BY DONOVAN RINKER-MORRIS
Between constant jibes and jokes, the HLS Mock Trial Team, consisting of 3Ls Matthew Whitley and Cecilia Dickson and 1Ls Rick Su and Rex Lee, won top honors at the Association of Trial Lawyers of America’s National Trial Advocacy tournament in Chicago on March 21-24. In a field of 225 teams from 140 law schools, the HLS Mock Trial Team defeated Pepperdine to capture first place at the end of the grueling three-day competition, becoming the first HLS team to achieve that distinction.
“The secret of our success,” said Whitley, “is that we got along so well together, always joking while we always worked hard and made our deadlines.”
Lee described the preparation from October, when the materials for the case were distributed, through February, when the team would meet for four to five hours a day or longer to refine their core theory and practice delivering motions, statements and cross-examinations.
In each round, two team members serve as attorneys while the other two serve as witnesses. Whitley and Su served as attorneys on the plaintiff’s side, while Whitley and Dickson served as attorneys on the defendant’s side. Lee served as a witness on both sides. The team is not judged on whether they win the case, but on the quality of their advocacy.
This year’s case involved a wrongful death action in which a firefighter fell to his death from a cliff while trying to assist the defendant, an inexperienced rock climber who became stranded at night. Whitley noted, “The type of case we handled is different from what is usually handled in the clinical programs or in normal HLS corporate practice, because it was a large civil suit.”
Regarding the relative inexperience of the team, Lee observed, “We were a fairly unique commodity at the tournament, since most other teams consisted exclusively of 3Ls and 2Ls who had done this before.” Lee noted that other schools brought 1Ls to observe the competition and prepare for next year. Only Whitley, who was widely viewed as the team leader, had previous law school mock trial experience.
Many of the participating schools are widely known for their trial advocacy programs, an area where Harvard is currently unranked in at least one national ranking. However, Whitley noted that the team had a particularly tough draw, and knocked out last year’s championship team in the early rounds.
“Between the regional and national competitions,” Whitley noted, “we picked up 33 out of 35 judges, and never lost a judge until the quarterfinals.”
Whitley attributes that success in part to the cohesiveness of the team. “We drafted every section of our presentation ourselves, as part of a cohesive whole. It was obvious that other teams had different people working on different parts of their presentations, so that one team member might be unfamiliar with another’s statements.”
The team was assisted in part by Lecturers Peter Murray and Lawrence Friedman, who observed practice rounds and opening and closing statements. Lee observed, “Friedman’s help was particularly effective, since he devoted two entire Saturday afternoons to helping us prepare and provided extremely helpful critiques.”
The Mock Trial Team first earned the right to attend the national competition by winning a regional competition that included ten schools and 16 teams. In the regional competition on March 1-3, the two Harvard teams placed first and second, but only the first place team was invited to the national competition.
Whitley, who recruited the team members for both teams and provided primary training for all participants, was particularly grateful to Dean of Students Suzanne Richardson for her support. “My first year with the program, the 3Ls had to ask their future employers to provide financial support for the team, but Dean Richardson’s pre-approval helped us to focus on practicing instead of fundraising.”
Asked about the relevance of the competition, Whitley noted that “Participation in competitions like this helps dispel the myth that Harvard does not train students for trial advocacy, and helps students who are interested in alternatives to corporate practice to explore those possibilities.”
Su observed that “At Harvard, we have a clear emphasis on internal competitions, but I learned a great deal from the styles and approaches to advocacy that other schools were employing.”
Regarding participation in other national competitions, Whitley said “I would love it if we could do more competitions like this, but handling the logistics of travel, accommodations, and money is difficult for students…. Most other programs receive credit for participation and have full-time advisors involved at every phase. We would need something similar to participate in more of the competitions that are available.”
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