This post first appeared in the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's blog, and has been edited for clarity.
Zeke Starr returned to his seat, brimming with confidence. He’d just finished cross-examining the defendant, who was accused of age discrimination in a civil case.
Nailed it, Starr thought to himself. This one is in the bag.
“I was wrong,” he now says, laughing out loud.
Luckily, Starr wasn’t in a real courtroom with real-world outcomes on the line. As a member of UTC’s Mock Trials team, he was in “court” against Vanderbilt University. A “jury” of two judges watched the teams’ performances, giving a final score to each. UTC didn’t win — but didn’t lose either.
“We ended up splitting with Vandy,” Starr says. “But it was a really great moment to be in the same room with a team that traditionally has not looked at us as too much of a threat. We’d just walked out of a room and we weren’t scared at any time.”
Now, however, stakes have skyrocketed.
For the first time ever, the UTC team is heading to the downtown Los Angeles National Championship Tournament for Collegiate Mock Trial, where UTC is one of 48 teams. The members and coaches flew out early this morning from Chattanooga, heading for the competition in Los Angeles, which runs through Sunday.
Expectations are hopeful but not nuts, says Starr, a junior in political science and history and the team captain. “Our realistic expectations are that we want to let people know that we’re on the national stage,” he says. “It’s fun to have people on social media trying to figure out who the hell UTC is.”
Ethan Greene, a senior in political science with a minor in economics, has been on the UTC team for three years and also spent four years on his high school team. For UTC, making the nationals was the goal all along, he says. “For the most part we know we’re the underdogs and we’re carrying that attitude,” he says. “We’re scrappy, and want to represent our school well.”
Attorney Erica Hyde, one of the team’s coaches along with attorney Mike Giglio, says they already have “reached a milestone” just by getting to the championships. “Anything beyond that is gravy,” says Hyde, who coached the mock trial team at Duke University, considered one of the big’n’burly teams in the country.
UTC has the talent and moxie to be one of the big dogs, too, she says.
“I have coached multiple teams to the nationals before and I think they are certainly among the best teams that I have coached,” she says.
The UTC team members are: Alanna Rice, Madison Bennett, Ethan Greene, Elliott Geary, Peter Zeglen, Zeke Starr, Yonishka Voorhees, and Michael Boehm. Led by Mike Giglio, a local attorney and adjunct professor in political science along with Erika Hyde and Stephanie Fast.
For the competitions leading up to the championships, college teams are given the particulars of a case — the lawsuit or criminal charges, case law, depositions, witness list, exhibits — in August with the first mock trial in September. One year it’s a criminal case, the next a civil.
Once the trial starts, both teams must finish the entire procedure within three hours. Go over that and both are disqualified. And winning or losing is irrelevant; there’s no verdict. What counts is the judges’ scores.
And teams aren’t just on one side or the other — prosecutor or defense. To prepare, teams must work both sides of the aisle, coming up with legal arguments for the plaintiff and the defendant, acting as lawyers for both sides.
They also must develop the personalities of the witnesses based on fictional depositions ostensibly given by the witness. In fact, witnesses may be the most critical element of the trial, even outpacing the opening and closing statements, Starr says.
“The easiest way to win or lose a round is how good your witnesses are,” he says.
For the championships, the team will be arguing a copyright case — someone stole someone else’s play — and have had 21 days to prepare, compared to a month or so in the regular season. And there’s one way to get ready.
“Practice and practice and practice and practice,” says Hyde, who has been coaching the team for two years. But she also acknowledges that “there’s no such thing as perfection in mock trials.”
For Greene, the trials are a combination of a winning attitude, a memory like a file cabinet, mental gymnastics and undying commitment.
“You have to want to win and to be aggressive in the courtroom in order to motivate yourself to push through 10 to 20 hours a week of practice time, not to mention long weekends at competition,” he says. “The commitment to the team is equivalent to a part-time job.”
Alanna Rice, a marketing major and another senior on the team, echoes the seriousness of the commitment. “At times it can be difficult maintaining your schoolwork, social life, and actual job(s), but for me it’s always been worth it,” she says.
In the actual nitty-gritty of the trial, there are facts and case law and acting performances that also come into play, Starr says. “The hardest part is just keeping track of all the moving parts at any given time. Every question is written exactly the way it is to deliver the maximum emphasis to our case theory while reducing the chance of objection.
“In addition, you have to remember when your cue to move is; like an elaborate production, each hand movement, gesture and pause is planned. Am a speaking slowly enough? loud enough? don’t forget eye contact.
Starr spells it out mathematically. “Mock trials are three-fifths acting and two-fifths facts.”
As the championships loom only hours away, Greene says most team members are contemplating one question: Are we ready? “Let’s not embarrass ourselves,” he says.
But just getting there is pretty cool.
“To put it in basketball terms, we’re just excited to be going dancing,” he says “but we’re that Cinderella team that shouldn’t be in the Final Four but, somehow, we made it.”
Underlying it all is a sense of confidence that just being in the big leagues has instilled in the team, Starr says.
“We understood there was a ceiling and that ceiling’s gone,” he says. “It’s really cool to be able to feel that way.”