skill of listening to what is going on and at the same time, framing a new line of argument, these are where the surges of adrenaline occur. There’s a big difference between memorizing what you’re going to ask and knowing what key admission you want to get out of a witness, what point you want to make that is crucial to your case. There’s a fine line between aggressively approaching an opponent and calmly going about the business of pointing out a contradiction between a statement and an affidavit. There’s lightning time required to make an objection and respond to a judge’s demand to explain its grounds. The construction of a plausible but startlingly new scenario from a common set of facts is tremendously exciting.
All of the drama on display from lawyers and witnesses on both teams that afternoon was accomplished completely without notes. The sophistication on display was astonishing. Generations of Wheeler kids have had that opportunity, that experience. The flood of social media congratulations from former mock trial participants was a testimony to that. The tradition continues, but it never gets old.