Iowa YLD Celebrates Twenty-Five Years of Success with Mock Trial Competition
By Melissa Dewey Brumback
Melissa Dewey Brumback is an associate editor of The Affiliate and practices with the Raleigh, North Carolina, firm of Ragsdale Liggett PLLC.

Through its successful administration of Iowa’s Mock Trial Competition, the Iowa State Bar Association Young Lawyers Division has set the standard for how to energize and invigorate thousands of attorneys to train middle and high school students about our legal system. With twenty-five years of high school mock trial competitions under its belt, next year the Iowa YLD will celebrate its twenty-fifth year of collegiate mock trials, and 2009 will mark twenty-five years of its middle school competition.
Although the factual patterns of each competition are different and geared toward the appropriate age group, all mock trial student teams are scored based on professionalism, their knowledge of the case and the law, and other criteria, such as how quickly they object or respond to objections from the opposing team. During the competition, students take a problem, work through it, and ten weeks later are expected to make coherent arguments in front of strangers and against another student team. This process teaches them the ability to analyze, evaluate, and synthesize material and hone their presentation skills.
According to John Wheeler, director of the Iowa Bar’s Center for Law and Civic Education, the goals of the Mock Trial Competition include exposing students to the content of the law and how the trial system works, as well as helping them to develop a diverse skill set. Wheeler has been involved as a program director for Iowa’s program since 1988, when the Iowa YLD ran the program through Drake University. Over the years, he has seen the fact patterns become increasingly complex, moving from simple two-paragraph witness statements to eight-page statements in a ninety-page case, complete with red herrings for the students to sift through.
In its earlier years, the Iowa program had to spend more time recruiting attorneys for the various positions required for a successful statewide program. Now, Wheeler is in the enviable position of having volunteer attorneys call him to see how they can have their child’s school get involved in the program. Many of the volunteers are already actively involved in their local communities and appreciate the benefits of students’ participation in the mock trial program. In fact, many attorneys who originally volunteered at their child’s school continue to coach school teams well after their child has graduated.
Now that the program is in its twenty-fifth year, many current YLD attorneys have had the opportunity to become involved on the advisory side after previously experiencing the program firsthand as a child participant. For example, Jennifer L. Zahradnik, Iowa’s current Mock Trial Committee chair, first became involved with the mock trial program when she participated in the middle school tournament as a seventh grader. She went on to compete in the high school tournament, on her college mock trial team, and during her time at Drake University Law School. Since becoming an attorney, Jennifer has participated as both a member and an officer of the Mock Trial Committee. Currently, she is starting her second year as the committee chair, working with over fifty committee members to coordinate the premier yearly event for the Iowa YLD.
“It is a privilege to now be able to judge the state finals. Some of these students are phenomenal,” Zahradnik stated. One time, for example, she heard a seventh grader make a “hearsay within a hearsay” objection! Wheeler concurred, noting that many states with high school programs doubt the ability of middle school students to benefit from the program; however, he has found that the early exposure to the program is especially beneficial to middle school students. Many times the mock trial program is a middle school student’s first chance for a nonsports-based extracurricular activity, which paves the way for that student to later be involved in other academic-based activities at the high school level.
The competition also draws attorney participation from across the state, as Iowa attorneys often serve as team coaches or as tournament judges. Each school’s mock trial team has an attorney coach who volunteers several hours each week to train and practice with his or her team. Other attorneys participate as judges during the regional and state competitions, presiding over the courtroom as well as grading each team based on a specific set of goals. In the past year alone, Iowa attorneys donated over $1 million worth of time to the mock trial program, clearly making it a demonstrated value to Iowa’s education system.
Zahradnik advises other states interested in starting a mock trial program to build a relationship with a state such as Iowa that already has a successful program in place, so they can utilize Iowa’s resources rather than starting a new program from scratch. “The first couple of years will be slow going,” Zahradnik said, “but once it catches on the students, teachers, parents, and attorneys will see the positive impact that it can have on the lives of the students.”