Mock Trial Tournament success owed to behind-the-scenes toil

Issue May 2006 By Chad Konecky

If this year's Mock Trial Tournament state champions from Boston Latin School had backstage access to glimpse the sweat equity involved in creating the competition, they might well have handed their trophy to the tournament's planning committee.

Boston Latin School's win over Pioneer Valley Performing Arts High at Faneuil Hall this spring was the last of 260 statewide trials. The competition celebrated its 21st anniversary in 2006 and drew more than 2,000 participating students. But who, exactly, makes this thing go?

"Quite honestly, the process is nothing short of wacky," says Mock Trial Committee attorney-member Arthur Carakatsane, who just completed his seventh year as a committee volunteer. "It's a hardcore group of attorneys, educators and MBA staffers. Because of their efforts, Mock Trial has become cool in schools."

Beginning every August, more than a dozen lawyers, educators and MBA Community Services staff convene to launch eight months of planning. It is a progression that is part mirth, part mad-dash and mostly, well, marshaled law.

"Any time you get a dozen or so lawyers and some other smart people in a room to create something, you're going to have some strong opinions," concedes Mock Trial Committee chair and attorney Eric Schutzbank, himself a former Mock Trial competitor at New York's John Dewey High. "What makes it work is that we're all pushing toward the same goal. And we're under a deadline."

That's where the "wacky" comes in. Starting with a blank slate each year, the committee crafts a relevant, legally grounded case scenario that is accessible to high school students and can be tried in a couple of hours. The case must be delivered in eight weeks via one or two meetings a week.

According to Schutzbank, the first few weeks are spent whittling down suggestions. Case scenarios and issues that are too complicated, too simple, too dated, too irrelevant to teens or lacking an educational message are pitched.

"We tend to throw a bunch of ideas against the wall and see what sticks," says Schutzbank. "Once we get two or three viable ideas, we sketch out a statement of facts, the witness list and the purpose of given testimony."

In an ideal world, the committee builds a case packet by mid-October, in time for printing and its unveiling at five orientation sessions across the state during the first week of November. A judges' orientation follows shortly thereafter.

Rarely, mind you, is the process ideal.

"Every year, we think we're in really good shape and suddenly, we run into something we didn't anticipate," says committee teacher-member Denise Coffey, a former social studies instructor at Chelmsford High, who coached the school's Mock Trial team to the 2003 state title.

"Within the last five years, we've scrapped a case with three weeks to go and decided to construct a better one," recalls Carakatsane, a Melrose native practicing in Middleton. "I thought we were going to give some people a heart attack, but we did end up with a better case."

For his part, Carakatsane tends to be the legal realist during the committee's strategy and case-building sessions. He obsesses over the technical and practical aspects of the case scenario and focuses on constructing guiding mechanisms that teachers, students and judges can easily relate to.

Carakatsane leaves the creative elements to others. "I was a math club and chess club geek in high school," he explains.

The committee devotes the bulk of its energy to ensuring that each year's case scenario is balanced on the merits for both the plaintiffs and the defendants. The group makes its best effort to design cases in which the burdens of proof and the richness of the witness characterizations are equitable and allow students equivalent opportunities to score points.

Each year, the group carefully selects the surnames of witness as well as the names of fictional towns, companies, businesses and schools with an eye toward humor. Folded into the fact pattern are references from movies, television and other segments of pop culture. This year, a key eyewitness and hot dog vendor in the case scenario was the namesake of a member of the MBA executive board.

The legal community remains highly supportive of the tournament. Boston's Brown, Rudnick, Berlack & Israels LLP donated $25,000 to the competition in October, bringing the firm's total contributions since 1998 to $200,000.

The remainder of the 2005-06 committee that generously donated their time includes attorneys: Mary Bassett-Stanford, Anthony J. Benedetti, Elizabeth A. Broderick, Jerry Howland, Sharon V. Jones, Elliott M. Loew, William B. McDiarmid, David M. McGlone, Joshua Allen McGuire and Deborah L. Schreiber; Non-attorney members: Richard Coffey and Tanya Perkins; and MBA Community Services staffers: Elizabeth O'Neil, Seth Boyd and Chantal Souffrant.

Now in his second year as committee chair, Schutzbank has learned to count on one constant above all others as each year's competition plays out: Expect the unexpected.

"Invariably, things will happen as the result of a student's portrayal of a witness or a coach's interpretation of the facts that we never thought of," he says. "That's the beauty of it. Each year's case truly comes alive."