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VOL. 125 | NO. 53 | Thursday, March 18, 2010

Local Mock Trial Coaches Prep for State Championship

By Rebekah Hearn

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A small group of local attorneys is hard at work preparing high school students for trial.

Mock trial, that is.

Two Memphis high schools, St. Mary’s Episcopal School and White Station High School, placed first and second, respectively, in the regional competition Feb. 24 and are moving forward to compete in the state championships Friday and Saturday.

The teams – and their coaches – have been to state before. WSHS is the reigning state champion.

But winning the trophy isn’t what it’s all about for the participants. The hard work, long hours and intense preparation help students decide what fields to go into and improve their self-confidence.

The right focus

Attorney Eugene Bernstein, who has been coaching mock trial at WSHS for 29 years, likes it so much, he’s currently studying for his master of arts degree in teaching, and he said he’d like to teach history, government or economics to high school students.

One of the benefits he reaps from coaching the teams, he said, is watching the students’ progess, especially the returning participants.

“It’s a fabulous program for the students; they acquire a set of knowledge and skills that you really can’t get anywhere else,” said Bernstein, who had three assistant coaches: Jeremy Alpert of Glankler Brown PLLC, Nicole Bermel, an attorney at Kiesewetter Wise Kaplan Prather PLC and Mark Erskine, a third-year law student at the U of M. Bermel and Erskine did mock trial at WSHS as students.

“I know a lot people liken this to debate. I judge debate too, for the Memphis Urban Debate League, and it’s very, very different. The skill set you get from mock trial really helps the students acquire not only critical thinking skills, but the ability to express themselves in challenging situations,” Bernstein added.

At WSHS, each team has 12 people, with separate attorneys for defense and prosecution. The rest of the team are witnesses.

Bernstein holds a class at the beginning of the year to teach interested students “some basic concepts of trial practice and I teach them the mock trial rules of evidence and procedure.”

Being busy studying himself, facing midterms at the U of M, coaching two mock trial teams and keeping his solo transactional law practice at the Bernstein Law Office going is more than full-time.

“I have no spare time,” he laughed.

Jennifer Nichols, the coach for St. Mary’s (the sole coach, aided by faculty advisor Pam Guinn), can relate. She’s an assistant district attorney, and because of her demanding trial schedule, she said the decision was made to have just one St. Mary’s team this year.

Also, her team is structured differently.

St. Mary’s team has nine students, and instead of having separate students serve as defense counsel and prosecution, Nichols’ team has three attorneys, and they play both sides.

“I like the three-attorney approach,” Nichols said. “They do twice the amount of work, but I think it’s good for them. They learn the case inside and out.”

Nichols’ team is nearly all returning participants, although Bernstein has “lost a lot of veterans this year.”

“(It’s) a combination of people graduating and block scheduling. The students are taking a lot more courses so they have less time, so we had a lot of people drop out of the program because of time commitments,” he said.

Reaping early benefits

Having gone to state before, both teams and their coaches know what to expect – and that’s not necessarily to win.

“In some ways, I think there’s a comfort level of what to expect, not a comfort level with winning, but a comfort level with what the process is,” Nichols said, pointing out that in regionals, the students often know each other personally or from past competitions, making it less intimidating.

Last year, WSHS went to state, won and went to the national tournament, where they placed 26th out of all the U.S. and foreign teams competing.

But winning isn’t what it’s all about.

“It’s always amazing when we win, because I’m not really structuring the team to win, I’m structuring for maximum participation,” Bernstein said.

Both coaches said they believe mock trial is relevant to people who aren’t considering the law as a career.

“It helps their confidence, their ability to think on their feet,” Nichols said, praising the intelligence of the St. Mary’s girls. “Some of the girls I’ve had since 9th grade, just the difference from their freshman to the senior year and the grace with which they handle themselves is pretty amazing.”

Bernstein said he was “making no effort to make lawyers out of them.”

“If you’re interested in using your advocacy skills, if you’re interested in protecting the rights of other people, you should look for professions that allow you to use those skills, and there are some besides the law.”

The competition ends Saturday evening, and a wealth of awards are given out, including “Best Attorney” and “Best Witness.”

Watch The Daily News for updates on the progress of the two teams.

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