There are many things I expected to love about my new job as a Product Marketing Manager for a truly innovative legal technology company. Nothing on the job description, however, promised that I would have the honor of serving as a scorer for the semi-final round of the Santa Clara County High School Mock Trial Tournament. This is the second year in a row that — thanks to our colleague and friend, Josh Gilliland of Bow Tie Law and the Legal Geeks podcast series — AccessData has sponsored the competition. (Last year, AD provided teams with their first e-discovery experiences by granting them licenses to our proprietary document review software!) When AccessData’s Caitlin Murphy described her joy in watching high school kids act out a mock trial, I honestly didn’t quite get it, but knew that I should give it a try. After all, when I was in high school in rural North Carolina, I had no dreams of becoming an attorney and there were no mock trial teams in our county. Being a late-comer to the legal industry myself, I wanted to know what sort of student would be drawn to this world before they were even of voting age. Well, I found out.
I have worked in and around the legal industry for nearly a decade. I have also suffered through and graduated law school. And I have watched more Perry Mason, Law and Order, Boston Legal, Damages, et cetera, than any human should have. None of this, however, prepared me for the high seriousness of this event. The reverence shown by both teams (Los Gatos High School and eventual champions Willow Glen High School) was nothing less than awe-inspiring. As was the seriousness of the scorer’s room prior to trial – where sitting judges and practicing attorneys gathered around a table to discuss the facts of the case as if they were a jury and the Defendant’s life hung in the balance. They were detailed — very detailed, questions asked to the organizers — about gaps in the timeline and the placement of the main players’ feet, for instance. Serious deliberation. And then there were heartfelt thanks from the organizers and coaches and from one attorney who had gotten his start in this very competition an unspecified number of years ago. It was clear to me that all participants understood the impact their time would have on the future of these students. Then, finally, it was time to make our way through the courtroom, crowded and buzzing with excitement, to take our seats in the jurors’ box.
From the Bailiff’s call to order all the way through to the final arguments, I was riveted as each player took command of his or her role. The competition began with arguments for and against an in limine challenge to the Defendant’s alleged confession, given in the back of a police car without appropriate Miranda notice, turned on the issue of whether or not the Defendant was in custody at the time. The hypothetical situation was the stuff of law school and bar exams, designed to test and tease apart its victims’ ability to mount convincing arguments atop a fact set which truly offered no “right or wrong”. And the two attorneys who took up the challenge were marvelous. Ultimately, their explication of the law and able advocacy of their side’s interest left this scorer with no true winner. I won’t divulge who I ultimately gave a slight edge to, but I will say that it was based more on a feeling than on any sense that either opponent did not give her all. I am spending a few sentences on just this opening ten minutes or so of the competition as a way of demonstrating that I could go on and on about what followed for the next 90 minutes: it was stunning. While I did, in the end, have a sense of how I thought the facts and the law should go (and, frankly, Justice Manoukian and I disagreed on the outcome!) I do not believe that the outcome was the goal for these students. Perhaps surprisingly, I believe that their thorough preparation of their cases and their ultimately flawless performances must have been their only goals in mind.
And then, perhaps even more surprising to this first-timer than the maturity displayed by these “kids” during the trial, was their post-trial questioning of the scorers. I suppose I have become accustomed to a different sort of high school “student”. The one who resents all feedback, scoffs insecurely at any attempt made by any adult to provide “helpful suggestions”, who disappears in a haze of “I guesses”, “whatevers”, “you knows” and “yeahs”. Here, rather, each student approached me, looked me in the eye, and asked, “Do you have any notes for me? Is there anything I could have done better?” I’m not sure if what I’m conveying here is more a testament to the moxie and accomplishment of these legal athletes or to my own dark expectations of a purportedly jaded and ironic generation. I certainly hope it’s the former. I hope to convey in this brief post just how hopeful I felt, how optimistic, that — in an age where the value of eloquence and focus has become fragmented and strewn about the Internet — these two teams demonstrated such a passion for legal analysis, for the pursuit of justice and for producing two excellent narratives from one hypothetical set of facts. While I am happy that the team I scored highest did go on the next week to win the final round, I will nevertheless fall on a tired but completely accurate cliché: here, if what truly matters is how you play the game, there were no losers to be found.