Mock Trial coaches adapt to the pandemic in real and mock cases

AnnaLise Sandrich

Before COVID-19, the Mock Trial Team would meet in the Marin County Superior Court, holding their trials in round courtrooms filled with blue seats and with acoustics designed so that if a student stood in the center, their voice would echo throughout the courtroom. Witnesses presented evidence on real witness stands, next to the bench where professional judges listened to everything from witness testimony to arguments and objections. This old setup however is a stark contrast to the new realities of mute buttons, breakout rooms and other online features that will accompany not just this year’s Mock Trial competition but real trials as well. Redwood Mock Trial team coaches and practicing attorneys James Parker, Sara Allman and Scott Bonder have all been forced to adapt.

This year, Mock Trial will be holding practices and competitions online.(AnnaLise Sandrich)

The new model for conducting real and mock trials is unprecedented, but the coaches have decades of experience with both mock and real law to draw from. Coach Parker didn’t participate in mock trials until law school but was influenced by his father, an attorney, at a young age. During childhood dinners, Parker’s father would even “cross-examine” him and his brothers. Allman didn’t participate in mock trials until law school either, but school was where she developed a love for the analysis and research that goes into a mock case. Bonder’s first experiences with mock trials were in law school as well, where he first became interested in coaching. His education and experience have proven useful this year while navigating the new changes in Mock Trials and especially in real court cases.

“There’s a lot of people who need certainty in their business one way or another… and a lot of (cases are) just on hold right now,” Bonder said.

Although the procedure is similar to what it was before COVID, lawyers have had to learn how to virtually get their message across to jurors and navigate a new inability to read body language. Parker finds it much easier to work with people face to face but has had experiences where a witness was taped in advance.

“Before we play the tape, we edit it to take out bad questions, or something that may be objectionable, so the jury gets an edited version. It’s the most boring thing ever,” Parker said.

However, there are benefits to the new virtual situation. Mock Trial meetings now have more flexibility and are easier to schedule. In some cases, using technology in real trials has also added advantages, such as the attorney’s ability to present digital evidence. 

“It’s easier to share my screen and do powerpoints, which in a lot of courtrooms are very difficult to do because the technology in the courtroom often fails or is just terrible,” Bonder said. 

But these potential new online benefits do not compensate for the loss of an authentic setting. In prior years, having real and experienced lawyers as coaches, holding competitions in an actual courthouse and presenting arguments to professional judges created a realistic environment for aspiring lawyers to practice their skills in Mock Trial. 

“It’s the closest you can come to being a real lawyer without being a licensed lawyer,” Allman said. “You dress up like a lawyer, and you make an argument, you pose objections and introduce evidence. It’s very authentic, and everybody comes out of it just feeling like they’ve improved themselves.” 

Students aren’t the only ones who benefit from Mock Trial. The coaches also enjoy watching students transform from inexperienced to confident and knowledgeable in legal practices. 

“When they finally show up at the competition, and they’re doing everything we want them to do, … you’re just bursting with pride,” Parker said. 

Much of what makes the effort put into coaching worthwhile is the positive feedback from both the students and the judges.

“The judge typically makes a comment like, ‘You’re doing a whole lot better than many of the real lawyers we see in the courtroom,’” Allman said. 

Although there will be many challenges and changes this year, the attorney coaches and Mock Trial students will continue to find ways to adapt to the new circumstances. 

“The main thing about a trial is you have to tell a story. You use facts, you use certain legal concepts, but ultimately, you’re telling a story, and whoever tells the story best tends to win. We have to figure out how we’re going to tell a story without somebody actually there to really get feedback from,” Parker said.