William & Mary Law School won the third-annual National Pretrial Competition this past weekend, besting 12 other teams in a tournament that emphasizes brief writing, oral argument, and witness examination skills. Chicago-Kent College of Law (Illinois Institute of Technology) finished second for the second-straight year. Mississippi College School of Law and Texas Tech University School of Law were the semifinalists. The competition is hosted by Stetson University College of Law and co-sponsored by the Florida Bar's Young Lawyers Division.
Chapman University School of Law was awarded Best Brief, while Johanna Orleski of William & Mary won the final round's Best Advocate plaque.
This was my first time taking a team to the Pretrial Competition, and I was generally impressed. For one, it's at Stetson. If you've never been there before, the law school occupies what used to be a 1920's resort hotel, which is very cool. The competition hotel was a beach resort, so even teams that don't advance "win" (in my book, relaxing on the beach with a Pina Colada is a "win"). The competition is essentially 2/3 moot court and 1/3 mock trial. A team's score in each round consists of 300 points: 100 based on the teams' combined brief scores (each team writes both a Plaintiff and Defendant brief); 100 points based on what amounts to a moot court argument; and 100 based on what is essentially a mock trial round.
There were some hiccups at the beginning; the judges, despite what we were promised in the the coaches meeting, had no clue what they were doing. We were told that although three judges would sit in each round, only one would be on the bench (to simulate a real-life pretrial hearing) and thus only he or she would be the one asking questions during the "argument" (i.e., moot court) phase. Sure enough, all three judges hopped on the bench, and yet none of them asked a single question (despite the fact the score sheet had a specific category for "performance in answering questions"). I overheard them during a break asking each other whether they were supposed to be asking questions, and then one said that he'd start asking questions during the evidentiary phase to make up for it, even though that phase's score sheet doesn't have a section for question answering. Even before the round started, they had no idea how the hearing was supposed to proceed -- which team's motion should be taken up first, or in what in order the advocates were supposed to speak. You'd think all of that would have been covered in a pre-round judges meeting. And maybe it was, and our room just had a bunch of judges who were late and missed it. But in any event, that kind of B.S. is frustrating. Still, as the competition progressed, things got smoother.
One of the things I sorta liked about the tournament was just how little time the students had to prepare. The initial part of the problem -- from which the students drafted their briefs -- came out on August 21. Both briefs were due on September 17, and the rules prohibited teams from practicing with non-team members before that date. Even if the rules hadn't prohibited it, practicing prior to that point would have been, well, pointless, because Stetson released supplemental evidence on September 20. As in, two and a half weeks before the competition. Yeah. So the students had to prepare for a moot court AND mock trial competition in 18 days.
Although it was stressful and required daily practices, I liked that for two reasons: First, it's a better simulation of real-world practice. And second, with so little time, you didn't see too much of the over-prepared, ridiculously scripted, robotic performances you see at most trial competitions. My biggest general complaint about mock trial is that with two months (or more) to prepare, the "best" teams (i.e., teams that win) have their presentations down to this perfectly orchestrated play. They examine and cross examine witnesses without so much as a note in front of them. They walk from spot to spot in the courtroom as if a director had blocked the movements. They speak without ever uttering an "um" or an "uh." It's just too perfect, and it impresses the hell out of judges despite the fact that you a:) couldn't do that in the real world; and b) wouldn't want to do that in the real world because it looks fake and overacted.
But that's the reality of it, and if you want to win mock trial competitions, that's what you've got to do. Except at this competition, there's not enough time to get your "play" perfect, so what you see is much more real, and, I think, a better educational experience.
Anyway, here's a story on Stetson's website. Mississippi College has one here. In what I thought was sort of odd, Baylor Law School put up a story before its team left about how they were inexperienced and learning trial skills on the fly. They were sandbagging a bit -- the team's two oralists, Jessica McCarty and Travis Plummer, were national quarterfinalists at last year's ABA National Appellate Advocacy Competition and finalists at this summer's Texas State Moot Court Competition.