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  • InsideTrack
  • March 17, 2021

    Road to Finals: 2021 was a Unique Year for High School Mock Trial

    A year ago, Wisconsin High School Mock Trial students faced the sudden cancellation of the end of the tournament. In 2021, they returned to compete via Zoom. For two teams – Shorewood and Waukesha South – the end of the season meant a new experience competing in the state finals.

    Shannon Green

    Shorewood team prosecuting attorney Emma Stenzel

    Shorewood team prosecuting attorney Emma Stenzel (bottom right) delivers her initial closing statement during the state final round via Zoom on March 9. Also pictured: Waukesha South team attorney Shala Pacheco (bottom center) and judges (top row, from left) Kori Ashley, Mario White, and Ellen Berz; and (bottom left) Michael Bloom.

    March 17, 2021 – The downstairs of Elisabeth Mueller’s home in Waukesha got quite noisy in the days before regional and semifinal competitions for the State Bar of Wisconsin High School Mock Trial Tournament.

    Elisabeth, a deputy district attorney for Milwaukee County, coaches her daughter’s mock trial team at Waukesha South High School. Her daughter, senior Margaret Mueller, is co-captain of the team along with fellow senior Shala Pacheco. Elisabeth’s son Reed Mueller, a freshman, is also a member of the team – making it a family project.

    Despite the risks of the ongoing pandemic, the Waukesha South students chose to practice in person together, occasionally at the Mueller home.

    “The key to a good mock trial team is to have a good captain,” said Elisabeth. “Mock trial at Waukesha South is student led. They decide where and when to meet, and whether they need any assistance.”

    The week before regionals in early February, the students were at the Mueller home nightly – working on questioning, openings, closings. “I almost never saw them (although I definitely heard them!) unless they came upstairs to ask me a question,” said Elisabeth. Occasionally, I would meet with the three (team) attorneys to strategize – but otherwise, it was all them.”

    As members of the Waukesha South team, the mom/daughter/son trio joined their teammates to bring in the school’s first-ever win as state finalist.

    Three members of the Waukesha South High School mock trial team

    Three members of the Waukesha South High School mock trial team headed to national competition in May include family members: attorney-coach Elisabeth Mueller (center); daughter Margaret Mueller, a senior and co-captain of the team; and son Reed Mueller, a freshman.

    The Matchup

    In a year where “Your Honor, may I approach the bench?” replaced “Your Honor, permission to share my screen?” the four-round semifinal competition March 6 and 7 involved 10 high school teams.

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

    The 2021 case, developed by the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Mock Trial Writers Committee, was an old-fashioned whodunit murder mystery with a COVID twist – involving quarantine-related family drama. These teams, over Zoom, tried the fate of the fictional character Dorian Grey, accused of killing his or her (or singular their) twin sibling (the defendant’s gender varies depending on the student performing the role).

    Each team had earned the right to compete by winning the four-round regional competition in early February – also via Zoom.

    In the end, two finalists competed in the state championship round via Zoom on Tuesday, March 9 –teams from Shorewood High School and Waukesha South High School.

    For Shorewood, it was a return to state after their victory in the state finals in 2019, the most recent in a long history of competing in the state finals. It was the school’s 11th time competing in the final round since the tournament began in 1984 – and Shorewood won the tournament that first year.

    For Waukesha South, it was the first time the team had ever qualified for state finals – let alone win the final round.

    “We were thrilled when we learned we were to compete in the state final round. It seemed as though all of the teams were evenly matched,” said Elisabeth Mueller.

    Waukesha South ultimately gained victory as state champions, after presenting testimony and questioning witnesses to convince a jury – this time of real judges – that Grey was guilty or not guilty. The prize: representing Wisconsin in the virtual national competition in May.

    Wisconsin Law Foundation

    The Wisconsin High School Mock Trial program is funded by a generous grant from the Wisconsin Law Foundation, the charitable arm of the State Bar of Wisconsin, supporting law-related education and public service programs statewide.

    A Full Stop in 2020

    In early March 2020, Wisconsin’s high school mock trial tournament was canceled immediately before the semifinal competition.

    Out of growing concern for students’ safety due to the pandemic, mock trial organizers made the difficult decision to cancel the remaining competitions for the year. There would be no 2020 state finalist, and no Wisconsin team going to nationals for the first time since the tournament began in the mid-1980s.

    Last year, senior Margaret Mueller’s Waukesha South team didn’t qualify to compete in the semifinals. She had planned to attend the tournament in Madison with teammate Shala Pacheco. “We love mock trial so much,” said Margaret, now 17. “Once semifinals were canceled, it really hit me that everything was getting shut down.”

    “It’s one of the first memories I have of the pandemic,” she said.

    The Shorewood High School mock trial team members pose for a Zoom photo

    The Shorewood High School mock trial team members pose for a Zoom photo during the state mock trial tournament final round on March 9, including Georgia Siegel (top right). Coaches include attorneys Nathan Bayer (top row, second from right), Jasmyne Baynard (second row, second from right), and Sarah Kidd (second row, left).

    Imitating Real Life – Over Zoom

    For the 2020-21 season, organizers Judge Emily Lonergan, chair of mock trial, and Katie Wilcox, State Bar of Wisconsin public education coordinator, were determined that the competition would go on despite the persistence of the pandemic – and moved it entirely to a virtual format.

    “Considering the circumstances this year, the teams didn’t miss a step. They all did amazing,” Wilcox said.

    Each team this year found solutions to practicing and competing virtually during a pandemic.

    Shorewood’s two mock trial teams met entirely via virtual platforms. Attorney-coach Nathan Bayer said he has never personally met this year’s new students. “Our teams’ performance was truly remarkable, when you consider that our entire season, from every practice to every competition, was virtual.”

    “The students did an incredible job of pivoting to the new format,” said Shorewood attorney coach Sarah Kidd. “They handled the use of screen-sharing and exhibits and audio/video delays quite calmly.”

    “There were some issues with Zoom, such as connectivity or bandwidth, but nothing insurmountable,” said Elisabeth Mueller. But holding meetings and scrimmages over Zoom made some students feel disconnected from each other. Waukesha South’s two teams chose two different strategies, with one team meeting virtually. Margaret Mueller’s team met in person – both at school, once it reopened, and the Mueller home.

    The virtual competition, however, limited student interaction with opposing team members. “My kids tend to make friends with their opponents when we are in the courthouse, and we didn’t really have the ability over Zoom,” Elisabeth said. “But while it’s a shame they weren’t able to meet in person, the benefits of having mock trial this year – in whatever way possible – far outweigh any negatives.”

    Zoom provided an unanticipated advantage – a way to scrimmage with teams far away. “Eliminating the transportation barrier enabled us to compete against teams we wouldn’t otherwise see. We intend to continue to use this platform for scrimmages in the future,” Elisabeth said.

    For the finals rounds, the Waukesha South team chose to compete with all members physically present at the high school. “This eliminated our bandwidth and connectivity problems. It also enabled our kids to be together and feel like a team – important for morale and camaraderie,” Elisabeth said.

    Waukesha South defense attorney Margaret Mueller

    Waukesha South defense attorney Margaret Mueller delivers the opening statement during the state mock trial tournament final round on March 9.

    Becoming a Winning Team

    Waukesha South senior Margaret Mueller joined the mock trial as a sophomore for the 2018-19 season.
    “That year, I realized I wanted to become an attorney as a career,” Margaret said. And in the intervening two years, she “dedicated everything to mock trial. We've worked tirelessly, especially this year.”

    “When we realized this year would be over Zoom, we knew we'd have to work especially hard. We had to compensate for losing the ‘presence’ of being in the courtroom physically,” Margaret said.

    They practiced multiple times a week, usually for hours at a time. Preparing for regionals, and later for state, they met daily for up to five hours each day.

    “Mock trial is very important to me, as is my team,” says junior team member Mika Liss. We spent an absurd amount of time working on this case. We were just excited to get first place at regionals. Being entirely honest, we didn’t expect to make it far at state. We just wanted to make the most of it and do as well as we could.

    “On the date of state finals (March 9), we didn't have school, so we spent the entire day working on mock trial,” Margaret said. “We wanted to be as prepared as possible – and I am very happy our work paid off.”

    Waukesha South witness Mika Liss with Shorewood attorney Riju Dey

    Waukesha South witness Mika Liss (left), playing the part of the defendant, answers questions via Zoom from Shorewood attorney Riju Dey (right) during the state mock trial tournament final round on March 9.

    Evenly Matched

    At the end of the state round between Shorewood and Waukesha South, the competition judges required a little extra time to decide the winner.

    “It was extremely close,” said Dane County Circuit Court Judge Ellen Berz, presiding judge of the state final round. “I have been doing this since 1983, and these two teams were astounding. Either team could represent Wisconsin very well in the national competition.”

    “Both teams did a great job strategically, using only what they needed of the evidence and affidavits,” said Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Kori Ashley, a scoring judge for the final round.

    Dane County Circuit Court Judge Mario White, also a scoring judge, observed that “both teams would fair very well against some practitioners.”

    While the students could not directly interact following the competition round, they didn’t hesitate to activate their microphones to exchange compliments while awaiting the judges’ decision.

    “Hey Shorewood, It was a lot of fun to go against you,” said Shala Pacheco, Waukesha South attorney, piping up on Zoom where many waited silently for the results.

    “It’s so exciting to compete at state, because everyone is so good, and was so fun to go against you,” replied Shorewood student-attorney Emma Stenzel.

    “Shorewood runs a great program, and their students were on top of their game,” said Elisabeth Mueller. “It was heartening to see such great sportsmanship on both sides.”

    Waukesha South team awaits the verdict

    Crowded around a laptop at the school, the Waukesha South team awaits the verdict for the mock trial state final round on March 9. Visible across the top are members of the Shorewood team, who wait from their locations at their homes.

    Future Wisconsin Lawyers

    Shorewood’s Georgia Siegel joined mock trial “because my mom wanted me to join a club, and I wanted to make new friends.”

    The decision changed her life. “I joined mock trial without any knowledge on how a trial or court works. All I knew is that there was a jury, a judge, witnesses, and lawyers. I did not know about objection rules, what a jury did, and how lawyers would defend their clients. Through mock trial, I have learned all those things, and I learned about rules of evidence, admissibility of testimony, and how important juries are to the case. And I've been very fortunate to have outstanding lawyer coaches who have taught me all I know about mock trial and the law.”

    Siegel has competed both as an attorney and a witness – this year she played the defendant on the defense side. Next year, as a senior, she hopes take up the role of attorney again. “I loved mock trial since I joined it,” she said. “And I plan to go to law school, so I can practice law for my career.”

    “Mock trial changed my life,” said Margaret Mueller. “Mock trial is my favorite extra-curricular. I'm ecstatic that we've done so well my senior year and that I am captaining the first Waukesha South team the first time we've qualified for the state finals, let alone nationals. I am so passionate about mock trial, I am planning on joining the team when I attend UW-Madison this coming fall.”

    Rewards of Coaching, Reinforcing the Pipeline

    Waukesha South attorney-coach Elisabeth Mueller never competed in mock trial as student. As an former assistant district attorney in Monroe County, she eagerly responded to a request to coach the Sparta High School team.

    “I loved working with the students,” she said. When Elisabeth later moved to southeastern Wisconsin, she sought out an opportunity to continue coaching, joining the Waukesha South team just before its regional competition in early 2018.

    “Although I was only able to work with the students for a few weeks, I knew they had potential,” Elisabeth said. “I later learned that it was South’s first year of having a mock trial team since the late 1980s. I had walked into, essentially, a new program.”

    The next season, 2018-19 – the first for daughter Margaret, then a sophomore – involved a scrimmage with Muckwonago. “They decimated us,” Elisabeth admitted. “It was brutal.”

    But that ended up motivating the students to step up their game. “Margaret rallied her teammates to focus and work hard. We went to regionals and were happy with how our teams did.”

    Coaching mock trial is “an incredibly rewarding experience,” said Elisabeth. “As a coach, I can actually see their growth from week to week, month to month, and year to year. I can’t adequately express the pride I have for these kids, who give so much of themselves to this program.”

    The skills they learn set them up for success in the future. “Mock trial teaches them critical thinking. It requires them to look at a problem and consider different ways of attacking it. It forces them to think on their feet. It reinforces ideas of fair play and ethics. It refines public-speaking skills. It gives them confidence,” she said.

    “One of our former students watched the final match. He told me that mock trial was his absolute favorite activity in high school,” she said.

    Meanwhile, there is more practice required between now and May for the Waukesha South team. “The students are excited about the opportunity to represent Wisconsin,” Elisabeth said.

    Get Involved

    The State Bar of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Law Foundation support the Wisconsin High School Mock Trial tournament, but it takes more than 200 volunteers to make it happen – just for the regional tournament alone. It takes even more volunteers to coach the teams. This year, 74 teams competed in total.

    Interested in volunteering next year for the tournament or as a coach? Contact Katie Wilcox, State Bar of Wisconsin mock trial coordinator.

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