Why Do I Care More Than They Do? A Young Lawyer’s First Attempt at Coaching High School Mock Trial

By Amanda Perry

As lawyers, we preach philanthropy and public service on a regular basis, but we often are so overburdened with deadlines, paperwork, and research that philanthropy can often turn into a charitable donation. While in law school at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pa., I was an avid and cutthroat competitor in our trial advocacy competition team, so when I was stationed at Fort Bragg to start my career as a Judge Advocate with XVIII Airborne Corps, I wanted to find a way to combine that advocacy competitiveness and my philanthropic core principle. Enter: becoming an attorney advisor for a high school mock trial team through the North Carolina Mock Trial Program.

When I first met with the team in September, I had to remind myself of one major underlying principle: these are high school kids, not law students. As a law student competitor, we practice relentlessly and often; we find a way to balance the rigors and demands of law school with the demands of honing our advocacy skills. It’s expected that you will be emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, and physically exhausted, but at the same time, every person in that room is there to win. None of those things are expected of a high school team nor, more importantly, should they be.

Admittedly, it was an awakening that they did not care as much about the team as I did. What do you mean you haven’t memorized your witness statement? What do you mean you haven’t written three different revisions to the direct examination that we practiced last week? Are you complaining about having one practice each week for one hour? Questions like this ran through my mind after each practice.

Why am I more invested in this than they are?

Because this is my craft. This is their extracurricular activity. No one expects them to burn the candle at both ends the way we do as lawyers (and the coaches that do expect this of their teams should be ashamed of themselves, in my opinion).

Once I was able to quash my internal battle, I was able to focus on the important part of coaching: teaching. Mock trial is not solely about the law. It’s about teaching students a skill set: how to present, how to argue, how to think on their feet, how to be poised and articulate, and most importantly, how to see themselves as professionals. Not every person who competes in high school mock trial will become a lawyer. Only a small percentage of competitors have law school aspirations, but what the program does is provide mentors to students. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why we join mock trial teams as coaches, advisors, and competition volunteers. We provide guidance whether it be academic, career-aspiration based, or just a listening post when they need to talk to someone. We are another adult in their lives who they can turn to for advice because through the practice sessions, they learn to trust us. That process is tough. The first day I walked into practice, I was still in uniform and the group looked at me like I was an alien! That alienness took a bit to thaw, but eventually, I think, they warmed up to me. Mostly.

I say “mostly,” because after the competition in February, I sent the group an anonymous survey about the program. I asked them to give honest feedback about what they thought worked and what didn’t, what they wanted more of, less of, etc. When the second response came in, I had to remind myself, again, that these were teenagers. One particular student’s feedback made me feel like I had failed them all. Had I? Was I really as unapproachable as the student claimed? Were the methods that I employed while teaching them about the law and trial procedure completely useless? I was instantly on the phone with my counterpart, a teacher at the school who interacted with all the kids every day. Needless to say, she reminded me that they were teenagers and that their feedback has to be taken with a grain of salt . . . their bar is perfection and anything short of that is unacceptable. She assured me that during her conversations with the students throughout the semester, they were happy with the program and were enjoying it. Phew. I hadn’t failed them all. But had I failed this kid?

After days of reflection, I concluded that I had not failed this one student. I simply didn’t meet the image of what a mock trial coach was to this person. I can live with that.

In the end, my attempt to combine my love of trial advocacy competitions and my philanthropic spirit was an overall win. As I start to prepare materials for next season, I remind myself that the important part of this experience is just that . . . the experience. I can’t mold them all into avid trial lawyers, but I can help them realize their strengths, work on their weaknesses, and, I hope, show them that members of the community are willing to support them.

Amanda Perry is currently serving as an Administrative Law Judge Advocate with XVIII Airborne Corps in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. She was commissioned in 2019 after graduating from Duquesne University School of Law in Pittsburgh, Pa. During law school, she was very involved in extracurricular endeavors including Trial Advocacy competitions, Duquesne Law Review, Veterans Court Clinical Program, and President of the Student Bar Association. Prior to law school, she earned her Bachelor of Arts in English from Duquesne University (2008), Master of Education in Secondary Education from Westminster College (2012), and Master of Arts in English from Duquesne University (2014).