UMass mock trial team prepares for Harvard invitational

By Jennifer Heshion

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Following a third place win at the Oct. 23-25 invitational competition held at the University of New Hampshire, mock trial team members of the University of Massachusetts are readying themselves for upcoming courtroom battles at Harvard University.

Known to the members of mock trial as “Hell Week,” co-captain of the UMass team Joseph Mendes said this week the team will immerse themselves in nightly rehearsals every day for practice sessions before they travel to Cambridge on Nov. 7 for the Fourth Annual Harvard Crimson Classic Invitational.

Dressing the part of a lawyer or a witness, breaking down opening and closing arguments or just trying to get the witness to break down for the jury, are all what makes “Hell Week” essential for the team’s preparation, Mendes said.

According to Mendes, the UMass mock trial team, which he had co-founded in 2007 with current co-captain David Chen, is still riding high on their third place win, also their highest ranked placement, two weeks ago in New Hampshire.

“The first place team was UNH, but they didn’t have a perfect record because their only loss was to us,” said Mendes, a junior legal studies major. “So to put it into perspective, we were kind of the underdog.”

As part of the American Mock Trial Association (AMTA), which was founded in 1987 by Dean Richard Calkins of Drake Law School, the UMass team is in its third season as a registered student-run organization with the University.

AMTA provides each intercollegiate team with a case file for them to argue in an unscripted trial simulation for both invitational and national competitions.

After receiving the case from AMTA, each team member is then assigned a specific role to play throughout the duration of the trial based upon the individual’s performance during a try-out session overseen by the team’s captains. Taking on the role of prosecutor, defense attorney or witness, the team members enter the competitions where they will be judged by active or retired lawyers and judges.

The mock trial teams across New England typically register themselves to participate in an invitational. This year UMass was personally invited to compete at Harvard, which Chen said is a real honor.

“Harvard is the top of the pyramid for all invitational mock trial tournaments,” Chen said. “The Harvard tournament has the best teams period. I think we are at the point where we can stand toe to toe with them.”

The invitational at Harvard follows three years since Chen, a senior legal studies and political science major, had said he had pitched the idea of establishing a UMass mock trial team to the head of the political science department. With the department’s cooperation, Chen said that he sent out e-mails to everyone on the political science mailing list as well as through the legal studies department hoping for a positive student response.

“I did model UN in high school and I wanted to do something really pertinent,” Chen said. “It just seemed like a natural thing to do.”

According to Mendes, his decision to meet with Chen came after he had received one of the mass e-mails through the legal studies department. Adding that he had participated in mock trial in high school, Mendes said the main reason he wanted to join a UMass team was based on both his and Chen’s mutual respect for the legal system and for the thrill of the competition.

“Once you get to a competition and see it in action it’s really competitive,” Mendes said. “People get really into it.”

Since its establishment with the University back in 2007, membership has expanded from the original three members who had initiated the club to include both an A team and a B team of students, according to Mendes.

“Anyone can join mock trial whether you’re legal studies or a neuroscience major,” Mendes said. “It builds public speaking and writing skills. Its fun because like debate team it is almost like a sports team except our uniforms are business suits and shoes as opposed to skates and pads.”

Chen added that, “The more we do this the more stimulating the arguments get. It hones these skills you need in everyday life. You have to analyze things sharply and know the other guy is doing the same thing. We went from having a knowledge base of zero and now we are at the level or near the level of the top-tier teams.”

According to Chen, the UMass mock trial team is a good learning opportunity for students who are considering careers in the legal profession. Chen added that because the competitions are professionally conducted, it forces the teams to better their game and learn how to handle themselves in a courtroom setting.

“We had to learn things on the fly,” Chen said. “We had to learn things to pass on to new members. A lot of what we do is to retain knowledge and pass that on. It’s students teaching students.”

Playing the part of a lawyer in one round of the UNH invitational two weeks ago and as a witness in the next round, Chen said he had learned the impact that emotions can bear on a case.

“As an attorney I have to exude confidence and act credible,” Chen said. “On the other hand my witness is kind of a wimp. The trials alternate so I have to switch my mindset. You can be on the other side of the table. The attorney asks you questions and you can try to spoof them. You don’t want to do it in a way that you are lying. You can control your emotions and your personality.”

For his efforts as both attorney and witness, Chen was awarded the top witness prize at the UNH invitational.

“Hell Week,” meanwhile, carries on until this Friday when the UMass mock trial team will head to Cambridge to compete with several prestigious Ivy League schools, including, Brown University, Yale University and, of course, the Harvard Crimson team.

“It’s been unbelievable,” Mendes said. “It’s gotten so much bigger and we have gotten so much support from the University. It can be pretty exhausting and it’s hard to keep up with classes. It’s a lot of commitment but it’s worth it. We’re ready.”

Jennifer Heshion can be reached at [email protected]