Student attorneys prepare to plead their case

Issue October 2003 By Chantal Souffrant<br />Mock Trial Coordinator

Imagine that you are back in law school. Remember your class on civil procedure? The first time you learned how to make an objection or file a motion or how discovery works? You were introduced to new terminology such as hearsay, relevance and preponderance. Chances are you were given a criminal or civil case and instructed to learn the case inside and out, paying special attention to the "red herrings."

Now imagine that you're only 15 years old.

While it may be hard to imagine going to law school at such a young age, high school students across the state learn many of the legal fundamentals taught in law school as participants in the Massachusetts Bar Association's Mock Trial program.

Now beginning its 19th year, Mock Trial is a statewide program that invites hundreds of high school students, attorneys and judges to try a fictitious case developed by a committee of volunteer attorneys and teachers.

Although the Mock Trial program is considered a competitive tournament, more importantly it is an educational experience. Participating students learn about legal issues and terminology, court procedure and the judicial system. They also learn to improve their communication skills, work productively as a team and perform under pressure.

"The Mock Trial experience is one that cannot be duplicated in a classroom setting," says Jerry Howland, headmaster of Another Course to College, a Boston public high school that regularly fields a Mock Trial team. "The program helps to connect students to each other, helps to build their confidence and draws out talents previously unrecognized by the students themselves."

Howland has been participating in the Mock Trial program, both as a teacher-coach and a member of the Mock Trial Committee, for more than 15 years. He tells of a former student who aspired to be an attorney. Her father, living in Puerto Rico, had different, if somewhat less hopeful, expectations for his daughter's future. After receiving a video of her performance as a Mock Trial attorney, her father's support was bountiful. Howland's former student is now in her third year of law school at Boston College.

Returning as chair to this year's Mock Trial Committee is Arthur Carakatsane. Carakatsane has a private practice in Middleton. As a long-standing committee member, Carakatsane enthusiasm for the Mock Trial program has resulted in the recruitment of dozens of attorneys from the North Shore/Essex County area to judge competitions and volunteer as coaches.

"It's this excitement and pertinency that attracts so many talented attorneys, like John Bjorlie of Gloucester and John Lalikos of Peabody, to the program," says Carakatsane. "The many hours that these dedicated attorneys contribute as coaches, judges and committee members are rewarded manyfold by the experience."

Carakatsane believes Mock Trial provides MBA members with a unique opportunity to be both a judge and a teacher by interacting with students in a courtroom setting.

But before the students can assume the roles of attorneys and witnesses, there must be a matter before the court.

"We're just now beginning another wonderful exercise, the creation of the 2004 Mock Trial Case Packet," says Carakatsane. "I'm sure the committee will develop another intricate, but exciting and relevant fact pattern for all these very talented mock trial teams."

The Mock Trial Committee is comprised of a dedicated group of attorneys who work endless hours to develop a case that is not only fair and balanced, but also is interesting and relevant to the students. With the success of last year's case topic, a search and seizure of a high school student allegedly involved in a terrorist incident, the Mock Trial Committee will once again create a case that reflects a current topic.

MBA President Richard C. Van Nostrand, from the Worcester law office of Mirick O'Connell DeMallie & Lougee LLP, has been a long-time supporter and participant of this program.

"I have participated as a judge in the program for several years now and it has been a very enjoyable experience that I look forward to continuing," says Van Nostrand. "Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect is seeing the enthusiasm, not to mention the talent level, of the student attorneys."

Van Nostrand appreciates how rewarding it is to be part of a program that gives developing citizens a truer picture of the rule of law in American society. Otherwise, Van Nostrand believes, they may be left with the distorted views portrayed in the popular media of what our justice system and a lawyer's role are all about.

Supporting all of this activity is the law firm of Brown Rudnick Berlack & Israels, LLP, which has played a key role as the program's sole sponsor since 1997. The MBA is grateful to Brown Rudnick for generously providing the Mock Trial program with $150,000 over the past six years.

Last year, a record number of 132 high schools participated in the Mock Trial program. This was a significant increase of participants compared to the 109 high schools that competed during the 2002 program. Factors that contributed to the increase included the improved Mock Trial Web site, expanded media coverage and the growing recognition by educators of the benefits of the Mock Trial program.

Success, however, comes with complications. As the number of schools increases, so do the number of trials, make-up trials and tiebreaker trials. In order to plan for a successful tournament, the Mock Trial Committee is currently considering changing the way teams advance to the final rounds. One of the options being considered is the change from 16 regions to 32 regions and adding a week for regional competitions.

"We have been blessed to have so many schools compete in the tournament," says Public and Community Service Director Elizabeth A. O'Neil. "By tweaking the administrative process now, we'll be able to invite even more schools in the future."

O'Neil says it is the ultimate goal of the program to have every commonwealth high school participate in the program.

The MBA's Mock Trial program is a truly collaborative effort that includes Brown Rudnick, the Mock Trial Committee, MBA staff members and the many attorney volunteers who serve as coaches and judges. Without their participation the Mock Trial program would not be possible.