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Real Competition, Mock Trial Workshop Kicks Off the New Season
There was the judge in flowing black robes.
The attorneys were suited up – the men in pinstripes and the women in power red and black.
They made passionate opening statements about Internet pirates and identity theft. The witnesses were sworn-in and then grilled during blistering cross-examinations.
During it all, the jury sat in silence evaluating the claims and the room was filled with nearly 200 observers.
But this wasn’t a civil trial unfolding in one of the state’s superior courts. It marked the opening of 27th annual Vincent J. Apruzzese Mock Trial Competition.
The crowd of educators, students and lawyers gathered recently at the Law Center in New Brunswick, for a day-long mock trial workshop to review the trial structure, watch last year’s winners try out the new case and get litigation tips to take back to their teams. The mock trial competition involves all 21 county bar associations and is overseen by the New Jersey State Bar Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the association, said Ronald Appleby, chair of the mock trial committee. Each team is coached by a teacher and works with a volunteer attorney.
“It is a wonderful experience for the students,” said state Superior Court Judge Louis LoCascio, who sits in Freehold, and served as the judge of the event. “Whether they want to be a lawyer or now, it’s a great way for kids to get confidence. If they’re on their feet as a lawyer or on the stand as a witness, they’re up there all alone. It’s a confidence builder.”
And for those students considering getting into the legal profession: “This will tell you if you want to be a lawyer,” said LoCascio.
The competition pits student teams from high schools around the state against each other. Students from each school play the various roles of plantiffs, defendants, attorneys, witnesses and jurors. Winners advance to the foundation’s regional, semi-final and final competitions, held in the winter and spring.
This year’s case centers on whether fictitous honor student Dillon Matthews unlawfully downloaded and shared 902 music files over a peer-to-peer network. She is being sued by the American Association of Recording Companies, Inc., but Dillon claims she is a victim of identity theft.
During the workshop, teams from Colts Neck and Livingston – last year’s top winners – put the case through its paces. There was testimony from the lead singer of a 1980s punk rock band, computer engineering experts, and other students at the fictitious Metropolitan High School.
From the start, Judge LoCascio was quick to offer his expert advice to the students handling the case and the teachers who were watching. As the student attorneys entered their appearances for the record, he jumped in to suggest they always begin with: “May it please the court.”
“If you want to do it right, that’s the way you should do it,” he said.
Dana Amato, a junior at Colts Neck High School, hopes to be an expert witness during the competition season. Amato views the competition as a training ground to becoming an attorney.
“This is pretty much the most incredible thing ever,” she said. “Working with the lawyers and learning about the process it one of the most fun things I get to do.”
Livingston High School senior Lisa Killary is in her third year of mock trial competition.
“It’s a lot of work but the work is a lot of fun,” said Killary.
Plenty of those in attendance were veterans of the competition, but a few were also scouting it out to decide whether to form at team at their school.
Sean O’Beirne, a social studies teacher at Dumont High School, said the school has a legal issues class that has grown steadily over the years. The students need a new challenge, and mock trial might just be the thing school officials are looking for.
“It seems like something the students would be passionate about,” said O’Beirne.
Volunteer attorney Cynthia Miller said the fun isn’t just for the students. It’s for the lawyers, too.
A civil litigator for the state Attorney General’s Office, she said she gets a thrill from working with the students at Doane Academy in Burlington. The competition and their work inspire her.
“I like the litigation process and the students are very receptive to learning,” said Miller. “Whenever I teach, I have to teach myself first. It sharpens my skills. I love the analysis of the cases and showing them how to do that and to use the facts.”
The New Jersey State Bar Association is the state’s premiere voluntary lawyers group. It is dedicated to the continuing education of lawyers and the public and to reforming and improving the legal system. It encourages involvement in voluntary pro bono activities and supports the fair administration of justice. Incorporated in 1899, it is the state’s largest lawyers group. Visit the Association at www.njsba.com.