Unlike most of my Law School classmates, I’ve never watched a full episode of “Law & Order,” or any other TV courtroom drama. I also can only remember seeing a few movies with extended trial scenes — “To Kill a Mockingbird” comes to mind, as do “A Few Good Men” and “Runaway Jury.” What this means is that the Law School’s recently concluded mock trial competition, in which I took part, was my first real glimpse into how trials actually work.
The hypothetical case for the competition was almost humorously far-fetched. A criminal defense attorney was accused of murdering one mistress when she threatened to go public with their relationship, then throwing her body into the Gulf of Mexico with the help of his drug dealer brother. The attorney claimed that his other mistress actually killed the first girlfriend in self-defense, and that he disposed of the body to protect the surviving mistress from a long and ugly trial. Over the course of the competition, my partner and I completed each step that a real criminal trial process would include. We drafted interrogatories for the (rather absurd) parties and witnesses, argued with our opponents about what evidence should be admitted or excluded, wrote elaborate pre-trial briefs — and eventually took part in a full-blown trial, complete with Perry Mason-style exposures of lying witnesses and emotional closing statements.
While the mock trial veterans in the competition found this all to be old hat, I was excited to learn about the substance and style of criminal trials. To avoid embarrassment, my partner and I had to master the confusing Federal Rules of Evidence (with their interlocking array of guidelines about which evidence is admissible and which is not), and teach ourselves how to draft a variety of legal documents. We also practiced fading into the background when one of our witnesses took the stand, aggressively asserting ourselves when cross-examining a hostile witness, and delivering natural and persuasive opening and closing statements. By the time of the big day, we were comfortable enough with trial procedure and rules that we could appreciate the thrill of courtroom battle — the pirouette of objections and responses, the dueling efforts to bolster favorable witnesses and discredit adverse ones, the final appeals to the jury.
The most valuable lesson I learned from the competition, though, came not from the trial itself but from our judge’s comments afterwards. Having observed our frustration with the seemingly arbitrary rules of trial procedure and evidence, our judge highlighted the underlying method behind the madness. He talked about the presumption of innocence that touches every step of the trial process, the hoops through which the prosecution must jump to ensure that this presumption is not tarnished, and the simple elegance that the evidentiary rules acquire after enough experience with them. As he talked, I saw, for the first time, trials for what they really are — not struggles between opposing counsel, but rather carefully orchestrated processes, shaped through centuries of accumulated wisdom, intended to safeguard the rights of the defendant while still allowing some semblance of truth to emerge from the fray. Because of its focus on the participants’ style and presentation, the competition tended to obscure the substantive essence of the American trial, but our judge’s comments allowed it to shine bright and clear.
I still have little idea what I want to do after Law School. Clerking for a federal judge, working for a law firm, becoming involved in public policy, and remaining in academia are all options at this point. But my mock trial experience has made me consider much more seriously a career track to which I had previously given scant thought: fighting for clients in the courtroom as a trial attorney. Many questions about this option, of course, remain open: Government or private practice? Criminal or civil cases? Trial work only or appeals too? I don’t know my answers yet, but I do know that participating in Yale’s mock trial competition has given me a new appreciation of — and, at the risk of sounding naive, a new idealism toward — the trial process and the lawyers who make it work.
Nicholas Stephanopoulos is a first year student at Yale Law School. His column appears on alternate Mondays.