The Verdict Is In

By Richard J. Alley

Society has always had a fascination with the law and legal proceedings. It is the stuff of literature and theatre, the big screen as well as prime time television. Many dream of becoming a lawyer and protecting the poor and downtrodden from certain injustice, of becoming Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, Jimmy Stewart′s Mr. Smith filibustering Congress, or Perry Mason calling a surprise witness at the last minute. But how many see that dream fulfilled? How many, in the parlance of the court, may approach the bench?

At Rhodes College, a select group of students learn what it might be like to sit in a paneled courtroom, to pace in front of a jury, and to "Object!" when the time is right. And they′re doing so in competition that puts them on a par with the best orators from the country′s most prestigious institutions of higher learning.

While mock trial has long been used in law schools as a way to ready students for their careers, the high school program was only founded in 1983, at Drake University in Iowa. Two years later, the college game was created and with it the American Mock Trial Association (AMTA). It was two years after that, in 1987, that Dr. Marcus Pohlmann, a professor of political science and new to Rhodes at the time, received a postcard asking if he had any students interested in participating. Not knowing just what it was, he laughs now, "I grabbed six kids out of my constitutional law class. We had one session with an attorney … and we went up to Iowa and competed in the national tournament."

From that meager start has grown a program that regularly competes on a level with Harvard, Columbia, Princeton and Yale. And, more often than not, betters such schools. Says Pohlman, "We have arguably been, over time, the most successful mock trial program in the country."

Award-Winning Track Record

Just this past spring, Rhodes had its best national tournament finish in 12 years as the A Team was national runner-up, winning its 24-team flight but losing to Florida State University in the championship round. Rhodes will be rated second in the nation when tournaments resume in the next school year. Three Rhodes students—Matthew Jehl ′13, Pauline Dyer ′13, and Matthew Niegos ′14—were named All-Americans. Jehl and Niegos received All-Amerian Attorney awards, while Dyer earned All-American Witness honors.

Each academic year, AMTA releases a case problem to be used by all competitors, and then releases case updates throughout the competition season. Some mock trial cases are taken from actual court cases, while others are written specifically for competition by contributors. During a trial there are three witnesses and three attorneys, opening statements, witness direct examinations and cross examinations, and closing arguments. Each aspect is timed and scoring is based on knowledge of the rules, ability to argue, and convincing portrayals. "It′s a very condensed version of a trial," Pohlmann says, where "the plaintiff or prosecution is trying to meet a burden of proof with three witnesses in 25 minutes."

Rhodes carries four teams. In a typical year, 50 hopefuls start out each fall with half returning from previous years and half being new. Those new to the program will start with Trial Procedures, a class born from mock trial and worth four credit hours. In-class trials are conducted as a way to evaluate students for the course as well as to try out possible competitors.

"As it usually plays out, of the new kids, the ones that just don′t enjoy it or that can sense that they′re not particularly good at it will opt out," Pohlmann says. "It′s pretty rare that we actually cut somebody who wants to continue."

By the middle of October, the class comes to an end, and those still standing are ready for the ensuing invitational season. Four "invitational teams" work through three invitational tournaments, followed by a reconstitution of those teams. The reconstituted "regional teams" then attend one last tune-up invitational tournament in January. In February, the AMTA competition begins with 24 Regional Tournaments, and, from those, only the top two of the four Rhodes teams can move on to qualify for the Opening Rounds Championship Series, which begins in March. Students still on the team in the spring will earn one credit hour, which can be repeated up to four times. "The most you can get in the time you′re here is two full course credits for all that work, so it is an extracurricular for the most part," says Pohlmann.

Out of more than 500 teams from more than 350 universities and colleges that enter the AMTA competition, only 48 will advance to the National Championship Tournament. Rhodes has qualified for the national tournament every year for 27 years, including eight trips to the final round and four national championships. Rhodes is one of the only colleges with such a record, the rest being universities; the only school with more national championships is the University of Maryland. Such success and consistency is a direct reflection on the commitment of Rhodes.

"I feel like we′re funded well by the college so as to be competitive at the high end," Pohlmann says. "And we′ve actually had some generous contributions from the parents of a couple of the kids that have competed for us. There has been some other private money that′s come through as well."

A Great Recruitment Tool

It′s in the college′s best interests to see the program do well, as it is a potent recruiting tool, often cinching the deal for high school mock trial devotees looking at options around the country. Having been involved in mock trial in high school, however, is not a free pass to the team. "The transition from high school is different and there is, for lack of a better term, a kind of college game that you have to learn the intricacies of over time," says Pohlmann.

"It was as basic of a moot court experience as it could be. You didn′t have nearly the amount of training or knowledge base that you get in college," Chris McNally ′05, says of his time in high school mock trial versus that at Rhodes. "In college, I would argue that the majority of the people who go through a very competitive mock trial program could probably walk out and advocate for themselves."

Anna Smith ′02 applied to other colleges in addition to Rhodes, but it was a letter from Rhodes about her mock trial experience in high school that got her attention and eventually led her from her home in Arkansas to Memphis. She studied political science while at Rhodes and upon graduation attended Duke University Law School. The draw of Rhodes, however, was a strong one and brought her back to practice law in Memphis, as well as teach in the Department of Political Science and coach mock trial alongside her former coach.

"I′ve always loved this school and even when I was gone I tried to stay connected because I think Rhodes is a great place, the perfect place for me to go to school and I loved every second of being there," Smith says. She was part of the 2001 team that achieved runner-up in the national championship tournament for that year.
To excel at mock trial, the players must immerse themselves in law, the arguments of the legal system, and logic. But there is something else as well. There is the competition, and certainly the dedication, of sport, along with the showmanship of theatre. Smith was involved in theatre while in high school, but says she "wanted to do something that she thought would have a practical, career-long focus, so mock trial seemed like the way for me to do acting and prepare for my future at the same time."

Dr. Gina Yannitell Reinhardt ′97 came to Rhodes from Baton Rouge and majored in International Studies. She, too, was involved with theatre in high school and had no previous experience with mock trial. Indeed, she didn′t even know Rhodes had a team until midway through her first freshman semester. However, she became involved, went on to be her team′s captain, and was on the national championship team of ′95 and the runner-up team in ′97.

Because of her background with theatre, Reinhardt says, she came to Rhodes already equipped with the self-confidence that many first-year students may lack. But for many, the self-confidence and ease with public speaking that is gained through participation in mock trial, with its necessity of standing up in front of people to present an argument, is a selling point of the activity.

"It definitely built a lot of extra self-esteem and confidence," Reinhardt adds. "It certainly doesn′t hurt to be able to be the national champion of something, especially for somebody like me who was never going to be the national champion of college basketball or college football or any of the things you see on television. And here we were, we were beating all the Ivy Leagues, we were beating all of the big state schools. We beat UCLA, we beat Harvard and Yale, we beat Duke, we beat everybody and it was really, really amazing."

As team captain when only a sophomore, Reinhardt found herself in the position of leading a team of older students who "theoretically could have been people I was supposed to be intimidated by or afraid of," she says. "I was giving the halftime talks, I was in the middle of those moments when it was time to go and win, and then we did win. Those were pretty transformative things; mock trial gives you the team experience."

The intangibles gained from competition and teamwork, such as self-confidence and the desire to excel, become noticeable while still a student, as the emphasis on success in the courtroom bleeds into the classroom, study sessions, and exams. Robert Browning ′94 had days filled with classes and participated in the Kappa Sigma Fraternity and Rhodes College Singers. Mock trial, he says, "helped bring focus to my studies. To stay involved in these extracurricular activities, I was forced to become a better student. I needed to be better at stewarding my time and learning to study smarter."

Mathew Jehl ′13 reiterates this sentiment, saying by phone last April from the National Mock Trial Championships in Washington, D.C., that "the ability to come up with a coherent argument that is clear and concise has definitely helped me with my logical reasoning. In some of the classes where I have to give presentations, mock trial has helped me get on my feet and get me comfortable. It′s been invaluable."

They are skills and memories that will last Jehl a lifetime, just as they have for Browning who was part of the ′94 Silver National Championships. "I remember the judges giving us feedback regarding our performance and being convinced we had lost," Browning, now a minister with Christ Presbyterian Church in Olive Branch, Miss., says. "Then I remember them announcing that the winner was Rhodes College and we went crazy. It was one of the best moments of my college career."

A League of Their Own

Mock trial is a world unto itself and even those involved will say that they inhabit a subculture not unlike comic book fanatics or "Trekkies." But the experience to be had within the close-knit community of "mockers" is long lasting and has real-world implications. Anna Smith continues to keep in contact with those she worked with side-by-side and those she competed against during her time at Rhodes. 

"It′s a huge network on a national scale," Smith says, adding that she has former students who are in law school now and in the process of applying for jobs in firms across the country. She′ll get emails from mock trial alums of different institutions in firms asking about that applicant. "I think it′s really beneficial for people who are interested in law; I think the connections you make really do last."

As with athletics, where student-athletes will spend hours together on the field or in the locker rooms, dissecting plays and strategies, those involved in mock trial spend countless hours discussing their passion. Says Pohlmann: "When you work intensively with the same group of people and then you travel with them and compete with them, there′s a bond that′s created, I think. And only people who have done it appreciate it." It′s a bond that resonates and one reason Pohlmann has kept himself in the game for so long. "How many mock-trialers does it take to screw in a light bulb?" Pohlmann jokes from his book-lined office in Buckman Hall. "None, because when mock-trialers get together, all they do is talk about mock trial."

For the uninitiated, it would seem that the logical pursuit of the avid mocker would be the law. There is certainly a distinct advantage. Shayla Purifoy ′03, an attorney with Memphis Area Legal Services, says of her first days on the job, "I started in the courtroom immediately and I wasn′t nervous, I didn′t have jitters, I felt like it wasn′t as intimidating as it would have been if I hadn′t ever been in a courtroom before. Even though the courtroom I was in was fake, it made me more comfortable when I first started." She still works closely with the program as an attorney coach and judge as needed.

But this path of the law is not necessarily the rule. For instance, Reinhardt is assistant professor of public service and administration and public and international affairs at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. "A lot of people go on to be attorneys, but I was never really interested in that," she says. "I was never targeting that." And Smith, though she went on to earn a juris doctorate and now practices on her own, working primarily in criminal law, is looking to transition more into teaching at Rhodes.

Both women use the skills acquired and honed through mock trial when in front of students in the classroom. Reinhardt says she doesn′t, in the course of instruction, necessarily bring up mock trial specifically to her students, most of whom will be doing policy or management work in the nonprofit or public sector, yet, "I tell them little skills I learned in competition, things that it really surprises me they don′t know by the time they′re master′s students, just basic things about how to interact with people in the workplace and how to present themselves, how to make a good impression on people. They′re things that I think we came up with as a team, sometimes just trying to figure out how to sit still and look good, sometimes it was also a little bit about how to intimidate the other team, and how to come across as a unified front." Reinhardt adds that these are intangibles that employers will pick up on and will give the future applicants an edge. "I think that those are things that come from, and are rooted in, my experience with mock trial."

When asked whether he uses his experiences with mock trial in his current everyday life as a businessman, McNally answers without hesitation: "Absolutely. Without question." The political science major and founder of Memphis Reprographics LLC speaks of the "global picture" and critical thinking that mock trial imbued in him. "There is not a day that goes by that I don′t use some sort of critical thinking that was developed, whether it′s troubleshooting or reading between the lines."

There is much to be said about the Rhodes administration′s dedication to mock trial, and about the seasoned mock courtroom veterans who mentor new students on the block to help add another layer to the program′s stratum of successes. But there is no denying that it is the man at the helm who keeps this mock trial juggernaut afloat and ahead of the pack. Pohlmann sat on the AMTA board for 25 years and was elected to the coaches′ hall of fame in 2006. He has been there since the beginning, and enjoys the competition as much today as he did in Iowa in 1987. "The college game requires a certain coaching skill that you learn over time, and it evolves, and you have to stay on top of it," he says.

"He is very good at giving you the framework of what you need to work in and then encouraging you to think for yourself and develop your own style and personality," says Dr. Nikki Holzhauer-Feeney ′96. "He′s very good at setting the stage and then encouraging you to reach your peak potential."

Holzhauer-Feeney was drawn in to mock trial when she began dating a team member, whom she would later go on to marry. She and Ryan Feeney were part of the ′94 Silver National Champions and the ′95 National Champions. Now a physician of internal medicine and pediatrics in Selmer, TN, she uses her mock trial knowledge in very real ways, as she has been to court to testify in cases of child abuse and as a professional witness in medical malpractice cases. "I′m much more comfortable because I know what to expect and how to respond."

When Reinhardt and Holzhauer-Feeney talk about themselves and their fellow "mockers," they speak of volatile and strong-willed personalities. Given the chance, these students have shone, they have excelled, and they have made a name for their school. They have, indeed, approached the bench and they have approached greatness, excelling in law firms, classrooms, operating rooms, chapels, politics, and business back offices. Those participating in mock trial at Rhodes are put on a stage with contenders from some of the best schools in the nation. Again, their leader says, "We have arguably been, over time, the most successful mock trial program in the country."