Law school may be a few years away, but some KU undergrads are building their oral advocacy skills and gaining courtroom experience before they even finish their bachelor’s degrees. The KU Mock Trial team competes in simulated courtroom trials, pitting their analysis and advocacy skills against teams from universities across the country.
“At each competition you portray both sides in any given round,” said Will Admussen of Urbandale, Iowa, the team’s public relations director and a junior majoring in Economics and Political Science. “We argue both defense and witness cases. We cross-examine, direct examine, and the judge — usually an area attorney or judge — rules based on performance.”
At the beginning of each year, teams receive case packets equivalent to the product of a discovery process.
“You’re given affidavits, depositions, exhibits,” said team vice-president Jackson Laughlin, a junior from Highlands Ranch, Colorado, majoring in Applied Behavioral Science and Political Science. “You structure how your case appears. You have to figure out how to present and counter it. A lot of it is thinking on your feet.”
While the team is open to students of all majors and backgrounds, roughly half — including both Admussen and Laughlin — plan to attend law school. The program is entirely student-run, from fundraising and recruitment, to administration and coaching. KU Law Professor Chelsi Hayden serves as the team’s faculty advisor, providing administrative guidance, advising the team’s case strategy and helping with coaching sessions.
“Mock trial requires hard work and dedication. It attracts some of the brightest students at KU,” Hayden said. “I enjoy exposing students to the legal system and encouraging them to consider a career in the law.”
Over the past two years, the squad has grown from eight members to more than 30, expanding its tournament schedule and sending a team to the preliminary rounds of the 2015 American Mock Trial Association National Championship tournament. Students plan to build on last year’s success, growing their roster, competing in more tournaments and bringing home more trophies.
While mock trial competition teaches all students valuable public speaking and analysis skills, for aspiring law students it also provides insight into the law school experience and the legal field.
“There’s an element of networking,” Laughlin said. “We’re building connections to the law school, and you get to know people within the community. You learn courtroom etiquette, little things that are major components of how a trial works. We’re judged by people who are going to be our bosses someday.”
For law schools hoping to attract high-performing, dedicated applicants, there’s a recruitment element as well. Many law schools have relationships with their institution’s undergraduate mock trial teams, whether they help coach students, provide funding and resources, host competitions or supply judges for tournaments. Aspiring law students consider their mock trial experience in selecting the schools to which they will apply. Everything from the campus facilities and amenities to the organization of the event, the professionalism of judges and the law school swag students bring home can leave a lasting impression.
Several KU Mock Trial alumni have gone on to study at KU Law, including the team’s two past presidents and both of last year’s graduating seniors.
“Showing these students the benefits of a KU Law degree is important for recruiting them and encouraging them to eventually practice law in Kansas,” Hayden said.
While the preparation for law school is invaluable, it’s the fun and camaraderie of the activity that motivates students to spend their weekends competing.
“The rules of evidence are loosely based on federal rules of evidence,” Admussen said. “The skill set you develop applying rules to a given set of facts are exactly what you will be doing in law school. There’s so much room for creativity and a lot of fun.”
Laughlin agrees: “We wouldn’t do it if we didn’t love it.”
The KU Mock Trial Team will host the Jayhawk Invitational tournament in Lawrence Dec. 5 – 6. The tournament is sponsored by KU Law.