Law students practice arguing skills in mock trial

Kelly Hildebrandt

This Friday, third-year law student Carl Johnson will straighten his tie, clear his throat and walk into a classroom to argue his first case.
An experienced judge will oversee the case, Potter v. Schrackle; a jury of Stillwater high school students will decide its outcome. High school students may not be typical jurors — but this isn’t a typical case. The simulated litigation is part of a trial practice class the University Law School offers students.
“It’s really gonna be kind of fun,” Johnson said about his upcoming trial. Although he claims he’s not that nervous, Johnson said he is a little worried about his closing argument and is working on memorizing it to make sure he doesn’t babble.
The course, taught by federal and county judges, focuses on one aspect of a trial each week and culminates in a mock trial, which counts for 40 percent of the grade.
“This is a good chance to do a dry run without anything being at stake, of course, except for the students’ grades,” said Judge Ann Montgomery, one of the judges teaching the class this semester.
To prepare, students spend the semester practicing cross-examinations, opening and closing statements, and how to phrase questions, Montgomery said. Students also discuss other issues such as what wardrobe looks best in the federal court as opposed to the less formal atmosphere of the state court.
All the while, students are videotaped so they can review their performances and decide what techniques work best, said Sharon Reich, an associate dean at the Law School.
“This is their chance to walk the walk,” Montgomery said, adding that the trial lets students do what an attorney would do in a trial instead of writing in a blue book.
Tracy Smith, an attorney for the University’s general counsel, said an important thing for lawyers to remember is to be well prepared and portray their personalities honestly.
“The more experience you have, the more you realize you really need to keep the juror’s attention,” Smith said, adding that jurors get bored when points are drawn out.
Students also learn how to present themselves to the jury and judge during the semester. Johnson said it’s important to be friendly and to paint the witness as an everyday person.
“I think there’s a lot of lore out there,” Smith said, adding that if lawyers present their case well it doesn’t matter what they look like.
The trial practice class has been taught for many years and is one of many skills classes, said Maury Landsman, director of lawyering skills.