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By James J. Barney
Associate Professor of Legal Studies, School of Security and Global Studies, American Public University
For the past two years, APUS students have competed in mock trial competitions hosted by the law fraternity Phi Alpha Delta. In a mock trial competition, students play various roles during a fictitious criminal trial. They are then evaluated on their presentation skills, knowledge of the law and a host of other categories.
While students from the APU Legal Studies and Criminal Justice programs often make up the majority of participants in mock trial competitions, students from all majors should consider participating in mock trial competitions and other experiential experiences.
Mock Trials Useful for Understanding the Basics of Writing Papers and Storytelling
Mock trial competitions expose students to the basics of criminal and evidence law. They also provide valuable insight into how to organize a class paper and tell an engaging story, which is valuable knowledge for students in all disciplines.
Students often struggle with writing academic papers. They fail to understand that an excellent paper not only requires a large amount of research, but also the formulation of an independent interpretation of the topic, which adds to the intellectual debate. More importantly, they fail to understand that an academic paper tells a story and addresses possible criticism or critiques.
Every academic paper must contain an introduction, the body, and a conclusion. In the introduction, the writer presents the thesis that will be proven or defended. Then the writer provides evidence to prove the paper’s thesis. Finally, in the conclusion, the writer summarizes the argument.
The parts of a trial are similar to the three parts of a well-structured academic paper. The student playing the attorney must craft his or her arguments in a manner that parallels the structure of a carefully crafted academic paper. The opening and closing statements in a mock trial serve the same functions as the thesis and conclusion of an academic paper. Additionally, questioning witnesses acts like the supporting paragraphs of an academic paper; each witness serves as a piece of evidence to support each team’s “story” of the case.
During a mock trial, competitors play either prosecutor or defense attorney and must develop a theme for their case. Crafting opening and closing statements requires students to consolidate a tremendous amount of material into a short five-minute narrative that presents a compelling, coherent “story” of the case.
As the attorneys, students must craft their arguments to follow the structure of a well-argued academic paper. To question witnesses, they must craft a series of questions that support their “story” of the case as well as anticipate possible criticisms of it. When acting as witnesses, students learn how they fit within their “story” and how each side will use witnesses to support their version of it.
The opening and closing statements in a mock trial serve the same functions as the thesis and conclusion of an academic paper.
How Witnesses in Mock Trials Help with Storytelling
Questioning witnesses is similar to writing the supporting paragraphs of an academic paper; each witness serves as a piece of evidence to support the team’s “story” of the case. Also, like the writer of an academic paper, a mock trial competitor must anticipate and address possible criticisms and attacks.
In addition to learning some law, students in mock trial competitions gain insight into the mechanics of a well-organized academic paper. This knowledge can be useful in other classes as well.
Students Gain Public Speaking Experience in Mock Trial Competitions
According to recent research, fear of public speaking is very common. As a result, many students will avoid speaking in class.
However, the lack of such experience can limit professional opportunities in the long run. Many professions — from teaching to sales and marketing to the ministry — require the ability to present one’s thoughts and ideas in front of an audience.
Online students especially have limited opportunities for public speaking. They can, however, get valuable public speaking experience by practicing in front of a group of their peers and then during the competition.
While mock trial competitions can be stressful, students can use the experience to confront their fear of public speaking without the added concern associated with achieving a good academic grade. Mitigating the fear of public speaking can expose students to a world of career opportunities.
Students Learn Valuable Conflict Resolution Skills
Some students dislike working in teams because small groups may be dominated by one member of the team. That dynamic almost always results in conflicts. But according to an article in Entrepreneur magazine, “Conflict among team members can lead to better results.”
Indeed, conflicts and disagreements among team members are inevitable, especially during the months of preparing for a mock trial competition. Students come from different backgrounds and possess different personalities and expectations. Disagreements emerge about trial tactics, the interpretation of criminal and evidence law, how each piece of evidence fits within each theory of a case, and a host of other issues.
Despite the inevitability and initial stress of team conflicts, when properly managed they can result in a stronger team. Team members eventually come to realize and appreciate how each person plays a valuable role in their success or failure at the competition. Teams also come to realize how their members bring valuable, unique qualities to the collaboration process.
For example, teams learn how their differing views and perspectives add insight into the case and the law. That builds a stronger team. Brainstorming with members of different backgrounds provides invaluable insight into team dynamics and conflict resolution skills that are essential in today’s job market.
In addition, gaining teamwork experience is an essential part of a well-rounded education and necessary to compete and succeed in the modern workplace. Being a member of a mock trial team is an opportunity to learn small-group conflict resolution.
Participation in a team activity like a mock trial is a shared experience that forges strong bonds among its members. This shared experience also builds a support network of peers that can last for years and help students to thrive in their future academic careers.
Openings for 2019’s Mock Trial Team
Online students from all majors should strongly consider participating in the next mock trial competition in Arlington, Virginia, in the fall of 2019. For more information, reach out to the school’s chapter of Phi Alpha Delta.
About the Author
James Barney is an Associate Professor of Legal Studies in the School of Security and Global Studies. In addition to possessing a J.D., James has several master’s degrees, including one in American foreign policy. He is currently completing his Ph.D. in History. James serves as one of the faculty advisors of the Phi Alpha Delta law fraternity as well as the Model United Nations Club. James serves as the pre-law advisor at APU.
James has been admitted to practice law in New York, New Jersey, Alabama and the District of Columbia. Over the past several years, he has served in various roles at debating and moot trial competitions in New York and Washington, D.C. In 2018, James coached the APUS mock trial team and was one of the faculty advisors for the school’s Model UN delegation to the National Model United Nations conference in Washington, D.C. in early November 2018.
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