Some kids play football in high school. Some play basketball. Some participate in cheerleading or dance. Then, there are those of us who were proud to call ourselves “mock trial nerds.” At my high school, we practiced more than the sports teams. We had a “Varsity” and a “JV.” We competed in scrimmages against other teams, and we had coaches. We won our regional tournament every year, and we advanced to State. Our school held a pep rally for us every year before State. Our parents came to watch (or in my case, coach) our team. We dealt with high school drama during the year, had our highs and lows, but we worked incredibly hard, pulled ourselves together, and always walked into the courtroom a united front. While not around when I was in school, today there are actually numerous mock trial summer camps throughout the country. I’ve even heard rumors of mock trial scholarships to college.
Much of my life has involved mock trial. I participated throughout high school, participated on Marquette’s undergraduate team (the program has since been dissolved), competed on the Trial Team in law school, and co-coached a high school team during my first two years of practice. This year I was appointed to co-chair the Mock Trial section of the Public Education Committee of the State Bar, with Ellen Henak. What’s more, if mock trial is genetic, my family is the perfect textbook example. Two of my three siblings participated in high school (my little brother attended the aforementioned “Mock Trial Camp,” not that I am still holding back the jealousy or anything). My sister, Kristen Lonergan, who practices in Wausau, is on both the Advisory Committee and the committee that writes the mock trial problem each year. My dad, Kevin Lonergan, is the chair of the Public Education Committee of the State Bar, which is the section under which mock trial is organized.
Needless to say, I would not spend this much time and energy on a program that I didn’t believe to be extraordinarily valuable. The high school program is run by the State Bar of Wisconsin. Students receive a case in the fall of each year, which the students then analyze, develop, and prepare to try by a February regional competition. The ten regional winners throughout the State, along with wildcard teams, participate in a State tournament in Madison in March. The top two teams play off in a single elimination round judged by the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The top team advances to Nationals, which are held in a different state each year.
The program provides incredible benefits to students, including the same teamwork and ability to work with others that sports programs boast. In addition, the program provides students with an opportunity to think on their feet, speak in public, and do something that takes many law students a few semesters to learn: apply the law to the facts of the case. For my team in particular these past two years, it provided an outlet to the students, to teach them how to use words to logically and persuasively make a point and be heard.
This year, our State has the remarkable and exciting task of hosting the National High School Mock Trial competition. Marsha Varvil-Weld at the State Bar compiled and submitted an extremely extensive bid and underwent a rigorous bid selection process prior to being chosen to host the 2014 tournament. My dad, Kevin Lonergan, has volunteered to chair the committee organizing nationals, in addition to his duties as the chair of the Public Education Committee (yes, I am slightly concerned for his sanity).
While I am admittedly biased, our high school program is strong and well-organized (due to the hard work of all of those involved in running the program since its inception). Our regional coordinators are always able to successfully seek judges for the regional tournaments, and we always have judges for the State tournament. Those tournaments (both regionals and state) are typically 10-12 team tournaments, and require anywhere from 15-20 attorneys volunteering as judges for each round (three judges per courtroom). Additionally, our annual funding is anticipated and consistent.
Comparatively, at Nationals we can expect over 50 teams (including Guam, U.S. Virgin Islands, and Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands), which means that we will need approximately 80 attorney-volunteers just to run a single round at Nationals. Moreover, the fundraising that must be accomplished so early in this process (to make down payments on venues) is significant. While our State program is a well-oiled machine, there is no doubt it will take an entire community of lawyers to organize a successful National tournament.
I often equate my high school mock trial experience to participation in a sport, because there are more similarities than differences (though I admittedly only survived a single year of cross-country, as opposed to my four years of mock trial). Next year, in 2014, I won’t be rooting for my alma-mater, Xavier. In fact, I won’t be rooting for any particular team for that matter. Next year, I am just rooting for Wisconsin.
Note: If you are interested in judging, donating, participating on a committee, or more information, please contact Marsha Varvil-Weld of the Wisconsin State Bar at email@example.com.