Vol. 81, No. 2, February
Teens test their mettle in mock trials
For 25 years, students in the Wisconsin High School Mock Trial
have learned a lot about the law and the legal system - and about
Read what motivates students to participate and why each year hundreds
lawyers, judges, and teachers support this volunteer-intensive statewide
by Dianne Molvig
t first glance, the Wisconsin High
School Mock Trial Program might
seem to be an impossible idea.
Consider that hundreds of participating teenagers must be
to devote a sizable chunk of their free time after school and on
weekends, for several months, to a project that's comparable to
huge term paper and a speech, all rolled into one.
Consider, too, that this program requires volunteer help -
whether it's for one weekend or for a few hours a week for several
- from hundreds of teachers, lawyers, judges, and other adults across
In light of everything else that teenagers and adult
professionals have going on in their lives, you might think a program
so much from them could never happen.
But indeed it does - and has for years. In early 2008, the
Wisconsin High School Mock Trial Program will hold its 25th annual
"I hate to reveal secrets here, but this program is a way
get young people to do things they normally aren't anxious to do,"
says Bill Rehnstrand, a retired Superior, Wis., high school social
studies/political science teacher and Mock Trial Program coach for 15
years. "If I were to walk up to students and say, `Would you like
100 hours working on a couple of essays,' they would look at me and
say, `What?!' But that's what they do with Mock Trial. They spend an
inordinate amount of time doing academic work, and they have a lot of
An Idea Grows
The roots of the Mock Trial Program date back to the late 1970s,
when Rehnstrand sought to develop a program for Law Day in Superior. He
help from local attorneys Ken Knudson and Marc Ashley, who acted as
attorney-coaches for Rehnstrand's senior students, and from Judge
Douglas Moodie, who
presided over a mock trial open to the public.
Dianne Molvig operates Access Information Service, a Madison writing and
editing service. She is a frequent contributor to
A few years later, the Wisconsin Bar Foundation wanted to take
Project Inquiry to the next level. Project Inquiry had brought lawyers
education into classrooms. But the Foundation wanted to offer a
that would further involve young people and enhance their awareness of
At a Foundation meeting, Knudson spoke up to offer an idea.
them about our program in Superior," he recalls. "Someone came
up here to watch
and said, `This would be great.'" In late 1983 the Wisconsin High
Trial Program came to be, with the first competition held in 1984.
also emerged in other states at about the same time.
Since then, some 30,000 Wisconsin high school students have
in Mock Trial. For 2008, 90 schools with 130 teams, involving more than
young people, registered to compete in 12 regional tournaments.
Attorney volunteers judge the teams' performance at the regional
competitions in February. Ultimately, two finalist teams face off in
March before the
Wisconsin Supreme Court justices, who select the state champion.
"We want the justices to see two equally skilled teams, and
has been happening," says Dee Runaas, the State Bar's law-related
coordinator and Mock Trial Program coordinator since 1987. "For the
several years, the justices have told us that it comes down to one
power-matching system, similar to sports tournament seeding, helps
ensure that teams
compete against comparable opponents.
Teachers and attorneys coach the students for months prior to
regional competitions. In the summer before, other attorneys volunteer
to write the
case for the trial. For many years, Madison attorney John (Nick)
former Mock Trial student from Superior, tackled that task by himself.
small group of lawyers divides up the work of creating the facts of the
witness statements, summonses and complaints, and stipulations.
"We want the case to be balanced so that either side could
explains Chuttie Senn, a Thorp attorney who chaired the State Bar
Education Committee for 13 years and has helped write many cases.
"It can't be black
and white because the students are going to work on this for months. If
it too simple or rote, it wouldn't hold their interest."
In one year's competition, for instance, the case involved a
school property between two high school students, with one facing
disorderly conduct, and possible hate-crime charges. Another case
centered on the
Annie Lemberger murder, an actual unsolved Madison crime that occurred
Individual Talents, Team Effort
Students assume various roles on Mock Trial teams. Young people with
different kinds of talents and personalities get a chance to shine.
"I think just
about any student can be helped by this program," Rehnstrand
Some students flourish by acting as expert witnesses. "They
opportunity to find out more about a particular field," he says.
"I could open a
clinic with the number of my former Mock Trial students who played roles
who are now physicians."
He's had students who visited neurologists and pathologists, for
so they could learn how to sound like credible experts. Students who
the role of police witnesses paid visits to the local police
they could talk with real-life officers.
As witnesses, students "learn the language and the subject
matter," Rehnstrand says. "They have a good time creating the
though they're bound by their affidavits" developed by the
originally wrote the case.
Among other tasks, the students who act as attorneys learn to
opening statements and closing arguments - the academic equivalents of
complex essays, Rehnstrand points out.
"I can think of no other activity," he says,
"that is better for
teaching students the very skills I was trying to teach in the
classroom. I tried
to teach them to think, to analyze, to write, to be able to make cogent
arguments. And that's what Mock Trial does."
Although written up in advance, a Mock Trial case, like a real
unfolds in unpredictable ways during the trial. Lawyers make objections,
presiding judges (who often are actual judges, or sometimes lawyers)
rule on those
"Just like in real life, the lawyers don't know how the
judge is going
to rule," Senn says. "And while they can script their direct
witnesses, they have to base a cross-examination on what a witness has
They have to think on their feet."
As individuals, team members strive to do their best in
whatever role each is playing in a trial. To succeed as a team, they
each other and work together to solve problems. A panel of three
"Mock Trial is not about winning or losing the case,"
"Judges look at how the students perform."
To some observers, the Mock Trial Program might seem to be primarily
training ground for future attorneys. Not so, say those who participate.
Natalie Fuller is a high school senior in Oregon, Wis., who's
her third year of Mock Trial. For two years she was an attorney on the
and this year she's a witness. Law is not on Fuller's career radar; she
to become a nurse. She's involved in Mock Trial because "it's a lot
fun," she says, "and I think it's a great way to learn about
the legal system."
The desire to strengthen improvisational acting skills is what
Dan Kanninen into Mock Trial when he was a high school student in
the 1990s. He played the role of witness his first year but then got
acting as an attorney.
"The idea of the closing argument appealed to me," he
says. "It was a
chance to utilize some of the surprises that happened during the trial
in a way
that was most advantageous at the end."
Currently, Kanninen is chief of staff for state Sen. Robert
although he says he may still someday pursue a law degree. He feels Mock
him develop valuable skills, no matter what his future holds.
"You had to understand every aspect of a case, every word
in the case
file, if you were going to be successful," Kanninen says. "It
different to walk into a Saturday Mock Trial practice having kind of
affidavit versus having really understood it. Developing that
understanding is probably the most important thing I learned."
Superior resident Jodi Slick was on the local Mock Trial team in
late 1980s, and now her daughter participates. Slick also started and
team in Spooner when she taught there a few years ago. "It's a
program," she says, "that gets students to think about
Today Slick runs a nonprofit construction company that builds
affordable homes for low- and moderate-income people. "It doesn't
matter what you
go into these days," she points out, "you need to be able to
issues. Those skills of being able to look at the minutiae and to
big picture are exceedingly valuable."
Some Mock Trial participants do end up in law careers. Madison
Ginger Murray participated in Mock Trial in the late 1980s at Wabeno
School, which had a total enrollment of fewer than 200 students.
A Mock Trial team is limited to 12 students, with six students
attorneys and three witnesses) participating in any one trial event.
schools often have multiple teams. Small schools like Wabeno may be
lucky to pull
together a team of six to eight students, so students play multiple
the same team. Still, both small and large schools are able to find ways
Even before she got into Mock Trial, Murray longed to pursue a
career. She remembers mentioning such plans in one of her freshman
evoking laughter from her peers. "Not many dreamed of going to law
says, "or even to go to UW-Madison."
Murray says she'll never forget when Judge Robert Kinney of
took her aside after her first regional Mock Trial competition in her
year. With a small team, Murray had to double up to play attorney roles
sides of the case.
Afterward, Kinney told her he thought she had real promise as a
attorney. "That's all the encouragement I needed," she says,
"to firm up the
thought of becoming a lawyer."
Through Attorneys' Eyes
After finishing law school in Mississippi, Murray moved back to
to practice law. She coached the Wabeno Mock Trial team for nine years
moving to Madison in 2004. Since then, she's judged in both regional and
state competitions, where she's tried to follow Kinney's example.
"Even though everybody is so pressed for time at
says, "I learned from Judge Kinney that taking an extra minute to
something to a student is worth a bit of delay. I try to offer
encouragement - kind of
a `pay it forward' philosophy."
Most attorneys would marvel at what Mock Trial students
Murray believes. "I would challenge any attorney to go toe to toe
with Mock Trial
students on rules of evidence," she says. "These young people
know them inside
Attorneys aren't the only ones amazed by what they see, points
Eileen Brownlee, a Fennimore attorney who has coached high school teams
for 20 years. The team she coached with teacher-coach Don Warren was
smallest school at last year's Mock Trial state tournament, she says.
also has served many times as a judge at state and national
"One of the most amusing things is watching these students'
during their first tournament," Brownlee observes. "Every
single one of them has a
look on his or her face like, `This can't be my child.' These young
like lawyers; they act like lawyers. Their skills are remarkable."
Echoing that sentiment is Kinney, a 24-year veteran of Mock
first got involved at the urging of Kathy Vick-Martini, who's now
teaching but still coaches the Rhinelander Mock Trial team. Kinney
by judging practice rounds for the Rhinelander team. He's since judged
regional, state, and national competitions, and is the parent of three
Trial students, now grown. He's also served as presiding judge during
In the latter role, "you have to be so nimble," Kinney
easily true that you get more objections in one round of Mock Trial than
you get in
two weeks on the bench. That's how students distinguish themselves in a
competition. To show they know the rules of evidence, they have to be
able to make
objections and argue those objections."
Commitment Is Contagious
Many coaches are struck by the leadership and sense of responsibility
see in their Mock Trial team members. Not only do students put hours a
into team practice, but they also do extra work on their own time.
For instance, "the student lawyers work independently with
witnesses, outside of what we're doing," notes Milwaukee attorney
Lindsey Draper, a
coach for the Wauwatosa West team and chair of the State Bar's
Education Committee. "By the time they show up at practice, they've
gone over a series
of questions. They're not waiting for us to do this. That's the kind of
excitement that makes the coaches want to do more."
Who is the "typical" Mock Trial student? Most are
coaches report, although that's not a given. All tend to have a lot to
fit Mock Trial into their lives.
"What I've found amazing," Draper says, "is that
these are young people
who adjust work hours to participate in Mock Trial. Periodically
ask me to write letters to employers about why they will have to miss
don't want anyone to think these are elitist kids. I had one student at
meeting last night ask me how late we'd go because she does volunteer
Coaches and tournament judges say they get lots of personal
satisfaction working with young people and seeing them succeed. For
Draper, there's an
extra element that hooked him on Mock Trial six years ago. He worked in
children's court for 30 years, as a prosecutor, public defender, and
commissioner. Many of the young people he dealt with had, as he puts it,
"fallen from grace."
"It's important to be sure your life includes some positive
done by young people," he points out, "or you become
The abundant positive energy is precisely what keeps many adult
volunteers coming back to Mock Trial year after year. "When you get
the opportunity to
work with young people who are working this hard and are this dedicated
something," Draper says, "you really want to do this."