Developing Skills for Life with Mock Trial

For undergraduates preparing for a career in law or politics, the demands and rewards of membership in the UIC Mock Trial program are immediately apparent: challenging coursework in legal theory and practice as well as rigorous training and competition in evidence-based argumentation and public speaking.

Mock Trial alumnus Neil Iyengar.

Mock Trial alumnus Neil Iyengar in 2004. Photo courtesy of UIC Photo Services

But the skills honed over two or three years as part of the “Mock Trial family” are also invaluable for “any profession that demands leadership and critical thinking,” said Neil Iyengar, MD, a Mock Trial alumnus who holds a double-major in anthropology and biological sciences (2004). “My time on the UIC Mock Trial team was one of the most important formative experiences in my educational development.”

Iyengar, whose academic career at LAS boasted numerous honors, also won several Mock Trial competitive awards and served as team co-captain for one year. “The impromptu reasoning and extemporaneous logicality required of Mock Trial competitors are life skills that build the foundation for any successful career—certainly including medicine,” continued Iyengar, a Medical Oncology Fellow at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

Mock Trial alumnus J’nell Blanco.

Mock Trial alumna J’nell Blanco. Photo courtesy of Blanco

Mock Trial alumna J’nell Blanco (political science 2008) works for the Congressional Budget Office in Washington, DC. “I find myself using Mock Trial techniques such as cross-examination when I need to get the full background and impact of a piece of legislation,” she said. “I recommend Mock Trial if you like to be pushed beyond your comfort zone and gain skills that will stay with you for the rest of your life.”

For the 16 members of the current Mock Trial cohort, spring term began early. On January 5, students gathered in a Daley Center courtroom to argue this year’s model case, “State of Midlands vs. Danny Dawson.”

The 2011-12 Mock Trial team and their coaches.

The 2011-12 Mock Trial cohort.

Much like the mounting of a theatre piece—but one that follows rigorous rules of evidence and procedure—students assume the roles of witnesses, prosecutors and defense attorneys, presenting opening statements and examining and cross-examining the witnesses. This exercise continues throughout the semester as the students hone their legal knowledge and rhetorical skills at twice-weekly class meetings. “We frequently switch the students’ roles between playing witnesses and acting as attorneys; the goal is to find the students who fit each role best as we prepare for regional competition,” explained Nicholas A. Gowen (political science 2000), Mock Trial coordinator, team coach and instructor. Gowen received his JD from UIUC in 2003 and is a commercial litigation attorney.

“We use Tuesdays to work through questions, objections and responses, and the rules of evidence; practice openings and closings; and develop witness character. On Thursdays, we put all of the ingredients together into a cohesive trial as it is done in competition. If this were the theatre, I would say that Tuesdays are run-throughs and Thursdays are full dress rehearsals.” Similar to the actor/director relationship, Mock Trial students receive critiques of their performances from their coaching team.

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Governed by the American Mock Trial Association, the intercollegiate program was founded in 1985. The UIC program began in 1990; it is housed in the Department of Political Science and co-sponsored by LAS and the Honors College. The program is small and highly selective and students can take Mock Trial for all four years, with most students continuing for three years. “We go through an intensive screening process at the beginning of the semester seeking students who are a good fit. We also want to make sure that the students really know what they’re getting into. We have determined that the material we are teaching in just one semester is equal to at least four law school classes. Plus, we are going out and competing,” said Gowen.

Mock Trial coaches (left to right): Robyn Haynes, Karim Basaria, Victor Erbring and Nick Gowen.

Mock Trial coaches (left to right): Robyn Haynes, Karim Basaria, Victor Erbring and Nick Gowen.

The basic coursework—consisting of rules of evidence, rules of civil procedure, rules of criminal procedure and trial advocacy—is taught in Mock Trial “boot camp” from late September through October. Case material is then distributed and students begin to work up their files. A coaching team of five Mock Trial alumni—Gowen; Cook County Assistant Public Defenders Victor Erbring (political science 1997) and Robyn Haynes (English 2000); attorney Ryan Nolte (philosophy 2008); and law student Karim Basaria—teach, mentor and guide students every step of the way.

Mock Trial meetings continue throughout the fall and spring semesters. As boot camp winds up each fall, the cohort is divided into two teams. Pre-season competitions run through January, followed by regional tournaments. “The top teams from regionals move on to compete at nationals,” said Gowen. “UIC competed in nationals in 2007 and 2009.” In March the 2012 team won at the super-regionals in Waukegan, besting 23 other teams. They finished in first place with a 7-1 record.

Karim Basaria served as a Mock Trial co-captain and won the All-American Attorney Award. He graduated from UIC in 2006 and began his career as a CPA and forensic accountant. After receiving his law degree from Northwestern University this spring, Basaria will clerk for Federal District Judge Virginia Kendall. “I came into Mock Trial with no speaking experience and very little confidence,” he said. “Mock Trial changed all of that. I came out of college with a level of self-assurance that would have been unimaginable to me four years earlier. It has helped me through my professional career and into law school.”

Team co-captains Anthony Hatzilabrou (left) and Victoria Latus.

Team co-captains Anthony Hatzilabrou and Victoria Latus. Both are political science majors.

Current co-captain Anthony Hatzilabrou credits Mock Trial with improving his public speaking skills and critical-thinking ability, as well as providing him with a jump start for law school. His co-captain Victoria Latus, who joined Mock Trial last year as a freshman, believes the course has helped her become a better student. “I have learned how to articulate ideas, think critically and on my feet, and act professionally in every aspect of a situation,” she said.

Danbee Paek testifies for the prosecution; “Judge” Karim Basaria listens.

Danbee Paek testifies for the prosecution; “Judge” Karim Basaria listens.

Danbee Paek will graduate in May with a degree in political science. With career plans in international diplomacy, she values the ways Mock Trial has helped her develop a personal style she believes will set her apart. “With this experience I am prepared to be the best I can be and take every opportunity that comes my way,” she said.

To support the Mock Trial program at UIC consider making a gift to the Mock Trial Fund (specify fund number 330961).

Photos by Matthew Kaplan unless otherwise indicated