Libertyville High School students learn by (mock) trial and error
Libertyville High School junior Matthew Markham prepares during the Northwest Suburban Bar Association Mock Trial Invitational this month. Teams from 24 schools competed. | Brian O'Mahoney~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: April 29, 2013 2:15AM
LIBERTYVILLE — Although Libertyville High School’s mock trial team didn’t win one of the top three spots at a competition this month in Rolling Meadows, team members say it’s the experience that counts most.
Mock trial teams exist at many high schools through sponsorship from the Illinois Bar Association and other local bar groups. Teams are given information on a real-life case. They study it, work out a strategy, then compete at tournaments where the case is “tried” in a real courtroom before an actual judge.
At this month’s competition, 24 teams were in the running.
The “jury” is made up of three or four attorneys who volunteer to judge the students on their performance.
Former lawyer Dennis Duffy coaches the team and said — besides learning what lawyers do and how trials work — students are picking up many valuable skills.
“They learn public speaking skills, confidence, the ability to think on their feet and poise,” he said.
Agreeing to coach the Libertyville team was an obvious choice for Duffy when the team formed in 2005. At that time, he was a former litigator and a new student teacher at the school. He had switched to teaching, he said, because he was dissatisfied with the business side of law — but he enjoyed being in the courtroom and matching wits with opposing counsel.
Today Duffy is a social studies teacher who says he has loved getting to know the students who join mock trial.
“Students have to be in the classroom,” he said. “But when you see them do something they love and are passionate about, that’s when you really gain insight into who they are.”
Team members Matthew Markham and Julia Wilson embody Duffy’s theory.
Matthew, a junior, has been on the mock trial team since freshman year and estimates he has spent 300 hours preparing for competitions.
“When we had orientation, I didn’t see much that interested me,” he said. “I’m not a big sports guy, but mock trial caught my eye.”
Duffy said Matthew has been a great fit for the team since he is very analytical, logical and excels at thinking through everything step-by-step. He said it’s an asset when direct-examining a witness, because Matthew asks the right questions in order to piece his argument together.
Julia, a freshman, said she’s not at all like Matthew. Interested in the arts and theater, she said she particularly enjoys playing a witness at competitions because it’s a lot like acting.
“I think a lot of kids underestimate how many different types of people can do mock trial,” she said. “On our team, there are many different personalities, many different skill sets.”
Indeed, when preparing witnesses for competition, Duffy said they talk about motivation just as you would in an acting class.
For those who are interested in law as a career, mock trial has already proven to be a fertile training ground.
Duffy said the student who first suggested starting the team recently graduated from law school. A few other past team members are in various stages of their legal educations, too.
Although he isn’t sure he wants to be an attorney, Matthew already has a many courtroom skills under his belt thanks to mock trial.
“I’m really good at hiding my nervousness,” he said. “Confidence is the most important thing to have in court.”