On June 24-26, the Kline School of Law hosted a new kind of mock trial competition: “Trial by Combat,” the first college level, one-on-one competition in the U.S. Instead of working within a team of students, 16 undergraduate-level students competed by themselves, squaring off head-to-head to determine the best trial advocate in the country.
“It’s really different when you’re up there by yourself because when something goes wrong, there is no one else to help,” said Justin Bernstein, assistant professor of law and associate director of the Trial Advocacy program at the Kline School of Law.
The tournament, which was held at the Thomas R. Kline Institute of Trial Advocacy in Center City, had 16 competitors from colleges and universities around the country, from Ivy League schools to regional colleges. Students were allowed help from one coach in preparing their cases.
Nicolas Ramos of New York University won the first-ever competition.
“This was one of the highest levels of competition I’ve ever seen,” he said on Sunday while holding the trophy for the tournament, a sword.
Bernstein said this format is more challenging than team-based mock trial, and more realistic because “most lawyers, when they go to court, it’s just them.” It’s also different in that competitors get the case 24 hours before competition opens, not months in advance.
“I hope they learn they are capable of preparing a case in 24 hours, even if it’s not as perfect or polished as one they might present after three, four, five months of preparation,” he said. “I hope they learn they are talented enough to take information, process it and create a phenomenal, persuasive argument.”
Another goal is for the students to connect with each other, and form bonds that will take them into law school and beyond.
“It’s really fun hanging out with the other competitors,” said Chris Grant, a senior at Northwood University. “It’s a fun, good competition that got me to come out of my box.” He was told to apply to participate by Stephen Johnson, a senior at the University of Cincinnati.
“Mock trial is a very close-knit community,” Johnson said. “To be able to spend time with these people not in the context of mock trail is refreshing.”
DeLois Leapheart, founder of the Northwood University Trial Advocacy program who is also on the board of directors for the American Mock Trial Association, served as Grant’s coach in the competition. As the students milled about shaking hands and joked with each other on the first morning of the tournament. “Nine months of the year, they work within the parameters of the team. Then for one weekend in the summer, you have unbridled freedom,” she said.