Mock trial team heads to Opening Round Championship Series

By Brittany Moseley | March 15, 2016

CWRU Mock Trial Team

After an impressive performance at the American Mock Trial Association’s Regional Tournament, the undergraduate mock trial team will compete in the Opening Round Championship Series (ORCS) March 18-20 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The A team went 6-2 at Regionals in February and beat out 17 other teams from across the country to earn one of seven bids to ORCS. AMTA hosted 25 regional tournaments in February. The top teams from each move on to ORCS.

“These two past classes have been a chance to rebuild it, make it more competition-focused,” team president Alex Balbes said. “We put a lot of time and effort into making this team competitive.” Balbes, a fourth-year psychology major, joined the mock trial team as a freshman and is the sole senior in the group. He participated in mock trial in high school as well and said he knew he wanted to be a lawyer in middle school.

Balbes plans to attend law school after he graduates this spring and would eventually like to practice constitutional law. Surprisingly though, he’s in the minority on the mock trial team. “It’s actually fewer people who want to go to law school than you’d think,” he said. Of the 16 students on the team, only four, including Balbes, are pre-law. Sanjna Arvind, a first-year business management major, has no plans to attend law school but said the lessons and skills she’s learned in mock trial will help prepare her for her future career. “It incorporates so many elements of debate, drama, and law,” she explained. “Mock trial has a lot to offer anyone. It gives you a work ethic. You have to collaborate with a large group of people. It’s an incredible skill.” Differences in majors and career goals aside, there is one common trait in the group. “Mock trial tends to attract people who like to argue,” Balbes said, smiling.

Every academic year AMTA releases a new case, rotating between criminal and civil cases. (This year’s is a criminal bribery case.) Several times during the season, AMTA will release case changes. If they choose, teams can then break off into smaller teams. There isn’t a minimum or a maximum to how many of these ancillary teams a school can have, as long as each has at least six members and no more than 10. This season, CWRU’s mock trial team is broken into two smaller teams: A and B, but in the past they’ve had as many as four. Each team then prepares both sides of the case: the prosecution and the defense. Teams A and B each participate in four rounds, presenting both sides of the case twice. There are two judges per round, and teams are graded on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the highest.

If you were to attend a mock trial team practice at CWRU, you would see a handful of students practicing their part of the case while their peers observe. However, much more goes on than just running lines. Objections are made, witnesses are called, and evidence is presented. Throughout practice the team members tweak their case theories, take notes, and receive feedback from their coaches, three students from the School of Law. The team has worked on the case for seven months, but they show no signs of boredom or fatigue. Periodic case changes from AMTA, evolving case theories, and unique witnesses keep the case interesting. (Each team can create personas and backstories for their witnesses, “as long as we don’t contradict the witnesses’ statements or invent a substantial fact,” Balbes said.)

“Any theory you have is going to have holes,” said second-year biomedical engineering and political science major Ren Weeden. “Part of the fun of mock trial is developing theories to fill those holes.” Weeden has become a bit of a standout in his two years on the team. At Regionals he won an Outstanding Attorney award and was the first-place attorney on all of the A team’s defense round ballots. For each round, the judges rank the attorneys from both sides on their ballots. Each first place is worth five points or “ranks,” and Weeden received 20 ranks, which is a perfect score. He was the only attorney competing at Regionals to receive a perfect 20.

“I just really like public speaking,” said Weeden, who also does drama on campus. “I was a shy child, so I use it to drive me.” Although he joined the team to make sure a career in law was what he wanted to do, Weeden says his favorite part about mock trial is the people, both on and off his team.

“I just love being around people who are as driven as me, and not just on our team, but at competitions as well,” he said. “You meet a lot of interesting people.” It’s a sentiment Arvind shares. “I win with them; I lose with them,” she said of her teammates. “They’re my first family [on campus]. It’s created a great space for me to grow.”