What do Margot Robbie’s character from “Wolf of Wall Street,” a bank robber who gave up a life of crime to become a criminologist and a busker who flexes his muscles as performance art have in common? Here’s a hint: they’re all roles that students on the College of William and Mary Mock Trial team have played on their way to this year’s pinnacle accomplishment. For the first time since 2005, the William and Mary Mock Trial team is headed to the American Mock Trial Association’s National Championship Tournament after placing fifth in the Opening Round Championship Series.
In 2018 March Madness terms, the College was the University of Maryland, Baltimore County to the rest of the country’s University of Virginia in terms of bracket busting.
“Every single team that we hit was expected to beat us, and we didn’t lose two ballots to anybody,” Jacob Hill ’19 said.
The College might know and embrace its status as the dark horse of Mock Trial, but the team’s success at ORCS has been a long time coming. The Mock Trial team has been preparing the performance that won it third place in the regional competition and fifth at ORCS since the beginning of the school year last September, when it was first assigned the case.
Building a case is an arduous, year-long process full of research and story-building. The Mock Trial team prepares both the prosecution and the defense in order to put on a three-hour “mini-trial” in which it presents opening and closing statements, cross-examines other schools’ witnesses, and tries to create a compelling story to get the tournament judges on its side. That involves corroborating every witness’ story to ensure everything slots together to tell a cohesive narrative. Establishing that big picture takes a lot of contentious conversation.
“After all,” Mock Trial team President Kat Mail ’18 said. “You can’t find what the best arguments are without arguing.”
The Mock Trial team spends the first half of the year getting its members comfortable with this process. The team will call up new members to give impassioned two-minute speeches on random words — the members could be assigned anything from socks to dinosaurs — in order to build up confidence in public speaking. They then send these sock or dinosaur experts to invitational tournaments across the country. This practice gives team members the kind of confidence they’re going to need when they step up to the witness stand and assume a character.
“There’s a lot of backstory that goes into this that they don’t really provide for us,” Vice President of Outreach Dana Florczak ’18 said. “But it’s really fun for us to take the materials we’re given and sort of expand beyond that.”
Different schools will portray the same assignments very differently. For instance, a character witness who saw a murder was described in the assignment as a “street performer.” The College portrayed him as a professional muscle flexer, while another school brought a Victorian-era Dickens reenactor up to the stand.
Portraying these characters takes more than just being able to say their lines confidently — you have to be able to roll with the punches and ad lib answers to cross-examinations. Members must keep a cool head whether the opposition is asking them about their criminal background or they’re insinuating that they’re a racist. The ability to not only stay in character and stick to the story, but also to have fun while doing so, is something the team has developed as it has become a more cohesive unit over the past few years.
“We finally have a consistent identity of being capable,” Mail said. “For the first time, we started getting more successful because we had awesome coaching, and then you begin to self-identify as a contender. And when you’re a contender it makes people feel like this is worth dedicating their time to, so you break that self-fulfilling prophecy of being a bad team.”
The seniors on the team have done a lot to build their contender identity. The College had only made it to the national competition once before in its history, in 2005, when a different structure made it easier for teams to qualify. It has taken the leadership of both undergraduates and law students to get the College to qualify for ORCS in consecutive years for the first time ever. There, the College beat the 12th-ranked Mock Trial team in the country, won an award for sportsmanship, claimed an individual award for the character witness portrayed by Alex Love ’19 and, most importantly, qualified for the national-level championship.
To find the energy to achieve all of this, the College has a unique pre-trial hype-up routine.
“Partly to intimidate other people, we get in the middle of the hallway where we meet outside the classroom where we’re competing, and we’ll rap about Mock Trial,” Mail said.
In a huddle in the hallway, a team member will drop the beat and Hill will jump in to spin an original freestyle full of confidence, in-jokes and plenty of legal jargon. Now energized, the team members adjust their ties, dresses and handcuffs as they file into the classroom to convince the judges of who exactly committed this murder.
Once the trials are completed, AMTA announces which teams have qualified to go to the National Championship. To build suspense, it starts by naming the shoo-ins in the highest places and then continues down the list all the way to sixth, announcing the winners with agonizing slowness. The College was named fifth.
“We were all sitting there, bent over, holding hands really tight,” Vice President of Tournament Grayce Angle ’19 said. “When we won, it was like this guttural scream from the entirety of William and Mary just echoed across the auditorium. I fell down and skinned my knee. We all just started sobbing unanimously.”
But really, no one was too surprised, given that they’d just listened to Hill’s rap. After all, it ends with this line: “Dark horse coming at you with full speed, the College of William and Mary.” And now that dark horse is headed to the national competition, where it will be putting on a bank robbery trial — and most likely having a lot of fun while doing it.