Volunteering as a Mock Trial Judge: Fake Trial, Real Impact

Christina Thompson and John Wheeler
Students develop their critical thinking and rhetorical skills while expanding their knowledge about the state and federal legal systems.

Students develop their critical thinking and rhetorical skills while expanding their knowledge about the state and federal legal systems.

Igor Alecsander/E+ via GettyImages

Mock trial programs are prominent in almost every state in the country and many of the surrounding territories. Middle and high school students spend months during the school year preparing for regional, state, and national tournaments. They study the intricacies of trial procedure, prep direct and cross-examinations, and learn witness statements inside and out. In the process of preparing and competing, students develop their critical thinking and rhetorical skills while expanding their knowledge about the state and federal legal systems. For mock trial programs to be successful, lawyers across the country volunteer as coaches and judges of mock trial teams and competitions. 

Coaches provide an invaluable service to mock trial programs, but coaching requires a more significant time investment. Volunteering as a judge, however, supports these great programs with much smaller time investment. Generally, a mock trial takes 2–2.5 hours, and the judges are at a tournament site for approximately three hours. Each tournament must supply enough judges to watch, critique, and score the students.

Volunteer judges serve several important roles during mock trial tournaments. The most obvious is the scoring and critique function. Volunteer judges watch two teams and give a point score to each attorney and witness role. They rule on any objections that may come up during the trial. Unlike in a real trial, the volunteer judge’s ruling will not be subject to review and appeal! If there is a bad call, it is an opportunity for the students to show they can “roll with the punches.” The less prominent role for a mock trial judge is to put an approachable face on the legal profession. Mock trial is often a student’s first time interacting with a lawyer or judge (especially one who looks like the student) in real life.

In addition to providing a valuable service to the students, volunteering as a judge allows lawyers to flex their evidentiary and procedural muscles; it is a golden opportunity in a world where jury and bench trials are becoming less frequent. Volunteer judges have the rare opportunity to see what techniques and arguments make an impact behind the bench. Sometimes, volunteers even pick up a new trick or two to carry into their practice, like the importance and impact various methods of storytelling have on an audience.

Many young lawyers are nervous about volunteering for mock trial programs because they do not feel like they have enough experience to be helpful. There is no need to be concerned. The program usually gives volunteer judges a pretrial briefing on the procedures that are unique to a mock trial, and the rules of evidence, which in most jurisdictions are simplified versions of the jurisdiction’s actual rules of evidence. For example, the rules often remove authenticity sections and assume all documents are authentic, and often allow fewer hearsay exceptions. More than one judge sits on a judging panel to enable newer judges to observe and learn from more experienced mock trial judges.

Young lawyers volunteering as judges show students that careers in law are an option. A judge’s encouraging comments can inspire students to consider pursuing law as a career. Seeing seasoned lawyers and judges volunteering their time provides students a positive aspect of being a lawyer or judge in a time when our profession is often made fun of and criticized in the context of lawyer jokes.

Most importantly, judging mock trial is fun! If you are interested in learning more about volunteering as a mock trial judge or would like to find out when your state’s mock trial tournament occurs, explore the National High School Mock Trial Championship.

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Christina Thompson

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Christina Thompson is an attorney and mediator at Phil Watson, P.C., in Des Moines, Iowa. Christina is a cochair of the Iowa Bar Association Young Lawyers Division Mock Trial Committee. Christina has competed in mock trial competitions and helped coach middle and high school mock trial. 

John Wheeler

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John Wheeler is the director of the Iowa State Bar Association Center for Law and Civic Education and is responsible for the Iowa Mock Trial Program. He has served on the board of directors for the National High School Mock Trial Championship since 2003.