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  • April 03, 2019

    'This Is the Future:' High School Mock Trial Brings Together Judges, Attorneys, and Students

    It takes many volunteers to help students gain real-life skills and learn about the justice system via High School Mock Trial, a State Bar of Wisconsin program funded by its Law Foundation. Learn more about who is involved and why they believe the program helps the future of the legal profession.

    Shannon Green

    2019 Best Attorneys

    Five recipients of the 2019 Best Attorney awards for the semifinal rounds are, from right: Samantha Falstad, Mayville; Taryn Hanson, River Valley; Bruno Pruhs, Whitefish Bay; Genna Alexander, Kewaskum; and Eden Winga, Logan Senior High.

    April 3, 2019 – Milwaukee attorney Nathan Bayer developed an interest in law as a high school student competing in mock trial. “I loved it – and learned that I wanted to be a litigator,” he said.

    The experience helped him to learn to think on his feet as a prosecutor. “You never knew what answer a witness is going to give, or what objection another lawyer is going to make,” he said.

    In May, Bayer will accompany his own high school mock trial team at Shorewood High School to Athens, Georgia, for their second appearance in the National Mock Trial competition in two years, after taking first place at the state finals of the High School Mock Trial competition on March 10, 2019.

    High School Mock Trial is a State Bar of Wisconsin program funded by the Wisconsin Law Foundation, the charitable arm of the State Bar.

    Beyer got involved with Shorewood’s program while in law school, and in 2002 accepted a request from the school’s principal to take over when the prior coach could no longer participate. “I had no idea I’d still be doing it all these years later,” Bayer said.

    It is the experiences and knowledge of the justice system that students gain from Mock Trial that give a boost to students interested in the legal – or other professions. Mock Trial teaches skills that translate well to other fields. “I always tell the students, even if you’re not interested in the law, you can learn a lot,” Bayer said.

    Shorewood High School’s mock trial

    Shorewood High School’s mock trial team is headed to the national competition in May after winning the final round in the state tournament. Front center is their attorney-coach, Nathan Bayer.

    Students: Learning Life Skills – and the Justice System

    Mock Trial students gain skills they will use their entire life. It includes students such as Kellen Szumski, a junior at Whitefish Bay High School and in his third year participating in mock trial. This year he served as a defense attorney, playing that role in the final round against Shorewood. He got involved with mock trial after sitting in his grandfather’s courtroom as a child, watching him work as a judge. “I thought that was really cool.” He has since learned that, in the justice system, “there are a lot of rules.”

    Shannon Green is communications writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. She can be reached by email or by phone at (608) 250-6135.

    Mayville High School junior Grace Prust would agree with Kellen. “There are so many objections and rules that go with it,” she said. In her role as a defense witness, she had to learn to improvise while staying in character during the cross-examination. “You don’t know what you’re going to get for questions,” she said. “That’s the hardest part.”

    The four years of experience in mock trial for Mayville senior Samantha Falstad paid off – she is one of five recipients of the Best Attorney Award. Her advice: stay poised, and at least look like you know what you’re doing. “Confidence is always the key, plus standing up straight and not backing down on objections,” she said.

    She plans to pursue a career in the legal field. “I love law – the logistics of it all.”

    Whitefish Bay junior Kellen Szumski poses with his parents

    Whitefish Bay junior Kellen Szumski poses with his parents, Brenda and Mark, at the Mock Trial banquet in March. His team competed for the first time in the finals round, taking second place after Shorewood High School.

    Judges: ‘This is the Future’

    Attorneys and judges volunteer to judge the tournaments throughout the mock trial season. The presiding judge of the 2019 final round was Judge Stephen Crocker of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin, a longtime Mock Trial volunteer.

    The match between Shorewood and Whitefish Bay was a close one, and very well-played, he said. It was hard for the judging panel to pick a winner, with mere points separated the teams. While the edge went to Shorewood’s prosecution, the judges agreed that Whitefish Bay presented the best defense they had heard throughout the entire tournament, he said. “They raised a reasonable doubt.”

    In his rounds as judge, Judge Crocker works with the students to draw out more detailed answers during objections. “This is the future. This is where you motivate students to think of careers in law and in public service,” he said. “If we get them engaged and liking it, we’re going to see them again in the future as really good lawyers,” Judge Crocker said.

    alt text

    The attorneys who volunteer to write the mock trial cases are the recipients of the Volunteers of the Year Award from the State Bar of Wisconsin Public Education Committee. The recipients are, from left: Kristen Lonergan (at podium), Larrissa Dallman, Ashley Richter, and Ken Dortzbach. Not pictured: Anne Bensky, Kristin Pierre, and Hannah Jurss.

    Attorney-Coaches: Many Hours of Dedication

    Each team in the program has at least one attorney-coach who, along with teacher-coaches, guides the team over a period of months, teaching the skills necessary to compete – skills the students subsequently use in their studies and to their future professions, whether in law or other fields.

    “We have so many attorneys spending hours and hours on the program,” said Kevin Lonergan, chair of the State Bar Public Education Committee. “And every bit of their time is well worth it.”

    Mayville attorney Jeremy Vanderloop helped to coach his Mayville High School team to their first appearance in the semifinal round in 2019. He’s been coaching the team for 11 years. “In the bar, we have a history of civility, a history of good practice. Why not share that with people coming up?” he said. “It’s very fulfilling to watch these students grow.”

    Federal prosecutor Scott Campbell has served as attorney-coach for Whitefish Bay for eight years, coaching it to the state final round this year for the first time in the team’s history. “Volunteering with mock trial is a great opportunity to help students become better citizens, thinkers, and teammates, and to really make a difference,” he said. “It’s also a lot of fun.”

    As coach, he teaches the students ethics, professionalism, how to think as a lawyer, teamwork, independent thinking, and public speaking. He enjoys guiding the students as they come up with ideas to win the case.

    “Every year, the State Bar comes up with an awesome case. As you dig into it you realize there’s a lot of nuances to it,” said Campbell, noting that students decide what their theory is going to be and coaches help guide them with the rules of evidence. “It’s a great way to teach the students to think independently, yet work as a team,” he said.

    Scott Campbell, attorney-coach

    Scott Campbell, attorney-coach for the Whitefish Bay team, on left, gives last-minute advice to the team’s defense attorney, Bruno Pruhs, before the state finals round in March.

    ‘Our Hearts and Our Souls:’ Mock Trial Writer’s Committee Members Are Volunteers of the Year

    Each year, lawyers on the Mock Trial Writer’s Committee put together a new fictional case that all students learn for the competition. It’s a task that requires many hours of planning and effort –brainstorming, researching and writing, consulting with experts, and reviewing “over and over again” –  to put together the facts and evidence of the case for the coming year, said committee chair Kristen Lonergan.

    The goal is to create an interesting, complex case that deals with current issues. “By the time the case gets to the students, it’ll have hundreds of hours of work put into it,” Kristen Lonergan said, “and our hearts and our souls.”

    This year, the members of the writer’s committee are the recipients of the Volunteers of the Year Award from the State Bar of Wisconsin Public Education Committee. The recipients are: Kristen Lonergan, Anne Bensky, Larrissa Dallman, Ken Dortzbach, Kristin Pierre, Hannah Jurss, and Ashley Richter.

    “We do this because we believe in this program and the impact it has on the students’ lives and futures,” said Kristen Lonergan, who competed in mock trial at the high school and law school levels. “We know first-hand how helpful mock trial is.”

    “These are the unsung heroes of mock trial,” said Kevin Lonergan. “They start working on the next case in April, work all the way through the summer and fall to get it ready for release in October.”

    It is not an easy task to write a case that is as evenly weighted for plaintiff and defense as possible. The case writers consult independent reviewers to assess the fairness of the case for each year. “They do a tremendous job,” Kevin Lonergan said.

    In fact, the committee’s efforts have been recognized outside Wisconsin. “We’ve had committees in other states request permission to use our cases. You can’t get better recognition than that,” Kevin Lonergan said.

    judging panel

    The judging panel listens to testimony from a witness during the High School Mock Trial state finals round in March. The panel was lead by Judge Stephen Crocker, third from left. The volunteer judges are, from left: Judge Michael Bloom; Judge Michael Blanchard; Judge Crocker; Kevin Lonergan, chair of the State Bar Public Education Committee; and Judge Rhonda Lanford.

    Spirit of Mock Trial Award Recipient: Marquette University High School

    The Spirit of Mock Trial Award is for teams who display teamwork, collaboration, and great sportsmanship. This year’s recipient, Marquette University High School, is a team nominated by presiding judges at a competition where a witness for their opposing team suffered a health issue and could not continue.

    The witness in the same role for the Marquette team stepped up to the stand to allow the opposing team to finish their examination – and complete the competition round.

    “This is the type of sportsmanship that we are happy to recognize,” said Emily Lonergan, chair of the mock trial program. “This is a great representation of the spirit of mock trial.”

    See the State Bar of Wisconsin Facebook page for photos of the finals round, awards banquet, and team photos.

    High School Mock Trial 2019 State Finalists

    • Shorewood High School – first place
    • Whitefish Bay High School – second place

    Best Witness Award Recipients

    • Morgan Nabors, River Valley
    • Bella Rivera, Shorewood
    • Sophia Otten, Kewaskum
    • Elizabeth Brandt, Whitefish Bay
    • Truc Nguyen, Superior

    Best Attorney Award Recipients

    • Genna Alexander, Kewaskum
    • Bruno Pruhs, Whitefish Bay
    • Taryn Hanson, River Valley
    • Eden Winga, Logan Senior High (also a recipient in 2018)
    • Samantha Falstad, Mayville

    Spirit of Mock Trial Award Recipient

    • Marquette University High School

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