So what if they came in last, or second to last, at three competitions? Members of St. Catherine University’s mock trial team kept practicing. In February, the students placed eighth out of 22 teams at the Minnesota regional tournament — and advanced one step closer to the nationals.
Team St. Kate's is headed to the Opening Round Championship Series (ORCS) at the Lake County Courthouse in Wuakegan, Illinois, March 8-10.
The competition is one of eight sponsored by the American Mock Trial Association across the United States. St. Kate’s will go up against more established teams from the University of Chicago, University of Michigan, University of Illinois–Chicago, Notre Dame, University of Wisconsin–Superior, Wheaton College, Northwood University and Hillsdale College; in addition to local rivals from Macalester, Hamline, St. Thomas and the University of Minnesota.
There, the teams will argue both sides of a civil case — involving a death during a scuba diving excursion — in four rounds. (Each side of the case is presented twice.) Two judges will score their performance.
Typically, about a third of the 600 teams that compete at regional level advance to the ORCS. The top six teams from each opening round tournament then move on to the National Championship Tournament in Washington, D.C. in April.
“We’re excited to make it to this level,” says team captain Nhi Phan ’14, who was named best attorney at the regional tournament in St. Paul (scoring 18 points out of 20 points). “But we’re also nervous because we have a lot of work to do.”
Phan, a communications studies major, will compete in Wuakegan with Any Montenegro ’13, financial management; Alicia Gaulden '15, accounting; Elisabeth Bierstaker ’13, marketing and management; Ngoc Nguyen ’15, communication studies; and Lindsay Roloff ’13, political science. (Leah Nankumba ’13 and Sarah Moundanga-Lucka '13 competed at the other events.)
“It’s jaw-dropping amazing they’ve come this far,” says Susan Burns, a business attorney in private practice and St. Kate’s mock trial coach. “We have no depth on the bench. None have law background; three are new to mock trial; and for three of them, English is their second language. This really is a Cinderella story.”
The students have had to work extra hard for months to understand legal lingo and to use it correctly, adds Burns. They’ve learned about affidavits, rules of evidence and case strategy, for example, from Burns and local trial lawyer, Theresa Bofferding. St. Kate’s Assistant Professor and Director of Theater Theresa Lyons-Hegdahl has helped the team hone their public speaking and acting skills.
Mock trial at St. Kate’s
St. Kate’s first offered mock trial participation for credit in fall 2010. This academic year, however, a group of students organized the mock trial team under a new Pre-Law Club at the University.
“Next year, it will be offered for credit again, and that will be a permanent arrangement,” says Margaret Smith, faculty advisor and chair of St. Kate's political science department.
Mock trial offers excellent professional preparation for all students, especially those who plan to become lawyers, she adds. “The students learn to think on their feet, improve their public speaking and critical thinking, gain self confidence and learn a good deal about the law,” Smith explains. “Students from any undergraduate major are encouraged to participate.”
Smith, like Coach Burns, is impressed with her students’ achievement. “This is the first time the team has advanced beyond the regionals,” she says.
Phan, the 2013 team captain, joined the team last year because “I wanted to get out of my comfort zone.” Now, she’s hooked on arguing court cases and has set her sights on law school. “I want to do this the rest of my life,” she says.
Her teammate Roloff is law school-bound too. “Once you get your hooks into (playing a trial lawyer), it’s hard to get out,” says Roloff, who earned the top attorney award at the regional tournament in 2011.
At a recent practice session in Mendel Hall, Burns spent nearly three hours with the students — patiently teasing information like cause of death and character evidence from them.
“When I started practicing in 1981, there were hardly any women in the field and it was hard to find mentors,” she says. “That’s why I feel very strongly about helping these St. Kate’s students. They are really driven and at the top of their game.”