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    Teens Test Their Mettle in Mock Trials

    For 25 years, students in the Wisconsin High School Mock Trial Program have learned a lot about the law and the legal system - and about themselves. Read what motivates students to participate and why each year hundreds of lawyers, judges, and teachers support this volunteer-intensive statewide program.

    Dianne Molvig

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    Wisconsin LawyerWisconsin Lawyer
    Vol. 81, No. 2, February 2008

    Teens test their mettle in mock trials

    For 25 years, students in the Wisconsin High School Mock Trial Program have learned a lot about the law and the legal system - and about themselves. Read what motivates students to participate and why each year hundreds of lawyers, judges, and teachers support this volunteer-intensive statewide program.


    Mock Trial

    by Dianne Molvig

    At first glance, the Wisconsin High School Mock Trial Program might seem to be an impossible idea.

    Consider that hundreds of participating teenagers must be willing to devote a sizable chunk of their free time after school and on weekends, for several months, to a project that's comparable to preparing a 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 months - from hundreds of teachers, lawyers, judges, and other adults across the state.

    In light of everything else that teenagers and adult professionals have going on in their lives, you might think a program that demands 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 statewide competition.

    "I hate to reveal secrets here, but this program is a way to 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 to spend 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 fun at it."

    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 got 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 area publications.

    A few years later, the Wisconsin Bar Foundation wanted to take its Project Inquiry to the next level. Project Inquiry had brought lawyers and law education into classrooms. But the Foundation wanted to offer a statewide program that would further involve young people and enhance their awareness of the justice system.

    At a Foundation meeting, Knudson spoke up to offer an idea. "I told 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 School Mock Trial Program came to be, with the first competition held in 1984. Programs also emerged in other states at about the same time.

    Since then, some 30,000 Wisconsin high school students have participated in Mock Trial. For 2008, 90 schools with 130 teams, involving more than 1,000 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 that's what has been happening," says Dee Runaas, the State Bar's law-related education coordinator and Mock Trial Program coordinator since 1987. "For the last several years, the justices have told us that it comes down to one vote." A 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 the regional competitions. In the summer before, other attorneys volunteer to write the case for the trial. For many years, Madison attorney John (Nick) Schweitzer, a former Mock Trial student from Superior, tackled that task by himself. Now a small group of lawyers divides up the work of creating the facts of the case, witness statements, summonses and complaints, and stipulations.

    "We want the case to be balanced so that either side could win," explains Chuttie Senn, a Thorp attorney who chaired the State Bar Law-related 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 we made it too simple or rote, it wouldn't hold their interest."

    In one year's competition, for instance, the case involved a fight on school property between two high school students, with one facing battery, disorderly conduct, and possible hate-crime charges. Another case centered on the Annie Lemberger murder, an actual unsolved Madison crime that occurred in 1911.

    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 contends.

    Some students flourish by acting as expert witnesses. "They get an 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 as experts who are now physicians."

    He's had students who visited neurologists and pathologists, for example, so they could learn how to sound like credible experts. Students who played the role of police witnesses paid visits to the local police headquarters so 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 characters, even though they're bound by their affidavits" developed by the attorneys who originally wrote the case.

    Among other tasks, the students who act as attorneys learn to prepare opening statements and closing arguments - the academic equivalents of writing 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 one, unfolds in unpredictable ways during the trial. Lawyers make objections, and presiding judges (who often are actual judges, or sometimes lawyers) rule on those objections.

    "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 examinations of witnesses, they have to base a cross-examination on what a witness has said. They have to think on their feet."

    As individuals, team members strive to do their best in portraying whatever role each is playing in a trial. To succeed as a team, they must advise each other and work together to solve problems. A panel of three attorneys judges the competition.

    "Mock Trial is not about winning or losing the case," Senn emphasizes. "Judges look at how the students perform."

    Inside Views

    To some observers, the Mock Trial Program might seem to be primarily a training ground for future attorneys. Not so, say those who participate.

    Natalie Fuller is a high school senior in Oregon, Wis., who's now in her third year of Mock Trial. For two years she was an attorney on the team, and this year she's a witness. Law is not on Fuller's career radar; she aspires to become a nurse. She's involved in Mock Trial because "it's a lot of 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 first drew Dan Kanninen into Mock Trial when he was a high school student in Superior in the 1990s. He played the role of witness his first year but then got hooked on 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 Jauch, although he says he may still someday pursue a law degree. He feels Mock Trial helped 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 was entirely different to walk into a Saturday Mock Trial practice having kind of understood the affidavit versus having really understood it. Developing that depth of understanding is probably the most important thing I learned."

    Superior resident Jodi Slick was on the local Mock Trial team in the late 1980s, and now her daughter participates. Slick also started and coached a team in Spooner when she taught there a few years ago. "It's a tremendous program," she says, "that gets students to think about thinking."

    Today Slick runs a nonprofit construction company that builds green, 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 think through issues. Those skills of being able to look at the minutiae and to understand the big picture are exceedingly valuable."

    Some Mock Trial participants do end up in law careers. Madison attorney Ginger Murray participated in Mock Trial in the late 1980s at Wabeno High School, which had a total enrollment of fewer than 200 students.

    A Mock Trial team is limited to 12 students, with six students (three attorneys and three witnesses) participating in any one trial event. Large 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 roles on the same team. Still, both small and large schools are able to find ways to compete.

    Even before she got into Mock Trial, Murray longed to pursue a law career. She remembers mentioning such plans in one of her freshman classes and evoking laughter from her peers. "Not many dreamed of going to law school," she says, "or even to go to UW-Madison."

    Murray says she'll never forget when Judge Robert Kinney of Rhinelander took her aside after her first regional Mock Trial competition in her freshman year. With a small team, Murray had to double up to play attorney roles on both sides of the case.

    Afterward, Kinney told her he thought she had real promise as a future 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 Forest County to practice law. She coached the Wabeno Mock Trial team for nine years before 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 competitions," Murray says, "I learned from Judge Kinney that taking an extra minute to point out 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 accomplish, 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 and out."

    Attorneys aren't the only ones amazed by what they see, points out Eileen Brownlee, a Fennimore attorney who has coached high school teams in Boscobel for 20 years. The team she coached with teacher-coach Don Warren was from the smallest school at last year's Mock Trial state tournament, she says. Brownlee also has served many times as a judge at state and national competitions.

    "One of the most amusing things is watching these students' parents 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 people look like lawyers; they act like lawyers. Their skills are remarkable."

    Echoing that sentiment is Kinney, a 24-year veteran of Mock Trial. He first got involved at the urging of Kathy Vick-Martini, who's now retired from teaching but still coaches the Rhinelander Mock Trial team. Kinney started out by judging practice rounds for the Rhinelander team. He's since judged regional, state, and national competitions, and is the parent of three former Mock Trial students, now grown. He's also served as presiding judge during Mock Trial competitions.

    In the latter role, "you have to be so nimble," Kinney says. "It's 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 they see in their Mock Trial team members. Not only do students put hours a week into team practice, but they also do extra work on their own time.

    For instance, "the student lawyers work independently with their 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 Law-Related 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 college-bound, coaches report, although that's not a given. All tend to have a lot to juggle 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 students will ask me to write letters to employers about why they will have to miss work. I don't want anyone to think these are elitist kids. I had one student at our meeting last night ask me how late we'd go because she does volunteer work on Tuesday nights."

    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 court 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 things being done by young people," he points out, "or you become jaded."

    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 to something," Draper says, "you really want to do this."