By Roy Strom
Moments before team captain Clare Diegel gave her closing argument in a 2011 mock trial national championship, coach Rick Levin called an audible.
This change of plans occurred at one of the most pressure-packed moments in Chicago's illustrious mock trial history.
Northwestern University School of Law's team faced its intercity rival IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law — both tied at the time for the most national titles among Chicago law schools with three apiece — in a trial competition that so far indicated no clear winner, Levin said.
"I did something in my closing argument that — controversial may be too strong — but in the mock trial world it was a little surprising," said Diegel, Northwestern's two-year captain and then a 2L who delivered the impromptu closing argument.
The morning of the trial, Levin said the team came up with a way to add some drama to Diegel's 20-minute diatribe. She planned to pace across the courtroom, accusing a defendant of sitting on a porch and quietly plotting the murder of a judge moments before shooting him. Instead of pacing, she acted.
"In the opening paragraph of the closing argument, I said the defendant sat down and waited for her victim — so I sat down and waited," Diegel said.
Sitting down, she said she peered at the 19 judges gathered around her before slowly getting up and addressing the imaginary victim in a re-enactment of the moments before his death.
"That was very risky, but Rick is always telling us to push the envelope and do something unexpected," Diegel said.
Risky or not, the audible worked.
The Northwestern team won its fourth title in 2011 by the closest of margins, 10 to 9.
Northwestern's win notched national title No. 10 for law schools in Chicago and Indiana. The Chicago and Indiana region stands tied with Texas and Louisiana for the most since the Texas Young Lawyers Association National Trial Competition began in 1976.
That anecdote provides an example of what competitors, coaches and trial advocacy program directors said make the process of putting on mock trials sometimes similar to a college sports program: Finding talent, building a polished team through a grueling practice schedule and preparing the students for a career as a professional.
Like a basketball player needs height, trial team coaches and team members said they need to possess inherent talent that includes some mixture of confidence, quick-thinking and, like Diegel showed in her closing argument, acting ability. Coaches discover the talent in nerve-wracking tryouts.
If a student makes it onto a team — anywhere from 40 to 100 students try out at various Chicago law schools — they commit to a serious training regimen that some students and coaches said takes up 30 to 50 hours a week. Coaches, often volunteers, dedicate about 20 hours a week to training students so they can react smoothly to the last-second adjustments that litter high-level trial competition.
And after their mock trial careers, many students go pro. They join a close-knit band of mock trial alums who become successful lawyers in local criminal defender's programs, U.S. and state's attorneys offices and law firms across the country.
Finding the talent
Justin Haber, a 3L team member on this year's IIT Chicago-Kent trial team, pored himself into writing movies as an undergraduate majoring in creative writing.
Top: (From left to right) Northwestern University School of Law trial team members Lauren Myerscough-Mueller, Mike Lehrman, John Mack Jr. and Lee Lohff showed their serious sides with their counterparts from IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law: Tara Korthals, Valerie Raedy, Justin Haber and Bernadett Guy.
Bottom: The law school teams showed another side of the competition. "Everyone I talk to about the trial team said it's the most fun that they had in law school without a doubt," said Northwestern's Mack (third from left).
Photos by Lisa Predko.
In his screenplays, he said he wrote the minute details of each scene — facial expressions, the emotions of a character and hand gestures.
"Those are all things that translate into mock trial — trying to capture the room and trying to capture a jury," Haber said. "It involves the words you're using, it involves your hand motions. In a lot of ways, it's a script. What you're doing is a script. So I think that had an appeal to me."
But students like Haber face a series of challenges in landing a spot on a trial team regardless of how much it appeals to them.
David Erickson, a retired 1st District Appellate Court justice who now coaches IIT Chicago-Kent's top team and directs its Trial Advocacy Program, said 68 students tried out for his team this year. Thirteen made it.
Associate Judge Thomas Donnelly, who directs the Philip H. Corboy Trial Advocacy Fellowship at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, said anywhere from 80 to 100 students try out for the Corboy fellowship each year.
Fewer than 10 will land the $4,000-a-year scholarship and guaranteed spot on a trial team.
The John Marshall Law School holds an internal competition for first-year students that "is used by the program to gauge the upcoming individuals," said Eric Wojnicki, a John Marshall trial team member who will be a 3L this school year.
Apart from the fierce competition, students said the unknown qualities coaches look for in tryouts tested their mettle.
What does talent mean in the trial team context?
"It's an intense process," said Tara Korthals, a 3L member of this year's IIT Chicago-Kent team. "I was pacing the halls."
Korthals said she got used to performing in front of crowds when she participated in dance competitions for 10 years growing up. She knew what to expect walking onto the floor to perform a routine.
But the confidence that usually accompanied her didn't last long during the trial team audition, she said. She gave an opening statement in a room where "20 people just stare at you," she said.
"You probably prepared (your opening statement) a couple days before, maybe, and you have no idea what you're doing, because you've never done this before," Korthals said.
"You don't know what the goal is. You have no idea. You're just going to go in there and hope that you have what they're looking for."
Amit Banerji, a 3L captain of Northwestern's 2010 national trial team and now an associate at Skadden, said he tried out as a first-year law student only because he knew "how prestigious the program was."
He joined the throng of 40 students who typically make a run for Northwestern's team at one of two yearly auditions.
They compete for anywhere from two to five spots, depending on how many teammates return from the prior year, said Levin, the team's coach.
Two minutes into Banerji's tryout, he said he noticed something unsettling. One of the coaches seemed uninterested, his head down, scribbling on paper instead of keenly looking on.
"And I took it to mean, 'Oh my God. He's bored,'" Banerji said. "How do I make this more interesting? How do I pull him in?"
He can't pinpoint what he did in his first round of tryouts to pull in the coaches, but Banerji said he made it to the second round.
There, he learned what Levin, the team's coach, said he looks for in his team members.
"It's like a combination of you've got to have just raw talent and there's a Yiddish term, 'chutzpah,' this form of pizzazz," said Levin, who volunteers as a Northwestern coach along with his law partner, Adam Riback.
Levin and Riback go looking for that pizzazz in an interview that asks questions seemingly irrelevant to putting on a trial: What's your favorite TV show? Do you like dogs? What's your sense of humor like? What are you embarrassed about?
Some give "really canned responses," but others show him something that hints at their chutzpah, Levin said. One interviewee, for instance, told Levin his favorite TV show was "South Park," which Levin said showed the student's sense of humor, something a jury can relate to.
"We are really looking for people and not lawyers," Levin said. "If they have a great personality, if they're highly motivated and are amazing workers, we know we're going to be able to mold them into great trial lawyers."
But different coaches define talent and go about finding it in different ways. Or, at least, no other coaches referenced "chutzpah" as a criteria on their rubric.
Erickson, IIT Chicago-Kent's coach, described finding talent as being "a good judge of horseflesh."
"In basketball, you can't teach tall. And in the legal world, you can't teach smart. It's what God gave you," he said.
Donnelly, from Loyola, said he gets his first glimpse at a student's natural abilities when he asks them to conduct a cross-examination during tryouts.
"In the trial practice context, it's funny, you can usually tell within the first 20 seconds whether they've got it," he said.
"We're looking to see if they … are in control of the witness. And you can tell that pretty much by the cadence of their voice, their posture. And once they have that, you can teach them everything else."
Building the team
Once a coach finds enough students who possess the traits they desire, those students set off on a mock trial season that includes two or three competitions, five months of practice and 30 to 50 hours of work each week.
They turn 50-some pages of a complaint, evidence list and depositions into a full-blown trial, practicing every portion dozens of times, students said.
They compose opening statements and closing arguments.
(From left to right) Lauren Myerscough-Mueller, a Northwestern University School of Law trial team member, learned trial advocacy from her coach Rick Levin, who said his practices "are 100 percent inefficient," while Judge David Erickson, the coach at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, takes a more formal approach that he characterizes as a "benevolent dictatorship" with his team members, like Valerie Raedy.
Photo by Natalie Battaglia.
They determine how to enter or block any of the evidence in the packet. And they create questions to grill a witness with on direct- and cross-examination.
Practice alone equates to the time commitment of a part- or full-time job depending on the point of the season, students said.
"When we first meet with the students, we tell them to forsake all worldly relationships, because either this is what you're going to commit yourself to or don't be here," said Warren Wolfson, one of the founders of IIT Chicago-Kent's trial advocacy program and coach of the first national championship team from a Chicago law school in 1988.
Wolfson said he learned the importance of a rigorous practice routine after his first year coaching a trial team in 1982.
"It was very crude and I didn't quite get it," Wolfson said of his approach to the first-ever tournament he coached in Des Moines, Iowa.
"We got whipped, because we weren't ready. We just didn't understand the intensity of it. And so I said to myself that I'm never going to let that happen to me again."
The next year, Wolfson brought in Erickson and Michael Angarola, both attorneys at the time in the Cook County state's attorney office, to help him coach the team.
Erickson took the lead as the school's head trial team coach in 1989 and as its Trial Advocacy Program director in 2006.
"My goal is to turn them into being as much of a real trial lawyer as I can," Erickson said.
"Something different is going to happen in every trial they're going to try their entire life and they're not going to have me or their other coaches be sitting there (to ask) 'What do I do?'"
Coaches take different approaches to training.
Erickson, for instance, described his leadership style as "a benevolent dictatorship."
"I don't have a democracy," he said. "What I say is what happens in the end. We all work at it, but it's really a benevolent dictatorship."
When developing a theory for a case, for example, Erickson said he hears all sides and lets the students come up with their ideas, but he makes the final decision for which theory they will pursue in preparing their case.
Erickson said he maintains a "more formal" approach than Levin.
Levin said he coaches his Northwestern law students at his home, a Northbrook pancake house and his law firm's offices.
He spends anywhere from five to 20 hours a weekend practicing at his house, where students befriend his seven dogs after a team breakfast, always at a restaurant called Georgie V's — where his team's photo hangs on the wall.
"I usually have eight students on my team and I'm serious when I say this: They become part of my family," Levin said.
"And I'm not talking about my Northwestern family, I'm talking about my nuclear family. … My wife gets to know everybody as well as I do," Levin said.
Apart from creating a team culture, Levin said he coaches his students to think about a trial as a dynamic, constantly changing scenario.
The key to winning trial tournaments, he said, lies in learning a case inside and out — organically understanding each piece of information as if they lived the event themselves.
"And then when they get to that point, they will deliver in an amazing way as opposed to if I wrote it for them and now they're acting it out," he said. "That's the difference between being good and being amazing. And when we go to these competitions, these students are amazing."
Third-year student Mike Lehrman, a member of Levin's team this year and last, referred to it as "the breakthrough moment." The case initially feels like something to act out, but eventually competitors internalize the facts of the case and react instinctively.
"They give you this case file and you analyze it for days and days and days, weeks, even months," he said.
"And all of a sudden you're like, 'Oh, my God, I didn't realize that there are these sets of facts that you can put together and make a really compelling argument that we never realized.'"
Haber, from IIT Chicago-Kent's team, said when he first receives a position in a case, he learns the facts and plans how to act out that argument.
"But then you start to live it and embody it and that's why when someone says something on cross it's like you're passionate about it," Haber said. "And you want to stomp them out."
Korthals, Haber's teammate, said, "You get really upset when people try to make things worse for you, and they go after you, and you actually take it personally. They're playing a role and so are you, but you start to take it personal."
Erickson, from IIT Chicago-Kent, said he works to coach those kinds of reactions out of his team.
"You want to have educated them to the point that they will react, know what to do and do it," he said. "They will analyze the situation. And that's my goal."
Donnelly, who heads the Corboy fellowship at Loyola, said the trial team creates a sense of camaraderie among its alumni.
"I'll walk down the street in Chicago and the former Corboy fellows in the fall are asking me, 'How do we look?'" Donnelly said. "There's curiosity about what's the new talent. Because, of course, every trial lawyer is unique and will change the way law is practiced."
And most every lawyer on his team will get the chance to do that, he said. Of the five Corboy fellows who graduated last year, all five received job offers as lawyers.
"What matters to me more is our success in placing students in jobs where they'll be happy," he said. "And if they're trial advocates, then they are happy in jobs in courtrooms. And those are very difficult jobs to get. To get a U.S. assistant attorney's spot, that's a one in a thousand job and I've placed three kids in there."
Donnelly said John Kocoras, now a McDermott Will & Emery partner, Erin Reilly Lewis, now associate general counsel at Indiana University Health, and Tiffany Tracy became assistant U.S. attorneys. Tracy still works in the office.
Alumni from IIT Chicago-Kent's program include 10 judges, two U.S. congressmen, 109 Cook County state's attorneys and 79 public defenders.
U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., won Best Oral Advocate in 1988 when his IIT Chicago-Kent team took the national trial championship.
Roskam said he can still recall the details of the case and his team members: Joel Daly, a longtime anchor on WLS-TV Channel 7 news, and Loretta Higgins, who eventually married Wolfson, one of the team's coaches. Thomas R. Fitzgerald, the retired chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court, and Erickson also coached that team.
"Those were the luminaries," Roskam said of his coaches. "I was invited to join … and had no idea at all about it. And you get whisked up into this advocacy subculture and these guys really, really, really poured themselves into teaching us."
Apart from the top-flight jobs students can land with trial team experience on their resume, schools receive their own reward for building strong trial teams: the trial advocacy program rankings in the U.S. News & World Report law school rankings.
IIT Chicago-Kent for example, ranked No. 3 for trial advocacy programs this year, says U.S. News . Northwestern ranked No. 8. John Marshall and Loyola have both been ranked in the past.
"But the trial advocacy teaching isn't all that much different in the law schools," said Wolfson, who now teaches at DePaul University College of Law. "It's the competitions that make the schools stand out."
Success in mock trial and moot court competitions serve as a proxy for the quality of a trial advocacy program, he said.
"I can't understand schools that don't do it," he said.
But not all schools do.
Banerji, from Northwestern's team, said, "It seems to be that a lot of the top-ranked schools don't have great trial teams. I just don't think they put the resources there."
He said that can create an information gap for Chicago's law school students who try making their first career move at a big law firm, like he did at Skadden, where he now works in the firm's Los Angeles office as a litigation associate.
"A lot of the top-ranked firms, which are comprised of the people who went to the top-ranked schools, have no way of knowing about," the skills learned from these programs and the talents former mock trial team members offer, he said.
"For the people who know about it, it's the first thing they looked at before they saw my GPA."