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Mock Trial Team Wins Regional, Advances to National Semifinals

Mock trial team

By Andrew Cohen

It’s another stellar performance by Berkeley Law: For the second straight year, a student team won the Northwest regional championship of the American Association for Justice’s national mock trial competition.

At the regional round in Seattle, Berkeley Law’s two teams bested their competitors and faced each other in the finals. At the national championship, held March 22-25 in Las Vegas, the team of Kevin Budner ’12, Nikki Davenport ’13, Jonah Lalas ’12, and Emily Tienken ’12 won all nine judges' ballots in the three preliminary rounds en route to the semifinals.

Participating teams prepared a negligence case that involved a plaintiff teenage hockey player who suffered a blow to the head during a game, but was cleared to play after being examined by the team’s trainer. A few days later, the player sustained another blow to the head that knocked him out cold and caused permanent injury. After it was discovered he had played with a concussion—the result of his initial injury—the player sued his team and the trainer.

“The case was challenging because there were so many angles we could take with our theme and theory,” Lalas said after his team placed in the top four out of 224 overall teams. “Even during the competition, it seemed that after every round we always changed some things to improve our presentation.”

While preparing for the regional round, the team consulted with a doctor, who described the nature of concussions and the way trainers identify their signs and symptoms. The students went through a rigorous preparation that included six weeks of meeting twice each week with coaches and once a week on their own—in addition to separate one-on-one sessions.

“Our students always do multiple internal scrimmages before going to a competition,” said team coach Spencer Pahlke ’07, an adjunct professor at Berkeley Law. “The dedication of our students and coaches is amazing, and has contributed greatly to our success.”

An attorney at Walkup, Meodia, Kelly & Schoengerger, Pahlke has coached at Berkeley Law for the past five years. After helping to grow the school’s mock trial program during his first two years, he became director of its external trial competition teams and now coaches three of them. The program has expanded to 6 teams and 12 coaches overall.

“Spencer is an outstanding trial lawyer and an insightful teacher,” competitor Davenport said. “He truly understands the dynamics of a courtroom, and he’s dedicated to teaching us how to be intelligent, eloquent, and effective advocates.”

Pahlke said many factors have contributed to Berkeley Law’s top trial advocacy program. He cited camaraderie buoyed by social events, the dedication of students and alumni, the internal Bales Trial Competition—a first-year student event endowed by Peter Bales ’07—and the growing number of volunteer coaches. All Berkeley Law students are required to take a trial advocacy class, which Pahlke teaches each fall.

“While we’ve had more tangible successes than ever before, the real accomplishment is helping so many talented students refine their skills and prepare themselves for success as young trial attorneys,” Pahlke said.

Team member Tienken, also a co-chair of the law school’s Board of Advocates, credits institutional support and a growing sense of ownership and pride among those involved for the program’s success.

“Not only do we have fantastic help from our faculty advisors like Bill Fernholz and Barbara Andersen, but we also have an increasing number of alumni who stay connected to the program as coaches and mentors,” she said. “I’d like to think that’s because members have had such a great experience as students that they want to continue their involvement even after they graduate. That’s certainly how I feel.”