Most people wouldn’t put the words “MIT” and “lawyer” in the same sentence. In fact, only 1,393 alumni — about 1% — are attorneys, according to the MIT Alumni Association. But a contingent of MIT undergraduates steadily earns a reputation for their prowess in “fake avocado.” That’s how head coach Brian Pilchik describes the premise of the MIT Mock Trial program, which consists of a group of about 30 students who compete against other colleges across the United States in indoor mock trials. of hearing. Each season culminates in the spring with a national competition hosted by the American Mock Trial Association (AMTA) – a sort of “March Madness” mock trial where approximately 600 teams compete for the coveted championship title.
This year, for the first time since the program’s inception, the MIT A team went undefeated in the regional AMTA tournament. MIT A was also the only all-year team to beat Harvard University, which won the national title. Additionally, MIT advanced two teams, MIT A and B, to the second round of competition, qualifying for the National Championship in New York – another first for the program. And the students won 12 awards for their individual performances as attorneys and witnesses — the most MIT has ever won in the AMTA competition.
“I was completely blown away,” says Pilchik, the team’s co-founder who is general counsel in the Public Advocacy Division of the Public Counsel Services Committee. “I don’t think I could have anticipated that starting a whole new program in 2015 — and going through a whole pandemic with them and not being able to practice in a way that we wanted — that coming out of that we would be more stronger than already.”
Learn to plead
In the fall, AMTA publishes a fictional criminal or civil case that university mock trial teams work on throughout the year, again in a mythical 51st US state called the Midlands. The cases are long and detailed, with fabricated witness affidavits, text messages, photos, and other relevant documents. “It’s really fun,” says Diego Colín, a physics student who is co-chair of the MIT Mock Trial. “It’s like a big 200-page logic puzzle that you have to dissect with your teammates, and you get into really heated discussions about these people who don’t exist.”
This year AMTA mounted a criminal case: Chuggie’s Bar in the Midlands burns down and the defendant – who owns the bar – is charged with aggravated arson. The prosecution’s theory is that the cash-strapped owner burned down Chuggie’s to recover the insurance money. The defense has some flexibility in how it proceeds; they can claim, for example, that it was an electrical fire or that someone else started it.
Students practiced for at least two hours at each bi-weekly practice — and invested many more hours on their own — to prepare for roles as attorneys or witnesses. Pilchik and two former MIT Mock Trial coaches, Lia Hsu-Rodriguez ’21 and Zachary Bogorad ’19, helped them analyze the case and work through everything from objections, crossovers and redirects to vocal intonation, body language and where to stand in the courtroom.
Throughout the fall, the program fielded teams in a dozen university mock trial competitions across the country. These tournaments are intense; typically, each team competes in four events, which last about three hours each. Real-life lawyers and judges preside over the trials, awarding votes (called ballots) to the winning teams.
“The mock trial takes time, but it’s a trip that’s definitely worth it,” says Colín. “It sets you apart in skills, in how you engage in public speaking and in argument in general. It teaches you how to argue, not only to make your case, but also to do so convincingly.
Claire Southard, a freshman who plans to major in calculus and cognition, agrees. And joining the moot court community paid off in another way: It helped her adjust to MIT last fall, when she felt completely uprooted from her home in Missouri. “It’s so tight-knit, but in a very welcoming way for outsiders to come and join this community. I felt like I belonged right away. I always left our practices in a better mood, even if something stressful was going on at school,” says Southard.
For those interested in acting, Mock Trial offers the opportunity to play multiple roles; a typical case has a dozen witnesses. AMTA’s affidavits give some idea of their characters, but there’s room for creative license. “The backstory is normally very student-dependent, so it can be quite fun to find a character for yourself that fits the facts of the case,” says junior Emily Tess, a business management major. and MIT Mock Trial Co-Chair. For one of the witnesses she played this year, she was inspired by the character of Mona Lisa Vito in the movie “My Cousin Vinny”, speaking with a heavy Brooklyn accent, chewing gum and gesturing generously.
“What’s so special about the mock trial is that even though it involves the law and people always think on the lawyer’s side, it’s also 50% testimony – actors “, says Pilchik. Mock offers students who are already actors or want to try acting, an alternative to joining a student theater group or the theater arts program.
Fake avocado, MIT style
The trajectory of the Mock Trial program from an incipient program seven years ago to a strong contender among schools performing at the highest level – such as Tufts, Harvard and Stanford universities, and the University of California, Los Angeles – has got people’s attention, Tess said. “We’re really making a name for ourselves in this national community, and people are starting to recognize us for our success.” She noticed that MIT is no longer seen as an outsider in the fictional lawsuit podcasts she listens to.
Part of that success may lie in the particular strengths MIT students bring to the table — or the fake courtroom, so to speak. Over the years, Pilchik has observed two areas in which they excel. One is their understanding of the rules of evidence, which restrict the evidence lawyers can present. The rules are numbered and students must memorize and quote them all to oppose the trial. “I’ve taught objections at many schools, and MIT students are very good at understanding how these restrictions and these pieces of logic fit together,” he says.
Another is to assimilate complex vocabulary and technical or scientific concepts, which students playing the role of expert witnesses must be able to explain during a trial. “If we’re in a round against another school and an MIT student has the opportunity to stand up in front of a whiteboard and show that the other student is missing something or is wrong in math, that’s always fun. !” said Pilchik.
Given their recent unprecedented success at the AMTA tournament, Pilchik and the students are optimistic about the future of MIT’s Mock Trial program. In addition to the stellar performances of teams that have won a host of individual awards, beating Harvard this year has been a sort of public barometer, as well as the “internal validation that our program needs,” says Colín.
“We have accumulated a lot of knowledge among all of our members, and that will never go away as long as we continue to recruit new people and they are mentored by our leaders. Our knowledge base will only grow, and our baseline of how new members get started will only get better. So I can’t imagine us coming down from where we are. We can only go up.