Talani Silpao, an attorney for Waukesha South High School, makes an argument for the defense.
March 15, 2023 – You know the competition is fierce when just three points out of 220 available separates first and second place.
Wisconsin High School Mock Trial Tournament finals round on March 5 featured a rematch between two teams who met before – in
the online 2021 finals round.
Shorewood High School (prosecution) and Waukesha South High School (defense) argued their side in a fictitious homicide case involving the death of a high school student in Clearwater, Wisconsin.
As it had in 2021, Waukesha South earned the top spot – this time by just three points.
Still, in the mind of the finals round judges – led by Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Dallet, along with Dane County Circuit Court judges Rhonda Lanford and Ellen Berz – both teams were the winners.
Both teams, said Justice Dallet, found the key in mock trial and jury trials. “It is all about conveying your story,” Dallet told both teams. “People who can tell the stories the best do the best job as advocates. You both did a really excellent job. Your tone, your passion, all of it was really good.”
Wisconsin High School Mock Trial is a State Bar of Wisconsin program funded by the
Wisconsin Law Foundation, the charitable arm of the State Bar.
Founded in 1983, the program helps students gain a deeper understanding of our legal system while developing leadership, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills.
The judges of the finals round discuss together about the score after the round finished. The judges were Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Dallet (center), and Dane County Circuit Court judges Ellen Berz (left) and Rhonda Lanford (right).
Glad to Meet You
The semifinals and finals were the first in-person competitions since 2019. Waukesha South attorney-coach Elisabeth Mueller said students were still able to compete via Zoom in 2021 and 2022. But all three of the Waukesha South teams “had fun at the regional tournament and loved being in-person.”
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.
The skillset is the same whether they compete online or in person, said Shorewood attorney-coach Nathan Bayer. “At the core, it’s the same thing – you still have to learn the material and integrate the law into being persuasive, it’s just a different medium.”
But many competitors had never been in a courtroom before.
“We had to address standing when judges enter the courtroom, approaching the bench, moving about the well, and factoring movement into time limits – typical mock trial things these kids – some of whom competed in Nationals in 2021 (via Zoom) – had never experienced,” Mueller said.
For students and coaches alike who have experience both online and in-person competitions, there is little comparison with being in person.
“Just the gravitas of being in the courtroom, for one thing,” Mueller said. More importantly, “the interaction the kids have with each other – they’re talking in the hallways,
they’re hanging out and dancing in between rounds. They’re really having fun making friendships with kids from other schools, which is really hard to do over Zoom.”
“The energy that happens when all the teams get together is really a great experience for the student,” said retired Shorewood teacher-coach Debra Schwinn.
“For them to be able to travel and be in the ‘mock trial bubble’ reinforces their love of the activity. I think they work harder – and now they have friends on other teams. It’s a win-win.”
For some of the student competitors, an in-person tournament was a new experience, like Waukesha South junior Reed Mueller, who was a student-attorney for the team. Reed competed online with the team in 2021 and 2022.
“In person is far superior,” Reeds said. “The ability to meet other people interested in mock trial and talk to them in between rounds, as well as shake your opponent’s hand before and after every trial, makes mock trial feel much more personable. It builds a stronger community. I met some wonderful people over the weekend.”
Shorewood attorney Alexis Hu confronts a Waukesha South witness during cross-examination in the finals round.
Randy Sitzberger, an ADA for Waukesha County, is in his first year as an attorney-coach for Waukesha South. He attended the high school but there was no mock trial program at the time.
“I would have loved a program like this,” he said. “They root for the other teams and really cheer them on,” Sitzberger said – especially during the semifinals. “It’s been a fantastic experience.”
Jesse Perez is in his first year as a teacher-coach for Shorewood’s mock trial teams. “Seeing the students transition from what they were at the start of the season to where they are now, it’s sensational. I’ve never witnessed something so impressive,” he said.
Sam Koenig, a teacher-coach with Franklin High School with attorney-coach Charles Starnes, is in his third year coaching. His team made the cut to compete in the semifinals.
“We have a team with sophomores and juniors – no seniors – and we’re here,” Koenig said. The team won two rounds – with members thrilled at that outcome. “Being first-timers, our goal was to win at least one round.”
The magical moment in watching the students grow is “when they learn to think on their feet,” and not just build their argument from their script, Koenig said. Seeing them learn responsiveness and flexibility is exciting to watch, he said.
Franklin High School junior Kassidy Gindt is in her third year as a student-attorney with the team and is a team co-captain. Their first competitions that first year were “messy,” she admits. “We didn’t understand what hearsay was, or how to do objections.” But they watched other teams compete online and learned from them. “Seeing how prepared they were inspired us to do better this year,” she said.
Kassidy joined mock trial out of curiosity to learn about the law, wanting to understand how legal decisions are made, such as those around inequality. “It seems like the best way to make a difference,” she said. She joined out of curiosity, but it is her team members, coaches, and the experience mock trial gives her that keep her going with mock trial. “It’s all so exciting,” she said.
The experience of in-person competition this year has helped her build confidence. “In the courtroom, it’s scary talking to the judges. My hands shake when I get up there,” she admitted. But “knowing that you belong in the courtroom” has helped her to contemplate going into law as a career.
Students and coaches with the Waukesha South team pose with judges of the finals rounds. Judges, front row, were led by Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Dallet (center), along with Dane County Circuit Court judges Rhonda Lanford (center left) and Ellen Berz (center right)
Waukesha to Madison to Little Rock
The mock trial season begins in late fall,
when the case is released. The 2023 case, involving a potential homicide, was a particularly complex case with a lesser-included charge to be argued by the prosecution.
After meeting informally for scrimmages, the 87 teams met the first weekend in February at various locations
for the regional competitions, which whittled the field down to 20 teams – the first- and second-place finishers in each region invited to compete in the semifinals rounds the first weekend in March.
With in-person competition back this year, semifinals rounds were again opened to 20 teams – in 2021 and 2022, just 10 teams competed in the finals because they had to be conducted via Zoom.
The 20 teams then became two for the Sunday finals round held in the Joint Finance Committee room in the State Capitol building.
The 2023 finals matchup involved two teams with strong mock trial histories. Shorewood competed in the final round for the 12th time in the team’s history and since the tournament began in 1984 – taking first place in 2019 and second place in 2021.
Waukesha South had its second time in the finals round. In 2021, both teams met for an online finals, with Waukesha South the victor.
Both teams met again for the 2023 finals on March 4 – with each team undefeated in the semifinals.
In the end, Waukesha South gained the honor of representing Wisconsin in the
2023 National High School Mock Trial Championship, which takes place in Little Rock, Arkansas, May 18-20, 2023.
To compete, they must tackle a new case, which is released at noon Central time on April 1, along with different rules of competition and rules of evidence.
Sam Koenig, Franklin High School teacher-coach, reviews scores with team members after the semifinals rounds on March 4, 2023. The team, in its second year of competition, was thrilled to participate in the semifinals tournament.
You’re Needed Next Year: How to 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 attorney volunteers to coach the teams. This year, 87 teams competed in total – some without an attorney coach.
You’re needed. Interested in volunteering next year for the tournament or as a coach?
Contact Katie Wilcox, State Bar of Wisconsin mock trial coordinator.
Wisconsin Law Foundation Supports Mock Trial
Wisconsin High School Mock Trial is a State Bar of Wisconsin program funded by the
Wisconsin Law Foundation, the charitable arm of the State Bar. Founded in 1983, the program helps students gain a deeper understanding of our legal system while developing leadership, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills.