McNary students part of mock trial competition

Spending a Saturday in a courtroom might not sound like a fun weekend, but for a group of McNary students it was a big moment.

Fourteen McNary students took part in the mock trial competition at the Lane County Circuit Courthouse on Feb. 11.

They were one of six teams in the Southern Willamette Valley region, representing five schools along with Yamhill Carlton High School, Thurston High School, South Eugene High School and two separate teams from North Eugene High School.

“It’s something to behold,” said Mackenzie DeLong, McNary social studies teacher and mock trial team advisor. “The prep is one thing. The prep is rigorous, it takes months and is a lot of work. But there’s something about watching these 15, 16, 17-year old kids get up there and really listen to what’s going on and adjust in the moment, that just floors me.”

The prep began in early October when they received the case details. This year’s mock trial was a fictional civil case involving a student athlete that claimed a booster hired someone to assault her, resulting in her career ending and loss of sponsorship.

They dug into witness statements, affidavits and other details to build the theme for their case.

The prep work is tough, but that real world experience in a court room goes a long way.

“As educators we always want to try to provide authentic experiences where we can, and there’s a lot of times where they’re just sitting at these desks from 1963 or whenever and it just doesn’t have that same vibe,” DeLong said.

But at mock trial, students have the chance, and the need, to think on the fly and make adjustments. While much of the later prep work is akin to rehearsal, there is no script in a trial.

Things can go sideways quickly, and students have no contact with their advisors inside the courtroom.

“So they gain this opportunity to do that when the pressure is on,” DeLong said. “They develop some real skills in terms of listening and flexibility and not getting flustered if things don’t go your way. It’s something that you can’t really experience unless you’re in that pressure cooker of a trial.”

Witnesses, played by students, are prepared for direct examination, as well as the attack of cross exam.

They don’t touch on case law and precedent as much as they practice with the federal rules of evidence — which don’t change like precedent can over the years – and trial advocacy.

And that practice with trial advocacy is something that most law students don’t often get.

“[The judges] would often say at the end of the round that a lot of people don’t even really practice trial advocacy until they’re out of law school,” DeLong said. “Law school is about developing the verbal skills, but not actually that much training in advocacy even. What they’re learning to do now is something that a lot of attorneys learn to do in their first years of practice.”

The judges for the competition were Lane County judges and attorneys, which gives the students additional exposure to those already in the field of law.

And while the McNary team didn’t qualify for the state competition, it did have some individual standouts.

Logan Bowlby was named Most Valuable Attorney twice, while teammate Elizabeth Woodward earned the honor once.

Caitlin Sadivar, Liam Ansbro and Zach Snegirev each received Most Valuable Witnesses.

Rounding out the McNary team were Adrian Barocio, Oz Warner, Ryee Lofthus, Mason Castleman, Lillian Umphress, Dane Vaughn, Bhavneet Kaur, Hannah Kellogg and Anna McCallister

“I love every minute of it,” Bowlby said. “I want to be an attorney one day so just having the opportunity when I’m young to go up against people that are like-minded as me and being able to compete with people that think like I do is just a lot of fun.”

Bowlby isn’t the only one of DeLong’s students that has expressed a desire to go to law school. And while she’s only been at McNary for five years, not enough time for a student to graduate and fulfill that path, she has had a number of students go on to collegiate mock trial competitions, something she noted some schools give scholarships for.

McNary is currently the only Salem-Keizer school that participates in mock trials. DeLong said that West Salem used to field good, competitive teams, but has not done so in recent years.

If other schools in the are did participate, it is likely that they would have their own region, and McNary would no longer be lumped in with the Eugene schools, something DeLong said McNary would love to see.

“And the students would love not being up at 5:45 to catch our bus to Eugene,” DeLong said.

Like so many other activities, this year was the first back in person for the mock trial competition.

And while DeLong was relieved that they didn’t have to pause and could easily transition to a virtual method, the experience in person was a different one for them this year.

“The process you had to go through and the interaction with the judges, the opponents and then having your family right behind you,” Bowlby said. “It was really quite different and I wasn’t anticipating it so the first round was a bit of a shock.”

Clearly the McNary team made it through that initial shock

“It takes a lot of courage and a lot of skill to say ‘I’m going to give that a go.’ It’s a really humbling experience for me as an educator to watch them do that,” Steinlicht said. “I’m super proud of them.”