Dare to ‘Mock Trial’

Courtesy of Claudia Cheffs

UC Irvine Mock Trial is showing the rest of the country that it is a force to be reckoned with after tying for fifth place in the national ranking. This is a culmination of winning the 2010 Opening Round Championship, which was hosted by UCI last March, and placing eighth at the 26th American Mock Trial Association (AMTA) National Championship Tournament, held in Des Moines, Iowa in April 2010.

The AMTA consists of student teams from hundreds of colleges across the nation, including UCLA, USC, Stanford and all eight Ivy League schools, to name a few.

Each mock trial team consists of three attorneys and three witnesses on each of the plaintiff and defense sides of the case. Attorneys are required to make opening statements, cross-examinations and closing arguments. A sports draft format is used to select the witnesses.

To make it more similar to a live trial, the judges are actual attorneys or even practicing judges. In addition, the teams face off in a real courtroom.

Separated into two parts, the invitational season includes tournaments held throughout fall into early spring across the nation, while the regular season starts with regional tournaments in late January.

All the tournaments consist of four rounds, with a three-hour maximum for each round.

Every team from each college is allowed to compete at the regional level. Typically, more than 500 teams show up to over 20 regional tournaments. The top six advance to the Opening Round Championship, known as West Coast Conferences, in this section.

The top six from the eight Opening Rounds qualify for the National Championships, which includes a total of 48 bids. It is held every even year in Des Moines, the site of the first 22 National Championships, but differs in the odd years. Here, each university is limited to send only two teams.

Since its formation at UCI a short five years ago, Mock Trial has quickly climbed in ranking. The inaugural team did not qualify for the National Championship Tournament; however, with a stronger recruiting team, they improved with every passing year. Their current fifth-place ranking is their best to date.

Even more impressive is the fact that all five teams within the Mock Trial qualified for Nationals last year, although they were later required to pick only two to send.

In addition, UCI Mock Trial is continually awarded the Championship Spirit Award, as well as individual awards for Outstanding Attorney and Outstanding Witness.

Mazamir Yousefi, captain of the veteran team and social chair, is enthusiastic, although she did not get the chance to compete at Nationals last year.

“I definitely feel a lot of pride,” said Yousefi. “Everybody who didn’t compete all played a role so it was great to collectively achieve such a high goal together.”

Even though recruiting for this year’s team began during the fall quarter, the veterans already started practicing in August.

With such a high previous showing, the tryouts were very selective. Prospective members were tested on their performance, ability to speak in public and critical thinking, among other standards. In the fall, about 180 students tried out and only 19 qualified.

Sheila Mojtehedi, the captain of the new team, is one of those 19.

“Even though I just started, I feel like I’ve already gained a certain set of skills I can apply in real life,” Mojtehedi explained. “There’s a comfort I get speaking in front of other people that I didn’t know I needed. You don’t realize what you learn until it happens.”

This year’s team features a total of 36 members, with many fresh faces. Despite losing 10 seniors, all of the members have high hopes for the team.

“We have people in roles they are strong in,” said Rahul Hari, a second-year biology student who serves as the club’s administrative assistant. “So, while we may not have the experience like we did last year, we are willing to take more risks in order to be amazing. I’d say we’re a little more dangerous.”

Throughout the year, they travel nationally to cities such as New York, Washington D.C., Arizona, Memphis and Las Vegas — trips that are paid for out of their own pockets and through fundraising and grants.

Along with Head Coach Justin Bernstein, four other coaches and veteran students, they practice nearly every day. After studying the season’s case, which consists of about 150 pages they must know from beginning to end, they re-enact it. Each case remains basically the same throughout the year, with this year involving product liability.

“Everybody on the team has so much dedication and commitment,” said Mojtehedi. “Everybody works so hard. It’s as if we are fighting for a spot, even though we already have a secure role on the team. We’ve made it in our lives and it’s really empowering.”

Within Mock Trial, the five different units differ by the theory they pursue, the way they present the case and their composition. They are stacked by strength or age and change regularly.

The goal for this season is to ultimately make it to the championship round at Nationals.

If results from invitational competitions are any indication, they seem to be right on track. En route to winning the second tournament, which was held in November at UCI, they beat both UCLA and Stanford.

“We want to make sure that the team does well as a unit,” Yousefi said. “It may be cliché, but we really are only as strong as our weakest player, and we hope to improve in all aspects to make sure we do more than well.”

“There are certain points where everyone’s watching and listening to you and you know that every point makes a difference,” Hari said. “It’s also amazing to compete against schools like Harvard and Stanford.”

“At the end of the day, we want also to have fun,” Mojtehedi added. “The people on the team are one close-knit family and I genuinely enjoy their company.”