Top Ten

The Phillips Exeter Academy Mock Trial Team, of which I am the proud coach, just  won tenth place at the 2013 National High School Mock Trial Championship.  At the awards banquet Saturday night, the top ten teams are “called out” and honored, starting with tenth and proceeding to first.  We knew that we had a chance to be ninth or tenth, a slight chance.  When our name was called, we exploded in joy:  screaming, jumping, hugging, crying.  It was an amazing moment, an amazing weekend.

We have learned, in our two years at nationals, that the day BEFORE the official competition is almost as important as the two days of the competition.  This day, the  Thursday, is the day you scrimmage against two or even three other teams, see how your arguments “hold up,” how your witnesses hold up on cross examination.

At nine this past Thursday we had a scrimmage against Seattle Prep from Washington state.  They were great; it was clear (to me at least) that if this had been a real trial Washington would have won.  In particular, they had many objections to our questions, points which we had either not considered or not fully considered.  And the judge for this round, a sage lawyer from Washington, forced each side to articulate its arguments on objections, great practice for both sides.

After the scrimmage we and Washington went to a nearby café for a joint lunch.  One of the best parts of the tournament is the relations that build between students and adults from different states.  It was great to see the kids from the two schools talking intently at their various tables; it was especially great for me when one of the kids from Seattle Prep said that he was halfway through reading my Seward book.

In the afternoon we faced up against North Carolina, arguing the other side of the case.  They were also great, with pleasant, affable witnesses, which is hard, because it makes the crossing lawyer look like a jerk.  I am not sure who would have “won” the round if it had been scored.

Friday morning the real competition starts, at nine am, in the court house, which was about three quarters of a mile from the hotel.  Getting twelve teenagers up, dressed in their suits, and fed in time to leave the hotel by eight was a challenge.  We could not have done it without Audrey.  She not only prodded the girls in her room, she went out, found breakfast, purchased it, persuaded the restaurant to send someone with her to deliver it, presented it to us in the lobby a few minutes before eight.  Without her we would not have eaten.

Our first trial Friday was against North Carolina; and we were on the same side that we had scrimmaged the prior afternoon.  An amazing coincidence, and I am not sure helpful for either of us; we knew what to expect from them and vice versa.  We had, in that round, the best of the presiding judges we had all weekend, I think; not only smart and fair and prepared on the case materials; he listened so carefully and ruled so precisely.  At the end of the trial, I was utterly unsure whether we had won; it was a very even, hard-fought round.

You do not learn, as you emerge from each round, whether you won or lost; you only receive some general comments from the judges “well done, keep up the good work.”  But there is another way to know how you are doing:  the teams you face.  The pairings in the first round are random, but after the first round, winners face winners and losers face losers.  So if you face, in the second round, a really good team, well that strongly suggests that you won your first round.  If you face, in the second round, a mediocre team, well that suggests that you lost in the first round, and that you are now facing another team that also lost in the first round.

When we walked into the courtroom on Friday afternoon, we learned that we were facing Montgomery County High School from Mount Sterling Kentucky.  Mock trial, like other sports, has some schools that tend to be great year after year.  Montgomery County Kentucky has t-shirts to announce that, over the past twenty years, they have won the state championship twelve or thirteen times.  In a substantial state like Kentucky, that is an amazing feat; akin to winning the Pac-10 football championship ten times in fifteen years.  We were facing, in short, one of the strongest teams.

As I told the kids in our pretrial hallway conference, that was both good and bad news.  The good news was that it seemed that we had probably beaten North Carolina; in other words, that we had one victory “in the books.”  The bad news was that, in order to beat Kentucky, we were going to have to be even better.

We were better.  Rohan opened the case for us as the plaintiffs:  “Pro Propane Products broke its promise, its fundamental promise, to deliver safe propane tanks, tanks that would not explode.”  Alice was our first witness, Mel Lowe, and she was great; smooth and engaging; solid on cross examination.  Kieran was second, with his great Appalachian accent and humor.  Saisha, our expert, was excellent; smooth and persuasive and (with her Indian accent) different.  Three witnesses on our side and then three witnesses for Kentucky.   Kentucky had two solid and (in my view) one great lawyer:  a kid as big as a football player, a real presence in the court.

At the end of the trial, I was again unsure how we did; I thought perhaps we had won, but more likely that we had lost.  Friday night we took a few hours off, to have a nice dinner, and then we went to work again, trying to revise and improve a few parts of our case, issues that we had seen during the two trials.  I knocked off at midnight but I think some of them worked till one.

The next morning, Saturday, we were up even earlier, in order to get to the courthouse earlier.  Audrey and I handled breakfast together, kids ate in my room in a few minutes before we walked down and out.  We were facing, we learned when they arrived in the room, Strom Thurmond High School from South Carolina.  At the last minute, there was an opening for an extra team, a bye-buster team, to make the numbers even.  They had done what they could, in short time, but we had the sense, even before we started, that this was a round we could win.

We did win.  They were pretty good, but not as good as we were; at a couple of points the witnesses did not know the fine print of their affidavits.  And our lawyers, I felt, were better prepared on objections, knew the evidence issues better.

On Saturday afternoon, we walked into a courtroom that was already full of parents and family members.  We learned that this was John Adams High School from Indiana, another mock trial powerhouse.  Indeed (I did not know this at the time) they have won the national championship two times in the past five years.

This time we were the defense, so John Adams started off, and they had some great witnesses, the best Mel Lowe (the artistic theater owner) and Joe Kerr (the West Virginia theater worker) that we had seen all week.  We made some progress on them in cross examination, but not much.  Our witnesses were (as they had been all weekend) great:  Kieran, Alice and Grace, playing the propane expert with an endearing Texas accent.  Joon gave a great closing, one of the best I have ever seen him do, and I have seen him give some great ones.  But closing is generally great on both sides; even if Joon got a “ten” the other lawyer probably got a “nine” from the judges.

Once again, I really had no sense at the end of whether we had won or lost.  One worrisome detail was that the three scoring judges were all from Indiana.  Teams are identified by codes, so that in theory the judges do not know who is who, but it seemed to me unlikely that three judges from Indiana did not know the identity of the most famous mock trial team in the state.

So, as we went into the awards ceremony at eight, we really did not know.  Were we “three and one,” in which case we would perhaps be in the top ten?  Or were we “two and two,” in which case we would finish somewhere in the middle of the pack, perhaps about twentieth again?

Before they announce team awards they announce individual awards.  This was both good and bad for us:  one of our lawyers, Joon Yang, won one of the “ten best lawyer awards.”  Great news.  But then many of the lawyers and witnesses whom we faced won awards; if they were such great witnesses, our cross scores could not have been great.

As they started the team awards, we all leaned in to the table.  When we heard our name, we all leapt to our feet as one, knocking over several chairs.  We then proceeded to the podium, amidst the applause, received our little glass cubes, and had our photo taken, beaming I am sure.  I really did not hear the names of the next few teams, I was so busy hugging my team members, exchanging thanks and congratulations.

We now have slightly more information about the results:  we have confirmed that we beat North Carolina, we lost to Kentucky, we beat South Carolina, and we beat Indiana.  The last one is probably the most impressive; John Adams is just such a mock trial power.  We also know that all the trials were close; even in the trial we “lost,” one judge would have awarded us the victory.

So a great weekend, a great result, a great step for mock trial here at Exeter.  Thanks again to the team:  the lawyers, Rohan, Gene, Joon and Ange; the witnesses Grace, Alice, Saisha and Kieran; the timekeeper Audrey; and our alternates Drew, Danna and Darleny.  Thanks to the school for its financial support, and for bringing these students together.  On to 2014!