The months of long hours and intense preparation have paid off—BGSU’s Mock Trial Team not only made it to the national tournament, but once again bettered its standing. The team tied for 10th place at the annual competition, held March 17-19 in St. Paul, Minn.
This is the third year in a row BGSU has earned a spot at the national event, to which only the top 15 percent of teams are invited. And the team has improved each time: The University’s first team, in 2003-04, finished 34th at the tournament; last year’s team finished 23rd. Now the team has moved up to 10th, in a tie with the University of Wisconsin, Drake University and the University of Chicago.
Dressed in character are Mock Trial witnesses
(back row, left to right) Katie Hoskinson,
James Longley and Mandy Valentine,
and (front row, left and right)
LaToya Logan and Shannon Rawski.
In each of the last two years, BGSU has had two students among the 40 Intercollegiate All-American Mock Trial members, named by the American Mock Trial Association. They are chosen from the roughly 4,800 college students from 600 colleges competing in the program annually.
Also, this year, BGSU has the third-ranked mock trial attorney in the country: M. Allison Smith, a junior from Hamilton majoring in social work.
“It’s satisfying to know we’re getting some recognition after all our time, work and preparation,” Smith said. “It’s so much fun to be able to walk out with a smile.”
In addition to Smith, the team members and the roles they play are: attorneys Alicia Weis, a senior from Willowbrook, Ill., majoring in political science and history, and Mike Ellis, a sophomore from Bellbrook majoring in business pre-law, and witnesses James Longley, a sophomore from New Knoxville majoring in creative writing; Mandy Valentine, a junior from Wilmington majoring in human development and family studies; Shannon Rawski, a freshman from Toledo majoring in interpersonal communication; LaToya Logan, a senior from Warren majoring in English, and Katie Hoskinson, a freshman from Hamilton majoring in English.
Smith said the eight-month season is extremely demanding, a description echoed by team adviser Dr. M. Neil Browne, economics, and director of the IMPACT learning community. “It’s really an oppressive workload,” he said.
Participants must first memorize all of the articles, rule numbers and subsections of what are essentially the federal rules of evidence by number and be able to quote them, Smith said. In addition, they must learn courtroom procedure and decorum. Teams receive their case in early August and immediately begin studying. “You have to memorize all the witness affidavits and all the evidence and write direct exams and cross exams,” Smith said.
“You have to be so comfortable with the material that when you meet your opposing team, you know what they will say and anticipate objections and motions they may make,” she explained. But for the closing arguments, “you have to think on your feet,” she said. “And having good witnesses is key. The people who play witnesses make up entire life stories for themselves, with jobs, spouses and children. That way, they can help convey the logic of the case.
“The two key components to being successful in Mock Trial are: one, you have to have complete and total dedication to the activity, and, two, you must have a natural comfort with yourself. You cannot appear too rigid or too nervous.”
What looks natural and comfortable in the trial does not come about automatically, Browne said. It takes months of coaching to overcome students’ natural inhibition about speaking in front of other people and to teach them to create the persona needed to influence judges and juries. The Mock Trial competitions are especially intimidating, with real-life judges or attorneys playing the role of judge in an authoritarian fashion. “The new students often begin with quivering lips, shaking hands, a tilted head and standing on one leg,” he said.
By the time they reach the mock courtroom, however, they present themselves in an assertive but likeable way, speaking distinctly and conscious of the symbolic meaning of each hand gesture and smile. “People want to agree with the arguments of people they like, so even when Allison is presenting herself as a foe she must do it with a warm smile to create likeability,” Browne said.
“Now, when BGSU attends a tournament anywhere around the country, I hear other teams murmuring, ‘Which one is Allison Smith?’ But what I am most proud of her for is her humility and her desire to be even better,” he said.
BGSU’s achievement shows a remarkable surge since 2003, when the current version of the team was born, according to Browne. Its success is even more noteworthy considering that other nationally ranked teams often recruit from high schools with Mock Trial teams, offer scholarships and have large endowments and faculty advisers dedicated solely to Mock Trial.
An intellectual foundation
Participating in the BGSU program has proved a valuable springboard to its members, Browne said. Graduates of those teams are now at UCLA and New York University law schools and have received scholarships. (Law schools typically provide no financial support for students beyond loans, he points out.)
“Two of the freshmen on the BGSU Mock Trial Team tell us they came to BGSU because of the recent successes” of the University team, Browne noted. He foresees continued success since the team is losing only two seniors this year, and two upcoming members are theatre majors, who tend to make excellent witnesses.
While the awards are very satisfying, Browne said, “I am more interested in the educational effect on the students' listening, thinking and speaking skills. I do my best to encourage the team to be competitively successful, but we focus on the formation of habits of careful listening, clear and cogent reasoning, and persuasive speech.”