Don Racheter was fed up with debate, and he wasn’t alone. In 1984, dean of Drake University Law School Richard Calkins invited representatives from seven colleges to discuss an activity that could replace debate. Racheter, then a professor of political science, hit the road to Des Moines.
“My opinion, which is shared by many,” Racheter says, “is that debate degenerated into a motormouth competition.” Racheter, now president of the Public Interest Institute, says debate members spoke too quickly for anyone to understand, and they talked past each other rather than engaging opponents.
Calkins seemed to offer a better alternative. “We talked about this newfangled forensics activity called mock trial,” Racheter says. “It sounded to me like students could develop good skills — not only for law school, but for any study or career.”
The American Mock Trial Association hosted its first competition in February 1985, and Central College was runner-up among 12 teams. Central’s team, coached by Racheter, continued to reach the national tournament every year for 20 years. Central students are now among more than 5,300 undergraduates who compete each year — and they are still building valuable skills to use their entire lives.
What is Mock Trial?
In mock trial competitions, students perform a simulated trial against teams from other schools. As attorneys and witnesses, they strategically apply legal principles to a fictitious case. Competitions are designed to reenact what takes place in a trial court, and students are evaluated by professional lawyers and judges.
Six to 10 students can compete on a mock trial team, and each round calls for three attorneys and three witnesses. There is no script, and participants must adjust their strategy as the trial unfolds. The facts come from detailed documents that each team receives near the beginning of the school year. These case materials include hypothetical charges or claims, witness statements, official exhibits and other resources. Each team prepares both sides of the case.
During the trial, student attorneys present opening statements, examine and cross-examine witnesses, and present closing arguments. Witnesses give expert testimony or portray characters in the case. Whether they’re entering exhibits, arguing objections, impeaching witnesses or displaying emotion, students continually sharpen their thinking, speaking and knowledge of legal procedures.
So, how do you win? Judges score each student based on his or her role in the trial. The team with the most points wins — even if that team might not win the verdict. College competitions are governed by the American Mock Trial Association (AMTA), and more than 600 teams, representing over 350 colleges and universities, compete in AMTA tournaments each year. The top teams from each regional tournament compete in a semifinal round to determine who participates in the national championship tournament in April.
Mock trial isn’t just for recovering motormouths. Biology, English, business and education majors — and anyone who likes a challenge — find their place on Central’s ambitious team. Andrew Green, professor of political science and mock trial coach, says many students are attracted to mock trial because they enjoyed debate, while others are interested in law school or simply love to compete.
Whatever the reason, “mockers” have to be all in. The team practices five hours a week (more before competitions) and travels across Iowa and as far as California. With full class loads, too, students learn time management in a hurry. “It’s a lot of work but a lot of fun,” Dan Dankert ’16 says. “You get out what you put in.”
If a team is successful, mock trial often stretches to a nine-month season. Central competed in the national series every year that Ryan Stensland ’00 participated, and that requires near-constant travel. “It was a grueling schedule,” Stensland says, “but I don’t think I’d trade the experience for anything.”
Mock trial coaches also dedicate their nights and weekends. Central’s two coaches — Green, who focuses on speech skills, and Steve Cooper ’06, a professional attorney who provides legal expertise — both travel with the team. It’s a demanding job, Green says, but not a thankless one. “The students are eager to learn, and they want to win. They’re a fun group,” Green says. “They are going to do well when they graduate.”
Many on Central’s team start with no mock trial experience. Molly Ward ’15 is an exception — she has competed for nine years, starting in eighth grade. Ward says she can’t resist team friendships and the satisfaction of victory. “The perfect moment, when you say, ‘I nailed it’ — that can be very addicting,” she says. This year, Ward’s shining moments came with winning Outstanding Attorney Awards at five competitions.
Dankert, a political science major from Davenport, Iowa, says each triumph helps make up for months of dedicated practice. “When it goes almost perfectly and you really take it to the other team — there’s no better feeling than that,” he says.
One of Central’s original team members, John Fisher ’87 says he was an athlete with no legal aspirations, but he loved to compete in mock trial. Fisher, now CEO and president of First American Bank, says the intense personal challenge makes mock trial unique from other activities. “You’re part of a team, and you don’t want to let your team down,” Fisher says, “but there’s also an individual aspect. If you don’t prepare, everyone knows it — and they know it immediately.”
Each student plays a different role in the trial. The opening attorney must be a good storyteller, Ward says. And good actors make great witnesses. “If you can make yourself cry on the spot, you’re almost always the victim,” she says. Ward admits her own role, closing attorney, usually gets the glory.
Rachel Pearson ’15, the team’s expert witness, says she loves mock trial because it combines legal and theatrical challenges. Pearson won an Outstanding Witness Award at the Loras College National Invitational in January. “I get to play doctors and psychiatrists and use lots of big words,” she says.
Skylar McCombs ’18, an actuarial science major from Prairie City, Iowa, plays crying character witnesses and won the Outstanding Witness Award at two invitationals and the AMTA Cedar Rapids Regional Tournament this year. McCombs says mock trial is more fun than theatre because the story is different every time, and she enjoys filling in the details.
Mock trial often helps students who struggle with public speaking, too. One student, Racheter remembers, had recently emigrated from Southeast Asia and could hardly form coherent sentences at first. By the time of competition, however, he was a polished speaker. “This happened time and time again,” Racheter says. “As a professor, it warmed my heart that they were doing so well from this activity.”
For pre-law students, competition doesn’t end after mock trial. However, the activity can help them prove essential abilities for the next step.
Stacey Stater ’90 says mock trial helped her prepare for law school, then to compete when she arrived. Stater received a scholarship to Washington University School of Law, and she represented the university at a national moot court competition.
Green says Central’s mock trial alumni excel in law school, and they often receive full tuition scholarships. Tyler Ernst ’13 studies at Drake University Law School on a full tuition award, and Karleigh Miller ’13 studies on a full tuition award at Creighton University School of Law. Miller coached the Creighton undergraduate mock trial team in the national tournament series this year.
Even current students find opportunities to shape legal careers through mock trial. Pearson, an English major from Guthrie Center, Iowa, says she often talks with judges after competitions, and hearing about their different spheres helps her discover exciting possibilities.
Among mock trial alumni who don’t practice law, there are also abundant opportunities to demonstrate skills learned in mock trial. Stater worked as a litigation attorney for several years but says mock trial experience is equally useful in her role providing in-house counsel for Monsanto Company. “The advocacy piece remains, even though the format is different,” she says. “You have to advocate for yourself, your ideas and your business in a lot of forums, even if you’re not a lawyer.”
Fisher says mock trial taught him to sell an idea. “It was great training ground for me professionally,” he says. “I’m really convinced that I use the skills I developed there every day.”
Stensland says mock trial helped him become a better listener — an important requirement for a good speaker. Stensland is senior communications project manager for Alliant Energy and says listening and observing nonverbal cues helps him understand customers, stakeholders and media representatives.
Stensland often acts as spokesman, and he says mock trial skills are never more relevant than when he answers questions from journalists. “Sometimes I feel like I’m on the witness stand with the media,” he says.
Pearson says she is better able to communicate professionally because of mock trial. “We don’t use notes — ever,” she says, “and we have to be completely polished.”
Ward, a business major from Johnston, Iowa, says mock trial forces students to adjust their communication instantly, facing unexpected demands. “You can’t memorize everything,” she says, “and you can’t prepare for every outcome.”
Some alumni form even closer connections through mock trial. Former teammates Ryan and Abbe (Brunink) Stensland will celebrate 12 years of marriage this year — and four children, too. Abbe ’02 joined mock trial as a freshman when Stensland was a junior on the team. “I can win an argument with almost anyone, but I couldn’t win an argument with her,” Stensland says, “so I thought I might have met my match.”
Abbe studied biochemistry on a pre-med track at Central, but mock trial changed her plans. “I was hooked,” she says. “It was the single greatest influence for me at Central.” Abbe discovered a talent for law, became Central’s only three-time all-American competitor and has since been recognized by both the American Board of Trial Advocates and the International Academy of Trial Lawyers for excellence in trial advocacy. She is now an associate at Simmons Perrine Moyer Bergman in Cedar Rapids. “She definitely raised the bar,” Ryan says. “I was always glad she was on my team, and I didn’t have to compete against her.”
Abbe now coaches mock trial at Cornell College, and she has volunteered for both Central and Mount Mercy University. She coaches two teams that qualified for the national tournament series this year and loves teaching legal skills to students.
“Coaching is much more stressful for me than competing was,” Abbe says, “but I enjoy seeing the same kind of development that mock trial brought out in me. And obviously, I enjoy winning as well.”
This year, Central lacked only a few points for the win needed to compete in the national tournament series. Central lost to Cornell College — the team coached by Abbe Stensland — at a regional tournament in Cedar Rapids. “We got as close as we could have without actually making it,” Dankert says. “That was heartbreaking.” Dankert says he is proud Central can compete with the best, though, and coming so close to beating Cornell was a highlight of the year. With mostly first-year and sophomore students on the team, Green says Central has a good foundation on which to build.
Students also form friendships with teams from other colleges, since they have so many opportunities to meet at competitions. Dankert says he sees old and new friends throughout the year because of mock trial. “I don’t know if it’s like a family or a cult,” he says, “but once you’re in, you’re addicted forever.”