Ypsilanti Mock Trial Squad Goes Big-Time With Help from Michigan Law

Ypsilanti Mock Trial

By John Masson, Amicus editor

At first glance, Ypsilanti High School might not seem to have much in common with the exclusive University of Detroit Jesuit High School.

Second glance, too.

But that didn't stop Ypsi's scrappy and meticulously prepared mock-trial team from splitting with one of the state's most powerful teams at this spring's competition. The decision helped the Ypsilanti team—coached by volunteer students from Michigan Law's Future Advocates in Training (FAIT) group—advance to the state finals.

The finals appearance vindicated the hard work of both the high school students and their mentors, including dozens of Michigan Law students and faculty members.

"The kids' goal this year was to make states, and it's tough," said Michael Adler, who will be a Michigan Law 3L this fall and who was the team's advocacy chair and head coach. "You only have three trials, and you can do really well in the first two and badly in the last one, and that's it, you're not going to make it."

FAIT was organized by Michigan Law students in 2008 with mock-trial competition specifically in mind. The goal was to improve the odds for success—in mock-trial competitions, and in life—of high school students in some of Michigan's economically struggling communities. The group decided on Ypsilanti High School as a promising proving ground, and began working with teachers and students there.

Adler became involved with the team at the end of the last school year. He worked over the summer, meeting with mock-trial coaches and talking about the competitions with friends who had done high school mock trial in Michigan.

The competitions, a sort of cross between theater and moot court, call on 10-person teams to write and perform the parts of lawyers and witnesses on both sides of the argument, based on a set of facts established beforehand.

The case they argued this year, Adler said, was basically a homicide: the defendant was accused of murdering a fellow student following an episode of academic cheating. The fictitious victim was found dead after spending time alone with the defendant during a rock-climbing expedition.

"Of course, there are some schools that have more resources: attorneys coming in to coach, more time, more money," Adler said. "For example, Kalamazoo Central, the winningest team in the state, has a full-time teacher helping out and volunteer attorneys who come in and coach. Ypsilanti, until FAIT came along, didn't have anything like that."

But after FAIT arrived, an infusion of student and faculty mentorship helped the Ypsi group grow and reach its potential. FAIT's faculty advisor, Professor Sam Gross, was particularly dedicated to helping students achieve a more nuanced understanding of the law, Adler said.

"He came up with a lot of suggestions and actually judged a full scrimmage for the kids," Adler said. "Professor Gross was definitely the guy. It was great having him; he's a national expert on the rules of evidence, and I felt very comfortable, especially in trial competition, that the kids knew the rules of evidence really well."

Other prominent Michigan Law participants this year included co-coach Steve Shellenbarger and FAIT founder Brittlynn Hall, who earned her J.D. this year. The Black Law Students Association also pitched in.

Adler said he enjoyed his work with the group and likely learned as much from them as they learned from him—mostly about teaching.

"The hardest lesson is confidence," he said. "We struggled with confidence right up until the very end. It wasn't until they started scrimmaging more and whupped a team of law students that they started to realize, 'Hey, we're not half bad at this.' Even when we weren't doing mock trial, if someone wasn't speaking loudly enough or not speaking confidently enough, we'd call them out. It was something we were trying to instill across the board. And by the end of the year, they had that swagger."

The surging self-confidence has paid off, he added. All six seniors on the team are slated to attend college this fall—three of them at Michigan.

The Ypsilanti squad ultimately finished the season with a fourth-place trophy after losing a close-fought finals competition with crosstown rival Ann Arbor Community High School, the top seed. But nobody was too discouraged.

"To go up against some of these powerhouse schools and do so well, they should feel good about it," Adler said. "And going to states, that was just the icing on the cake."