Spirited arguments: Mock trial teams win in every way

November 11th 2013
Giving, Students
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First place says a lot — but first place and a sportsmanship award says it all, according to University of Wisconsin-Madison mock trial team captain Marissa Hatlen (x’14). In October, Hatlen’s seven-member team (one of two in UW-Madison’s mock trial program) won first place at the American Mock Trial Association tournament at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., and captured the AMTA spirit award as well — an honor bestowed by competing peers. Weeks later, the group turned around and won both awards again in Seattle at the University of Washington.

It’s hard to say which distinction means more.

"It takes a team that is genuinely friendly and respected by everyone to win the spirit award," says Hatlen. "We've always had a reputation as a gregarious, respectful team with a great Wisconsin spirit. To top that off with winning the tournament outright is nothing short of amazing."

UW-Madison’s AMTA-certified mock trial program offers undergraduate students the chance to portray either witnesses or attorneys as they argue different sides of the same case for a year. Twice-a-week strategy sessions and four invitational tournaments per year help them hone skills they can use not only in law school, but in almost any career, from communications to acting to business.

"Mock trial teaches you to think on your feet," says Hatlen, now in her third year of competition. "We don't know, until 20 minutes before the tournament, which side we'll be arguing. It tests our public speaking, argumentation, and improvisational skills."

Entirely student-run, UW-Madison’s mock trial program receives support from the UW-Madison College of Letters & Science Annual Fund, as well as faculty support, in the form of student recruitment and help identifying additional resources from Associate Professor of Political Science Ryan Owens, a Lyons Family Faculty Scholar.

"They are incredibly self-motivated," says Owens. "The senior members pass their knowledge down to the junior members. They really care about a well-functioning structure."

The program alternates between civil and criminal cases, exposing students to many aspects of the law. But not all participants plan on law school.

"We have lots of disciplines represented: geography, psychology, business, ecology, writing," Hatlen says. "It's fantastic to get this kind of exposure to analytical thinking."