Mock trial competition teaches Hillel Academy students the ropes of the legal system
EducationLegal eagles

Mock trial competition teaches Hillel Academy students the ropes of the legal system

The Jewish day school team made it to the quarterfinals.

Hillel Academy girls mock trial team (Photo courtesy of Donald Garwood)
Hillel Academy girls mock trial team (Photo courtesy of Donald Garwood)

The Pittsburgh City-County Building has sported a unique sight the past few weeks: mock trials run by teams of Pittsburgh high schoolers within the building’s courtrooms. For students at Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh, it was their third consecutive year making it to the quarterfinals of regionals in Coach Donald Garwood’s nearly two decades of leading the team.

The statewide mock trials are run by the Pennsylvania Bar Association, which releases a made-up case set in a fictional town in Pennsylvania that the students argue for every mock trial that year. This year, the students worked on a criminal case accusing a restaurant owner of killing his longtime competitor. Garwood, head of Hillel’s science department, and his team practiced as often as four times a week.

The competition is divided into regions; Allegheny County makes up its own region with a total of 31 teams from 27 schools. Hillel ranked eighth of the teams going into the playoffs, and its first match in the quarterfinals was against the team ranked first: Montour High School.

While Hillel lost to Montour, the Jewish day school team didn’t walk away empty-handed. The months of preparation and weeks of trials taught students the ins and outs of the legal system as they won against Pine-Richland, Upper St. Clair and West Mifflin high schools.

Each trial had a team of seven students: three lawyers, three witnesses and a timekeeper, plus any additional understudies. For Hillel, which has separate learning for boys and girls, the team was separated into two sides: the girls on prosecution and the boys on defense. Teams alternate between prosecution and defense throughout the mock trial competition, giving both sides a chance to compete.

Lawyers and witnesses pair up to prepare for direct and cross-examination. An actual judge presides over the trial and a team of jurors scores every part of the mock trial, from the lawyers’ use of eye contact to the witnesses’ performances.

Aside from being unable to argue precedent based on prior legal rulings, the mock trials closely follow the structure of actual trials to give students real-world experience in the courtroom. Yossi Cohen, 16, who took on the role of lawyer, said he’s now considering a career in law.

“The actual feeling of preparing a case and presenting it out loud to other humans gives you a practice in public speaking and being able to convey your thoughts properly,” he said. “It’s very valuable in life, besides for just if you want to be a lawyer.”

Cohen often spent at least five hours a week outside of regular practice hours preparing for the trial. It taught him how to argue in and out of the courtroom. He picked up the habit of taking a deep breath, then thoughtfully considering what and how he wanted to argue before speaking.

Hillel Academy Boys mock trial team (Photo courtesy of Donald Garwood)
A majority of the lawyers’ score is based on how they argue and communicate in the trial. As part of that work, the lawyers must present both an opening and closing statement, something the students write for themselves.

Eliana Elvgren, 16, a lawyer in the mock trials, wrote and memorized a five-minute closing statement.

“Obviously, it was nerve-wracking because you’re in front of a lot of people, and there’s a lot riding on the trial,” she said. “But I was expecting having to memorize a five-minute speech to be a lot harder. I guess it just seemed like this unachievable thing, but it ended up being OK.”

Although the boys and girls rotate prosecution and defense depending on the case and the year, Elvgren has been on the prosecution side for all three years of her involvement.

She doesn’t plan to pursue a career in law but said she has gained transferrable skills. One of the most valuable, she said, is being able to take criticism. At the end of each trial, the judge gives constructive feedback on how the students can improve.

Elvgren added that mock trials inspired her to think outside the box, a sentiment echoed by teammate and fellow lawyer Miriam Levari.

“It allows you to think in a way that you don’t really do in school, and I felt like I’m the kind of person that has unique ideas a lot of the time — like, I think about things quite differently,” Levari said. “I felt that I could bring something to the team in finding new ways to look at things that maybe other teams wouldn’t think of, and that’s kind of why I wanted to join.”

Levari, 17, joined the team in her first year but was an understudy. As a freshman, she learned the ropes of collecting background information, even compiling an entire timeline of the case. After not trying out in her sophomore year, she came back in her junior year and became one of the three lawyers on the girls’ side.

“I learned a lot about the world of law, and how our government’s law system actually works,” she said, “and then also what it means to be a good lawyer, what it means to be good in court, because I don’t think I appreciated it before this. But I have so much appreciation for good lawyers — you have to be so smart to do that.”

But the mock trials aren’t just about legal technicalities: The role of the witness is also vital.

Junior witness Alexander Small played a defendant for his second consecutive year. He was scored on how well he memorized the details and facts of his character and on his improvisation during cross-examination.

Small spent hours outside of the weekly practices to hone his performance. He intends to stay on with the mock trial team his senior year.

“I love Mr. Garwood. He’s a great guy, great coach, great person overall, and he really cares,” Small said. “And I want us to succeed.”

The students’ dedication can be summarized by Elvgren’s simple declaration: “Once you commit, you stay.”

For Garwood, that enthusiasm explains the team’s success against larger schools like Upper St. Clair.

“You build experience and that experience-building, I think, carries through to the difference between winning or losing,” he said. “I continue to be really pleasantly amazed by how engaged the students get, how involved and invested in, you know, their team, and in their own personal kind of achievement and growth they are.” PJC

Abigail Hakas is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.

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