Each week we put a “spotlight” on an aspect of student life at Cornell, whether it be opportunities, resources or just people on campus. This week, we’re featuring the Mock Trial program (part of the Center for Law and Society) in a post written by Laurel Fraser ’16.
For me, mock trial has always been about so much more than just the competition. It has always been more than just an activity; it has become a part of who I am. To the outsiders looking in, it’s probably strange to see a bunch of college students getting dressed up in suits every weekend just for fun, but to us it is a way of life.
It works like this: teams across the nation receive the case materials of an imaginary court case that takes place in the fictitious state of Midlands. Then, in smaller squads of 6-9 people, we work to prepare both sides of the case—both the prosecution/plaintiff side, as well as the defense. For each side of the case, 3 of our team members perform as attorneys and 3 perform as witnesses. Both individually and at large group practice, we spend time learning the law, reading witness affidavits (a witness’s story about what happened) and reports (for expert witnesses, such as doctors), and planning our legal theory. Then throughout the year, we compete at numerous tournaments against teams from other schools, such as University of Iowa and Drake, as well as Princeton and Yale (divisions don’t exist in mock trial). “Real life” attorneys, judges, and law students will act as judges for our round and will score us based on how well we perform as attorneys or witnesses. There are four rounds at every tournament, so we always have the opportunity to go twice as the prosecution or plaintiff and twice as the defense.
The biggest and best tournament that I’ve ever competed at was the National Championship Tournament during the 2013-14 season, and preparing for it was one of the most rigorous things I’ve ever done. Scrimmages, analysis of the law, and rereading just about everything a dozen times dominated my free time, but that’s the thing about mock trial: it demands your time and dedication, but it also gives so much in return.
In one of the practices leading up to Nationals, I was working one-on-one with our amazing coach Abbe Stensland, and she said to me, “Don’t be so eager to get up there.” She was referring to how so I often I jumped out of my chair, wanting to show to the judge that I was prepared and had no hesitations about performing in that instant. My coach was telling me that I didn’t need to jump out of my chair to show the judge that I was ready. She told me to pause, take a breath, maybe write a few things down, and then stand up. “Show the judge that you own this courtroom.”
And because my coach knows a thing or two about how to perform in the courtroom, it paid off immensely at Nationals. We competed against teams that were ranked in the top 10 in the nation (Cornell College ranks 35th in the nation), and we did incredibly well against them, taking ballots in every round we competed in. I think it’s partially because our team has the determination, focus, and talent to stand strong against even the best teams, but it’s also because mock trial has taught us how to own the moment. It has helped me, personally, to grow in my public speaking abilities, knowledge and analysis of legal concepts, and most importantly, in my confidence. Mock trial at Cornell College has, quite simply put, changed my life.