Campus Connection: UW mock trial team wins national title

By Todd Finkelmeyer

The Capital Times

Not every UW-Madison team struggled over the weekend.

The University of Wisconsin Law School's mock trial team defeated Georgetown Sunday to win the championship at the National Student Trial Advocacy Competition, which was held in New Orleans.

It's the first national title for the team, which was captained by Andrew Rima.

"We came up against some very good teams," said Rima, a third-year law student. "But we were simply the most well-prepared team, and that's why we won."

The UW-Madison squad also included third-year law student Hanna Kolberg, second-year student Matthew Van Keulen and first-year law student Kerry Gabrielson. Team members each earned a $2,500 scholarship from the American Association for Justice, which sponsored the championship. The AAJ also is sending the team to Vancouver, British Columbia, July 10-14 for that organization's annual national convention.

About the only negative associated with the trek to New Orleans was that team members had little free time to take in the famed night life of the French Quarter.

"We mostly went back to the hotel each night, practiced for the next day and got to bed early," Rima said of the four-day competition. "But (Sunday) night we got to enjoy some fresh oysters, so that was fun. But most of the time we were just exhausted."

Rhonda Lanford, an attorney with Habush Habush & Rottier, and Ellen Berz, a public defender in Madison, co-coached the squad, which was the only team at nationals coached exclusively by women.

"Preparation is the most important thing, and our coaches made us work very, very hard," said Rima. "That's why we won. Every Saturday and Sunday morning, we were at the law school at 9 a.m. until 3 or 4 in the afternoon."

To get to the finals, UW-Madison ousted the Charlotte (N.C.) School of Law in the semifinals and Pepperdine University in the quarterfinals. In the preliminary rounds, the team sent New York University and Barry University packing.

The other institutions represented at the championships included Case Western Reserve University, Cumberland University, Duquesne University, Georgia State University, Loyola University of Chicago, Massachusetts School of Law, Stetson University and the University of Texas.

This competition began with 224 teams from across the country, with only 14 advancing to the national finals in New Orleans. The UW mock trial team advanced by winning a regional in Detroit in February. That victory was bittersweet as it came over another squad from UW-Madison. In Detroit, both UW teams recorded perfect scores on all ballots in all of their rounds, with the winner of the regional title being determined by a tie-breaking ballot cast by the presiding judge.

Members of that second-place team were Kori Ashley, Kristin Lonergan, Olga Tarasova and Tyler Wilkinson. Thanks to sponsorship from the Wisconsin Civil Justice Education Foundation, that UW-Madison team was able to travel to New Orleans for educational purposes.

The rise of the UW mock trial program is quite remarkable. Although the UW started a team in the mid-1990s, it quickly died off due to a dearth of faculty and volunteers willing to put in the extra hours needed to keep the squad running. It wasn't until 2003 when Lanford, Berz and former Dane County Judge Susan Steingass committed to reviving the program.

UW Law School Professor Mullen Dowdal has been the faculty representative for the program since Steingass' retirement in July of 2008.

About 75 students showed up for the mock trial team's tryouts this past fall, with 15 students making the squad. Dowdal said students are assigned to different teams, with those squads competing in eight competitions during the academic year.

"Winning in New Orleans really gives the program greater visibility here in the Law School, to our alumni network and to the greater campus community," said Dowdal. "The administration has always been supportive of the program, but during difficult budget times it's nice to have a little good publicity."

The university has long had a successful moot court program, which gives students experience in appellate work, in which they write briefs and then argue to a court. But mock trial programs feature civil cases that are designed to expose students to the ins and outs of a jury or bench trial, and to enhance their critical thinking and public speaking skills.

"I think winning the championship is a good sign to the alumni and to the people who are thinking about hiring our graduates that we're teaching law students how to actually be lawyers," said Dowdal. "What these students did in terms of putting together this case, that's what being a lawyer is about."

Noted Rima: "I think this finally puts our mock trial program on the national map and I hope this lends more credibility to our program within the Law School. I think mock trial is often in the background at the UW Law School, but hopefully that's not the case anymore."

Teams entering mock trial events are provided packets that feature information on a case -- such as the charges and basis of the case, specific rules that must be followed and affidavits of each of the potential witnesses. Additional information, such as diagrams, documents and maps, are often included to help teams better understand the case. Teams then meet to analyze and discuss the information and practice how they will present their case -- both from the defense and prosecution/plaintiff sides.

Teams are judged on their skills in case preparation, opening statements, use of facts, the examination of lay and expert witnesses, and closing arguments. The judge and jury in these events typically are comprised of other judges and lawyers.

The case at the national championships dealt with medical malpractice.

"A lot of teams tried to make interesting theories that weren't supported by the facts, and if we weren't as prepared as we were we probably would have fell into that trap," says Rima. "I think we also had good knowledge of court procedure and that helped us. The judges like the fact that you know what you're talking about when you make an objection and they don't have to constantly remind you what you're doing in the courtroom, you just automatically do it."

Attorney Robert Habush, president of Habush, Habush & Rottier and a 1961 graduate of the UW Law School, funds much of the UW mock trial team, making it possible for program members to travel the country in search of the best competition.

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