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Bar Journal 2017

Mock Trial Builds Skills for All Career Fields, Not Just Law

By Todd A. Murray

“Mock trial is an exceptional program that teaches students public speaking and creative problem solving,” said Cymber St. Gemme, former Owasso High School participant who helped start a mock trial program at TU. “It challenges students to prepare effectively as a team with the information given but also to think on their feet. Additionally, students gain networking opportunities and learn how to conduct themselves in a professional setting,” she continued. 

Not just former participants praise the Oklahoma Mock Trial Program, which brings together high school students and teachers with practicing and retired lawyers and judges to demystify our court system while promoting a positive image of the legal profession. If the Mock Trial Committee had its way, every school district in Oklahoma would sponsor a team, realizing the benefits to be achieved through mock trial participation. Mock trial participants gain skills requested by employees for any field, not just law.

In 2015, Forbes magazine published a story about the skills that were most requested by employers from college graduates. The National Association of Colleges and Employers conducted the study. To those who have participated in mock trial, it would be no surprise to learn that the top six requested skills from the NACE study are all gained through mock trial participation. In fact, other skills on the list can be obtained through mock trial, too.

The most requested skill by employers of college graduates in this study is the ability to work on a team. Employers desire college graduates who not only get along with others, but can cooperate as a team to accomplish company goals. 

Mock trial teaches its participants teamwork: individual students must work together to create opening statements, direct examinations, cross- examinations and closing statements that develop a cohesive and persuasive argument advocating both sides, prosecution/plaintiff and defense/defendant. 

Michon Hastings, attorney and coach with Owasso High School, said, “Students learn the joys and rewards of working hard to accomplish a goal and gain lifelong skills that will carry them powerfully and eloquently into any career.” 

Attorneys rely on witnesses to know the case well enough to respond to direct questions and sidestep crafty cross-examination questions from the opponent. Witnesses rely on attorneys to know the rules of evidence to respond intelligently to objections and to easily rehabilitate them when needed. Both witnesses and attorneys rely on timekeepers to ensure that the cases are presented within the competition time constraints. 

“Mock trial promotes both teamwork and sportsmanship in a unique way,” said Melissa Peros, attorney and case writing chair of the committee. “Building a legal case where the evidence, witnesses and attorneys have to work together to create a theme that is used throughout the presentation, gives the students an opportunity to be a piece of a bigger whole. Furthermore, the Oklahoma students go beyond their own teams and support each other through teamwork. We regularly see our teams helping prepare the state champion for nationals in May promoting a sense of teamwork throughout the entire community.”

Employers next most desire college graduates who have the ability to make decisions and solve problems. Mock trial teaches participants to critically evaluate all the evidence that is presented and to make discerning selections about what information is relevant to best tell a captivating story. 

Moreover, mock trial teaches participants to expect uncooperative witnesses as well as those that might have a different interpretation of the facts, forcing split-second decisions on how to best obtain the information desired from each witness. During a trial, participants might be surprised at an objection not previously considered during practice, but must be ready to argue the objection with references to the federal rules of evidence.

Mock trial also teaches participants to communicate verbally, another skill requested by employers. From opening statements, to direct and cross-examinations, closing statements and even making protests, mock trial participants learn how to project their voice, use vocal inflection and communicate thoughts verbally. 

A former attorney turned English teacher, Bruce Bushong, Shawnee High School coach, has a unique perspective on
the impact the program has on students. He said, “One of my former students, who was regularly praised for how ‘smooth’ he was in his presentation, gained from his participation in the Mock Trial Program the confidence to start his own business after he finished college. Another student was inspired by his successful scores to take on the challenge of attending Harvard.”
 
Jennifer A. Bruner, attorney and committee member, mimics Mr. Bushong’s experience. “My younger sister was on the Weatherford High School mock trial team many years ago,” she said. “As a team member, she gained valuable experience in the cooperative teamwork that is required to make a mock trial presentation; but more importantly, she gained her first public speaking experience as an attorney on that team. Those skills have served her well throughout her life, and she has built her own consulting company around her communication and presentation skills.” 

In today’s global work environment, employers require employees who can organize and prioritize work. Mock Trial Committee Vice Chair Kevin Cunningham said, “The case materials in the competition necessarily require a prioritization of points to cover and arguments to make. There are too many possible points of contention to address them all within the time limit allowed. Participants must determine which points help their case position, craft and present their case to those points, and work to maintain a case theory that covers the points necessary to prevail. Critical thinking, prioritization and discipline are absolutely necessary to a successful case presentation.”

Employers also demand employees who have the ability to obtain and process information. In order to prepare cases from the written materials prepared, participants, just like attorneys, must seek out background information on a range of topics. For instance, this year participants prepared a civil suit filed by the citizens of Wheatville against Quadstone Energy, a drilling company. When a 6.2 magnitude earthquake destroys the downtown of a small Oklahoma town, citizens become divided as to its cause — some believe that the catastrophic seismic event occurred due to the fracking that brought prosperity to some in the town when an energy company began drilling in the area. Those receiving royalties from the oil production, however, believe the earthquake that destroyed over 20 buildings without harming any human lives was a natural event totally unrelated to the fracking activity started in 2008. In order to make sense of the case, teams sought out experts in geology and petroleum drilling. 

“Each year,” said Melissa Peros, “we construct a case that teaches students to use their critical thinking skills to both understand the material and choose what items are not worth pursuing. The committee specifically plants ‘red herrings,’ and I am always impressed with the way the students deal with those issues. In years past, the committee has been pleasantly surprised when students see something we did not and manage to use it to great effect in their case presentation.”

While participants can gain similar skills in other high school courses, mock trial is singular in teaching all of these skills through interaction and collaboration with legal professionals in order to cultivate a populace knowledgeable about our legal system. Television and film do not show what our legal system really is. Moreover, the Mock Trial Program is one of only a few that promotes a positive image of our profession. 

The OBA is well served by the Mock Trial Program, which is in its 38th year. In this year’s competition, the Jenks High School 6th Horn team defeated Owasso High School’s Sotomayor team and will represent Oklahoma at the national competition in Hartford, Connecticut, in May. There were 34 teams representing 22 schools that participated. 

The program is generously supported by the Oklahoma Bar Foundation, as well as the legal community itself volunteering thousands of hours to provide the program. For information on joining the committee or volunteering for next year, please contact Mock Trial Coordinator Judy Spencer at mocktrial@okbar.org. 

TRIAL SITE COORDINATORS 
Lydia Anderson  Anne Mize 
Shea Bracken  Todd Murray
Aaron Bundy  Michael Nesser
Deresa Clark  Melissa Peros
Dan Couch  Nathan Richter
Kevin Cunningham  Susie Summers
Shane Henry  Chris Szlichta
Patrick Layden  Leah Terrill-NesSmith
Andrea Medley  Carolyn Thompson 
Regina Meyer   


ATTORNEY COACHES 
Ranada Adams  Michael Horn 
Emma Arnett  Michon Hughes
Clifton Baker  Chris Jones
Judge James Bland  Tim Maxey
Brendon Bridges  Judge Tim Mills
Judge Daman Cantrell     Anthony Moore
Eric Cavett  Rob Neal
Angie Dean  Ellen Quinton
Michael Denton  Rob Ridenour
Deirdre Dexter  Lorena Rivas
Eddie Forester  Leah Roper
Melissa French  Desmond Sides
Eric Grantham  Bill Speed
Clint Hastings  Ken Underwood
Brian Henderson  Judge Jill Weedon
Shane Henry  Matthew Winton
Judge Todd Hicks  Connie Wolfe
Andrew Hoffland   


PRESIDING JUDGES AND SCORING PANELISTS
Patrick Abitbol  James Kaufman 
Stacy Acord Steven Kessinger 
Terry Allen John Kinslow
Nick Atwood Kent Larason
Alan Barker Jerry Lee
Luke Barteaux Renee Little
Gabe Bass Randy Long
Matt Beese Nicole Longwell
Jack Beesley Stephen McCaleb
Howard Berkson Shelly McCorkle
Kirsten Bernhardt Kevyn Mattax
Brandon Bickle Ronnie May
Kelly Bishop Cherie Meislahn
David Box Robert Meyer
Dennis Box Jennifer Miller
John Branum Mike Miller
Kay Bridger-Riley J.B. Miller
Rodney Brook Judge Suzanne Mitchell
Elizabeth Brown Andrew Morris 
Lauren Brown Phillip Morton
Mary Bundren Lou Ann Moudy
George Burnett Brenda Nipp
Brett Butner Ivan Orndorff
Jack Cadenhand Jessica Ortiz
Alyssa Campbell Mark Osby
John Cannon Jenna Owens
Toni Capra Amy Page
Dietmar Caudle  Christine Pappas
David Cheek Kathleen Pence
Paul Choate Melissa Peros
Jason Christopher Linda Pizzini
Mark Clark Larry Rahmeier
Amie Colclazier Cpt. Ryan Redd
Kelly Comarda Robert Redemann
Jack Coppedge Greg Reilly
Michael Coulson Scott Reygers
John Cramer Jacqueline Rhodes
Kymberly Cravatt Lisa Riggs
Dan Crawford Lorena Rivas
Retired Judge Edward Cunningham    Thomas Robertson
Andrea Cutter Charles Rogers
Chance Deaton Joe Rolston
Michael Denton Robin Rollins
Charles Dickson Jacob Rowe 
Kyle Eckman Hilary Sadhoo 
Josh Edwards Jenny Sanbrano
Judge Shon Erwin Adam Scham
Rees Evans Sarah Schmook
Craig Fitzgerald Bonnie Schomp
Michelle Freeman Charles Schwartz
Mykel Fry Mark Schwebke
Ryan Fulda John Severe
Jodie Gage Randall Sewell
Charles Gass Micah Sexton
Sarai Geary James Shaw
Debra Gee Jeff Shaw
Charles Geister Matt Sheets
Robert Gifford Grant Shepherd
Kayce Gisinger Ben Sherrer
Dawn Goeres Thomas Showman
Scott Goode Reign Sikes
Breanne Gordon Vani Singhal
Sean Graham Kim Slinkard
Stephen Gray Karen Smith
Mark Graziano Jared Smith
Mark Grossman Karen Smith
Justice Noma Gurich Katy Sokolosky 
David Guten  Taylor Stein
Don Hackler Luke Stephens
Matthew Haire Sheila Stinson
Lester Haizlip Khristan Strubhar
Laura Hamilton Jim Stuart
Emily Harrelson Chuck Sullivan
Deanna Hartley Thomas Swafford
Bill Haselwood Brian Swenson
Steven Haynes Scott Thomas
Brady Henderson Carolyn Thompson
Rick Henthorn Amanda Thrash
Clay Hillis Scott Tully
Kurt Hoffman  Allison VanBrunt
Craig Hoster Georgenia VanTuyl
Trevor Hughes Brecken Wagner
Caroline Hunt Judge Caroline Wall
Blake Jackson Mark Warman
Keith Jennings Whitney Webb
Jo Lynn Jeter Roger Wiley
Brittany Jewett Mike Wilson
Debbie Johnson  

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Todd Murray practice in Oklahoma City and serves as chairperson for the Oklahoma High School Mock Trial Committee.


Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal -- OBJ 88 pg. 762 (April 15, 2017)

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