Three Ways to Be a Wonderful Mock Trial Witness

Stop us if you’ve heard this one: “You’re better than some of the lawyers I see in my courtroom!”

If you’ve competed in high school mock trial before, chances are you’ve been given that compliment by at least one presiding or scoring judge. The mock trial format allows students to learn an impressive amount about trial advocacy, including a simplified version of the rules of evidence, how to create compelling opening statements and closing arguments, and appropriate questioning styles for direct and cross examination.

However, many teams struggle because they expend far more energy learning how to be attorneys without paying as much attention to witnessing technique. In most high school competitions, witnesses account for at least 33% of the points distributed in a round. Undervaluing their contributions can lead to heartbreaking losses in close contests. That’s why we have three pieces of advice for you to step up your witnessing game.

#1: Pay attention to presentation.

When ModernBrain’s director of mock trial was hired by UCLA law school’s program to provide trial advocacy coaching, he kept repeating two critiques to his law school students.

First, he said “remember the 20% rule.” This means that every presenter should be 20% louder and 20% slower than they normally speak. Mock trial often involves complicated fact patterns that only make sense to contestants after a few read-throughs. Most cases are presented with the assumption the judge shares your familiarity with the case when, in fact, they might have no idea what’s going on. Don’t go for breadth at the expense of depth—choose a few simple material facts in the case to bolster an easy-to-understand narrative, and communicate it more loudly and slowly than you normally would. Remember: just because it’s in the case doesn’t mean you have to bring it up.

Second, he asked, “Where’s the arc?” Most direct examinations of witnesses feel like rote recitations of facts from the case packet instead of emotionally engaging, continuously interesting performances. Mock trial witnessing is not like real-life witnessing. It’s more scripted, it’s flashier, and it requires a greater sense of narrative structure. Every direct needs a dramatic or humorous climax that feels like what the website TV Tropes calls a “WHAM moment.” If you can’t clearly build to that climax throughout a direct examination, it’s hard to justify scoring you a 10 out of 10 for the performance. You need an “arc.”

(The UCLA law school team we assisted won the 2022 national championship.)

#2: Control your cross-examinations.

The best witnesses anticipate all lines of attack against them and prepare. Instead of arguing with the cross-examining attorney throughout the whole cross, it’s best to choose a couple key areas to push back. The fighting should be as smoothly delivered as the best parts of your direct examination.

For instance, if you read the witness statement and know there’s a “long list” part of the cross examination, you can probably “pull the sting” by pre-empting things in a natural-seeming way that blunts the impact. Take this example (created by Brandon Hughes, national mock trial champion):


Without preemption:
Attorney: You can’t tell us the height of the person you claim you saw running from the scene of the robbery?
Witness: No.
Attorney: You can’t tell us the weight of the person you saw running from that crime scene?
Witness: No.
Attorney: You can’t tell us the ethnicity of the person you saw running from that crime scene?
Witness: No. I can’t.
Attorney: You can’t tell us the gender of the person you claim to have seen running from that crime scene?
Witness: No. I can’t tell you.

With preemption:
Attorney: You can’t tell us the height of the person you claim you saw running from the scene of the robbery?
Witness: I can’t.
Attorney: You can’t tell us the weight of the person you saw running from that crime scene?
Witness: I can’t tell you the weight, race, gender, or anything else like that…the streetlight was out and all I could make out was a silhouette.

In the first example, the attorney is controlling the pace of the cross. In the second, the witness shuts down the attorney’s line of questioning in a way that doesn’t seem rude or argumentative. It seems more like what a helpful lay witness would offer an attorney in trial.

#3: Bolster your body language.

Witnessing has a strong acting element to it. Therefore, basic character study questions you might see in a theater class are helpful. Think about who your witness is supposed to be. How old are they? Do they have any health issues? How comfortable are they speaking with their hands? What are they thinking about during their testimony? What do they want the judge to think of them?

Your answers to all of these questions, some of which can be directly found in your witness statement and others up to your interpretation, will inform how your character comports themselves.

For instance, a shy eyewitness who has never testified before would behave substantially different from an expert witness who is regularly hired to testify. Many performers know they should alter their vocal patterns based on their assigned role, but don’t pay nearly as much attention to their body language.

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