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Juris Students

Local professionals donate their time to teach students about the legal system.

By Kelly Twedell

What do you get when you combine 30 lawyers, nine judges, a bunch of teenagers and a horrific zoo accident?

It may sound like yet-another bad lawyer joke, but it’s actually a recipe for mock trial. Each year lawyers, judges and teachers all over the state donate their time and talents to coach students involved in the North Carolina Advocates for Justice mock trial program, operated through the Carolina Center for Civic Education. Throughout the year these professionals provide students with a glimpse of the legal profession, all while preparing them for regional and state trial competitions. Held on the same day each spring, competitions in Asheville, Charlotte, Durham, Fayetteville, High Point, Wilmington, Greenville and Raleigh send finalist teams forward to the next round and in May, one local team advanced competing at the national level in Phoenix, Arizona.

Across the state 375 volunteers dedicate their time to judging, scoring and mentoring the students through the legal process from start to finish. Locally, nine area high schools participate in the program but it also reaches down to the elementary level recreational mock trial clubs formed at some area schools. Mock Trial gives students the opportunity to simulate judicial proceedings by acting as attorneys, witnesses and bailiffs. Teams compete in at least two rounds of competition, during which they take turns arguing for the plaintiff’s and the defense’s side of the case. Students compete in an actual courtroom, presenting their case before a presiding judge and three evaluative jurors, who are actually volunteer judges and lawyers from the community.

The Fayetteville Academy coach, Jeff Smith, teaches government, world history and theater has been part of the NCAJ mock trial program for six years mentoring two teams of 16 students. “The program is valuable and gives the students a forum to develop a variety of skills like public speaking, organization and reasoning to a diverse student population with varied interests,” said Smith.

“It’s a gratifying experience to see them in a courtroom setting talking to judges and lawyers about the cases and then see the spark of when they make the connection of how to crack the case.”

Rebecca Britton, a personal injury attorney at Britton Law, P.A. in Fayetteville, serves as a regional coordinator and sponsor for the Fayetteville Regional Competition teams. Britton also serves as the site coordinator for the state finals. “The individual impact on these students is most rewarding,” Britton said. “As a former coach I saw the life-changing effects that the students underwent as a result of participating in the program. That’s what keeps me involved.”

Britton is the vice-president of the Board of Directors of the Carolina Center for Civic Education (CCCE), which is partially funded by the NCAJ. Statewide, 70 high school teams compete each year for the coveted chance to attend the national level competition. Four presiding judges and 12 lawyers from Fayetteville took part in the March 5th State Finals competition at Campbell University. The competition was co-sponsored by the NCAJ, The Florence Rogers Trust and law firms across the state.

The competition case for 2010-2011, Malcolm vs. Utopia Zoo, was created by Lionel F. Earl, III, a 2008 Terry Sanford High School graduate and past participant in the mock trial program. Earl attends the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is pursuing a degree in political science. The case guides students through thoroughly researching the five exhibits listed in the case, including zoo maps, medical records, stipulations, provided witnesses and defendants.

The nine local high school teams navigated their way through the courtroom process, learning the ins and outs of the legal system. They also learned to be thorough and work as a team and were judged according to their outcome and final courtroom presentations. The NCHE Speech Club won the 2011 NC competition and that teams’ eight members placed ninth out of 48 teams in Arizona at the National level competition hosted by the Arizona foundation for Legal Services & Education.

One of the students from the NCHE Speech Club team, Samuel Johnson, was awarded “Outstanding Attorney” and plans to major in Political Theory at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va. Johnson has participated in the Mock Trial program for two years and indicated some of the best lessons he learned on the team were less tangible ones.

“I was an extremely shy person before I entered the world of speech and debate. Mock trial in particular has enabled me to grow in confidence and ability, and it has reinforced the immense benefits of hard work and critical thinking which I know college will require,” said Johnson. “Mock trial has been the single best experience in my entire high school career.”

Johnson also stressed the leadership and support throughout the process was key to his development in the program.

“Both the NC State Representative, Rebecca Britton, and the Director, Laura Bligh, were incredibly helpful at answering our team’s questions as we prepared for the NC competitions. The Regional and State competitions are incredibly well organized and well run”, said Johnson. “It is inspiring to be mentored by such selfless adults, and it gives me a wonderful example to follow when I become an attorney.”

Individuals desiring to volunteer may contact Laura Bligh at lbbecker_1@yahoo.com, Rebecca Britton at Rebecca@brittonlawfirm.com or Gordon Widenhouse at mgwidenhouse@yahoo.com.

If you are interested in coaching a team, connect to a high school in the area through the website at www.ncaj.com under ‘mock trial’.