As the nation responds to racially charged social unrest, aspiring attorneys at Rutgers are proving their exceptional trial skills by winning cases as part of the Black Law Students Association mock trial competitions.
Last weekend, Rutgers Law School earned first place at the Mid-Atlantic Black Law Students Association (BLSA) Thurgood Marshall Mock Trial Competition in Philadelphia, which included 13 participating law schools from Pennsylvania to Virginia, including the University of Pennsylvania, Howard University, Temple University, Villanova University, Penn State, and others.
The Rutgers Law team, which will compete in the National Black Law Students Conference in Baltimore March 9 through 13, consists of law students Frantz Duncan ’16, Ayoola Stewart ’16, Jarrod Welsh ’16, and Kisha Pinnock ’17, and alumni coaches Marcus Washington ’12 and Angella Middleton ’14. The Hon. Dennis Braithwaite, a Rutgers Law School professor of professional practice of law, serves as faculty advisor.
Another Rutgers Law win at the Mid-Atlantic Region BLSA competition, included Sadé Calin ’17 and Steven Okoye ’17, who were awarded Best Petitioners’ Brief in the Frederick Douglas Moot Court Competition. Calin and Okoye currently serve as president and vice president of Rutgers Law’s BLSA in Camden.In the five plus rounds of competition, the Rutgers Law Thurgood Marshall Mock Trial team defeated teams from Georgetown, Washington & Lee, and the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law. All participating teams confronted the problem surrounding an altercation between the decedent and the defendant with the questions of the case addressing whether the defendant punched the decedent in self-defense and did the decedent’s diabetic condition kill him or was the defendant’s punch a trigger to health consequences, resulting in death.
According to Ayoola Stewart, Rutgers’ winning strategy was its skilled defense. “The defense half of our team did an expert job of tearing down the prosecution’s theme and using it against them,” she says. “In the prosecution’s rebuttal, I also deconstruct the defense’s theme.”
Welsh supports this and emphasizes the team’s strength in thinking on their feet. “Each side of our team had winning days by being focused, confident, and on a hot streak at the right time. In winning the final we simply did a better job of responding to our adversaries’ case, while they didn’t address our case but instead delivered practiced performances.”
This out-of-the-classroom experience with peers from other law schools made the team members reflect positively on their Rutgers legal education.
“Even though law school has not been easy, I definitely know that Rutgers has provided me with the skills, tools, and resources to become a great prosecutor one day,” notes Stewart.
Aside from the hours dedicated to practicing and the talent of the team in place, Frantz Duncan also says winning this competition connects back to the quality of the education he’s received at Rutgers.
“During the competition I pulled from my course work in evidence, trial advocacy, criminal law and persuasion in legal writing and became a true advocate,” says Duncan, who will serve as a law clerk for the Hon. James Hely after graduation. “I was able to compare myself to students at other universities and could see that I am beyond prepared to be an attorney.”
While the competition revealed how Rutgers has prepared the team, the experience also solidified their confidence in themselves.
“[It] taught me to trust myself, my instincts, and to be confident. To not shy away when I'm being questioned, but rather to take a breath, collect my thoughts, and to respond gracefully and eloquently,” says Kisha Pinnock. “I remember in one of our early practices during an exercise I was so nervous that I walked off the podium and couldn't finish my argument - midway through questioning. But now, six months later, I'm competing in the final rounds of a regional mock trial competition and even moving forward to nationals!”
According to Welsh, competitions like these are important for law students for many reasons. “We can always look up laws and cases with ease, but there's not a Westlaw for how to be a lawyer in a courtroom,” says Welsh, who would like to continue working in the courtroom after graduation, preferably for the Public Defender. “I focus on classes that teach hands on skills and these competitions are the true test of those skills. This experience makes me feel confident to enter a courtroom after I pass the bar and start speaking; it gives all of us who compete that extra experience to start our careers.”
The Rutgers Law team expects their winning streak will continue. Their intensive weekly training program won’t subside and they are ready for the “problem twist” anticipated to arrive two weeks before the competition.
Stewart’s strategy to prepare is about being extremely organized and hyper observant. “Before the competition, I had all my questions, motions, and things in closing that I knew I wanted to ask or say written out in one huge word document,” she explains. “I also had rules ready to argue my objections or to respond to objections in comment bubbles. But, I also save space on my document to pick up novel things said by the other team… I am also always listening. I am constantly thinking about what the other team is saying or doing and thinking how I can turn it against them to get the advantage.”
Frantz adds that they have a strong chance of winning, because “our coaches will not let us settle for anything less than another win.”
Rutgers Law alumnus Marcus Washington, an assistant district attorney in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, notes that the hard work the team put in over the last six plus months was on full display during the competition. “I am beyond proud of the way they performed, both as their coach and (more so) as a Rutgers Law alum. During the final round of the competition I completely transitioned from coach to fan. It was hard for anyone watching not to root for them. They displayed to the Mid-Atlantic Region exactly what Rutgers Law is truly all about.”
Angella Middleton, an associate at White and Williams, is equally impressed with the Rutgers Law team. “As thrilling as it was to compete in mock trial as a Rutgers law student, it is equally as fulfilling to be a coach standing on the sidelines pushing talented students forward,” says Middleton, who recently wrote and published the book Life Lessons I Learned in Law School. “I am very proud of this team - not only for winning the regional title, but for their dedication and hard work. Before we even knew the results, they could confidently say that win or lose, they were proud of their performance. That is what matters the most. I am delighted that I could share in such a rewarding part of their law school experience.”