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Some say it's fun. Some say it's challenging. Some say it makes them better students and better people. Dr. Maria Cuzzo, an attorney, says UW-Superior's Mock Trial program the closest thing to legal reality short of getting a client.
Mock Trial is an academic forensic activity that teaches students how to analyze the law and facts of a legal case, and to argue and present cases in a trial court. Over the past decade, UW-Superior's Mock Trial program has risen to regional prominence and earned respect at the national level, placing third at Harvard University's Crimson Classic mock trial tournament and placing or earning recognition at several national tournaments. See a list of team achievements from the past decade.
'Perfect' learning experience
Cuzzo, a professor of legal studies at UW-Superior and a long-time coach of the mock trial teams, said mock trial is "the perfect liberal arts experience" because it requires students to learn the law, to work with teammates to craft strategy, to be able to argue both sides of the case equally well, and to analyze facts and arguments.
Students on the team agree that it's a great learning experience.
"Because of mock trial, I have better interpersonal skills, better public speaking skills, and even better control of my emotions," said Alicia Kline, a legal studies and international peace studies major from Baraboo, Wis. "It's helped me to learn how to think analytically and on my feet. I've learned how to be professional. It's also taught me about work ethic and being accountable to other people who are relying on me to do my part."
Students wanted to be competitive
UW-Superior's mock trial team was begun shortly after the university added its legal studies major in 1998. The competition initially was considered a good learning experience, but after a couple years students on the team met with Cuzzo and told her they believed they had the skill and desire to make the program competitive.
"Our school made a decision that we were going to be a learning community but also that we were going to win," Cuzzo said.
Diverse group of students
This year's mock trial program includes 16 students making up two teams. Coaches are Cuzzo and Tracy Schramm, a partner in the Bateman and Schramm law firm in Duluth and an alumna of UW-Superior and its mock trial program.
Some mock trial students are majoring in legal studies or criminal justice, but the team is open to students with any major. International students often join the team, facing additional challenges of language and an unfamiliar legal system. They all make a commitment to stick with a season that starts in September and continues to April without a break.
The students said they appreciate working with coaches who have legal backgrounds.
"It's really helpful to have an attorney involved, especially in complicated cases," said Daniel Mason, a legal studies major from Madison. With their legal training, Cuzzo and Schramm can lead them through drills, advise them on courtroom procedures, and help them work together as a team, he said.
Begin with the basics
Mock trial is a learning experience, so after recruiting members each fall, the team begins with the basics. Cuzzo said early season practices start with "What is a trial?" and examine the role trials play in American culture. Team members examine the anatomy of a trial - opening statements, testimony, closing statements - along with strategy and how to put together legal arguments.
Each year, the 650 mock trial teams across the country are assigned the same fictional case by the American Mock Trial Association, the governing body of mock trial competitions. Once the case is assigned, team members go to work analyzing the details and developing their strategy. Then they move to how to speak and behave in a trial setting.
Competition begins in the fall with teams participating in invitational tournaments. Team members use these events to gauge the effectiveness of their strategy and to improve their cases.
Ready for anything
At a tournament, each team may be assigned to serve as prosecution or defense in the case, so they must prepare for both roles. "You have to be able to think and shift," Cuzzo said. "It requires an intellectual nimbleness that is remarkable."
The competition becomes more difficult as the season progresses. Before the national tournaments begin, the AMTA makes major changes to the case so students can't perform it by rote as the season wears on. Teams must succeed at regional tournaments to earn the right to compete at the national level in April.
Students must be committed
Students who make the commitment to the mock trial team must be willing to put in many hours of preparation, said Cassy Foltz, a psychology major from Detroit Lakes, Minn., who is one of the team captains.
Team members typically practice five hours a week along and spend another three to five hours studying, reading, and writing. Those hours increase as the team prepares for regional competition, she said.
Lots of work -- and fun
Despite the many hours of work, the mock trial students are enthusiastic about the activity.
"The competition is really fun. You get to know people on the team really well. It involves creativity as you get to know both sides of the case. I enjoy that a lot," Foltz said.
"Working through the case and figuring out how we are going to tackle this problem or that, and present our case is work, but it's also fun," Kline said. "I enjoy challenging myself, and mock trial is one of the best ways I can do that."
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