By Andrew Cohen
Spencer Pahlke ’07 remembers his exuberance colliding head-on with reality.
“Back when I was in law school I was very interested in mock trial, but there were limited opportunities,” he says. “We had maybe 10 students on teams, one or two coaches. We went to a couple competitions, and there were no internal competitions. Our program wasn’t designed to be a player on the national stage.”
The semester after Pahlke graduated, two students competing in a local tournament asked if he could fill in — as both prior coaches had left the program.
“I said yes, we had a ton of fun, and we won the competition,” Pahlke recalls. “That made me realize that even though I’d just graduated, I could play a role in building this. I’m so glad they asked me to coach. It really changed the course of my life.”
Juggling his hectic schedule as a young associate at Walkup, Melodia, Kelly & Schoenberger in San Francisco, Pahlke poured himself into building up Berkeley Law’s trial team program. It’s now barely recognizable from his student days with 30 students, who take part in 8-10 external competitions and two internal competitions a year, guided by roughly 20 coaches.
Berkeley is a fixture at the annual Top Gun National Mock Trial Competition, which invites each of the nation’s 16 top trial advocacy schools to pick one advocate to represent at the event. Collin Tierney ’14 won the event in 2013. Unlike other competitions, participants do not receive the case file until they arrive — just 24 hours before the first round begins.
Berkeley Law has also excelled at the prestigious National Trial Competition and Tournament of Champions. At this year’s NTC, both student teams — coached by Aaron Laycook ’10, Derin Kiykioglu ’17, Brandon Hughes ’20, and Amanda Sadra ’21 — went undefeated at regionals and will compete at nationals in April.
“Our program has sustained success because of the stalwart leadership of Spencer Pahlke and the incredible talent available at Berkeley Law,” says trial team coach Dustin Vandenberg, now a deputy district attorney in Santa Clara County. “Many programs will have a few years of success here-and-there as talented students come and go, but it takes an immense amount of work to build the kind of powerhouse program that we have. Spencer is incredibly active in teaching all the core fundamentals of trial to each new member while also building the Berkeley trial team culture.”
Collaboration and cohesion
That culture, which Vandenberg describes as “competitive kindness,” has helped create a pipeline of loyal coaches — most alumni who competed as students and want to give back and stay connected. “That creates the kind of success we’ve been seeing,” he says.
“My philosophy is that we do better when everyone feels ownership in the program, from new team members to longtime coaches,” Pahlke says. “When we each own the program, we tend to it and desperately want to make it better every year. And we have a lot of fun doing that.”
While his students have won multiple competitions and Berkeley Law has steadily risen in the trial advocacy rankings, Pahlke takes most pride in the program’s close-knit network. Students can connect with hundreds of trial advocacy alums across the country who eagerly help them land dream jobs and advance their careers.
“One of the things that makes this program so special is our alumni involvement,” says 3L Cheyenne Smith. “Spencer invites alumni to assist the trial class, coach our competitions, judge our scrimmages, and participate in panel discussions. It’s impossible to overemphasize the benefit of learning from so many astounding advocates. We also have alumni working in nearly every legal field imaginable, and have been able to connect students with attorneys in their intended field for advice and mentorship.”
Smith and classmate Jenna Forster are the trial team’s student co-directors, the first such tandem to fill that role for two consecutive years. They run tryouts to select new members, assign teams for competitions, coordinate daily logistics, and train members by serving as teaching assistants in the Trial Competitions class that Pahlke teaches.
“It’s a lot of work, but I think having students involved in leading the trial program is one of its great strengths,” Forster says. “Because we’re actively competing while leading the program, we know what it takes to prepare teams for competition, and we can make sure that all our teams are set up for success.”
After graduating, Smith will work as a public defender for the King County Department of Public Defense in Seattle and Forster will join the plaintiff-side firm Lieff Cabraser in San Francisco before clerking for federal district court judge Jon Tigar ’89 in 2024.
“Being a member of the trial team has been my favorite part of law school, hands down,” says Forster, who won both the best prosecution advocate and best defense advocate awards during the regional round of this year’s National Trial Competition.
Inside and out
The growth of Berkeley’s Law’s internal competitions — there are now six — has helped fuel confidence and national success. While 2L Nazeerah Ali competed in mock trial tournaments as an undergrad at Howard University, she was unsure about continuing in law school until she participated in the Bales Trial Competition for first-year students.
Before long, Ali was on a Tournament of Champions team with Smith, Forster, and 2L Justin Koo that placed second in the nation. She also joined a National Trial Competition team with 2L Sarah Dupree and 1L Maddie Driscoll that went undefeated at regionals — as did Berkeley Law’s team of Smith, Forster, and Koo. Both will compete at nationals March 30 to April 3 in Fort Worth, Texas.
“I’ve been incredibly pleased with my experience so far,” Ali says. “The best part of being on the trial team has been gaining tangible and transferable skills. Mock trial prepares me for my law school classes and my future career as a litigator … I feel much more confident in courses like Evidence, Trial Advocacy, and Civil/Criminal Procedure.”
Her Tournament of Champions team was coached by Roxana Guidero ’16 (joining O’Melveny & Myers’ Century City office as counsel next month) and Jerome Price ’11 (an assistant chief federal public defender in the Eastern District of California). Ali, Forster, Smith, and Koo practiced on Zoom two nights a week for several weeks for two to three hours each session, spent several weekends scrimmaging against other teams, and put in dozens of hours writing and editing material and reviewing case theory.
“We relied heavily on our coaches’ feedback throughout the process,” says Koo, who began competing with the trial team in his very first semester of law school. “One thing I think makes our trial team formidable is our ability to adjust our case to the evidence our opponents are emphasizing. Being able to put on a slightly different case each round to ensure we were being responsive, as opposed to putting on a rigid case each round, was incredibly rewarding.”
Trial team members say their victories are driven by the coaches’ savvy insights — and by their dedication to student development.
“Jerome’s expertise as a public defender helped us elevate our case and navigate through a tricky self-defense theory,” Smith says. “Roxana’s brilliant understanding of effective case strategies helped us avoid missteps that we’d never even considered. But most importantly, it was abundantly clear how invested they were in our success not only as student advocates, but as future trial attorneys.”
A star trial team member during her student days, Guidero was on Berkeley Law’s triumphant 2014 Tournament of Champions team. Like many others who came through the program, she credits that experience for accelerating her litigation career.
“We often do trainings on how to be a trial lawyer at my firm, and time after time the skills taught are skills I already learned on the trial team,” Guidero says. “If you know how to ask a good cross-examination question, you’ll be able to transfer that skill from the mock trial world to the real world. If you understand the importance of simplifying your narrative for a jury in a mock trial case, you’ll understand that this is even more important in a more complicated matter where jurors are not other lawyers, but real people who may have never been exposed to the legal system before.”
Like Guidero, Olivia Sideman ’17 parlayed her student trial advocacy experience into an early professional advantage. Her dream of becoming a public defender first became truly tangible during the Bales Trial Competition.
“That was the most formative experience of my 1L year and gave me hard skills directly applicable to my chosen career,” she says. “I knew that joining the mock trial team would allow me to continue honing these skills so that, upon graduation, I’d be able to provide the best representation possible for my clients.”
The Trial Competition course features mini trials, known as “flash trials” at Berkeley Law, where students try a case after only 30 minutes of prep time and get extensive opportunities to argue in front of the class. That adrenaline-fueled experience reinforces the importance of agile thinking and not being wedded to a single trial strategy.
Sideman credits her experience in the Bales Competition and on the mock trial team as “invaluable preparation” for her job at the Alameda County Public Defender’s Office. Just two months into the job, she had her first trial.
“I felt confident going into it that I knew how to deliver an opening, cross-examine the witnesses, and close with confidence and passion,” she says. “I knew how to develop a theme and theory of the case, how to loop when asking questions, and how to use visuals to help guide the jury. This allowed me to focus on the substance of the trial rather than the performance. The jury was very surprised to hear that it was my first trial, and, most importantly, I succeeded in getting a not guilty verdict for my happy client.”
Sideman notes that reading legal textbooks alone does not give young lawyers the skills they actually need in starting their jobs, and urges students to get their hands dirty with the actual work they’ll be doing after graduation.
“The trial program provides students exactly that opportunity,” she says. “It has been invaluable for my legal practice, and I hope will continue to serve students for many years to come.”
Last year, to help not only his own students but those on trial teams across the country, Pahlke launched the podcast “Unscripted Direct.” Co-hosting it with Justin Bernstein, his counterpart at UCLA Law, Pahlke aims to bring the trial advocacy community closer together.
Filling up the toolbox
Vandenberg, who advanced to nationals three years in a row while a student, recalls how his experiences were rewarding because they reflected the program’s excellence, generated fun memories and close friendships, and offered concrete tools that he uses daily.
“Being a member of the Berkeley Law trial team teaches more than just the mechanics of how to conduct a direct exam or give a closing argument,” Vandenberg says. “It’s about learning how to weave persuasion into every aspect of your trial. It’s a skillset that’s almost impossible to pick up without the kind of one-on-one feedback and training that you get through our program.”
While cross-examining during a recent jury trial, Vandenberg alleged that the defendant willfully fled from a police officer and sped through a neighborhood, running multiple stop signs before eventually crashing his car and being apprehended. The defendant testified that he didn’t see the police car and was driving to pick up a friend.
Well versed in demonstrative exhibits that help enhance an argument and clarify complex testimony — having used them in multiple mock trial tournaments — Vandenberg was comfortable setting up a map of the area and marking it up while cross-examining every aspect of the defendant’s story.
“I was able to use that to argue how his story was not corroborated by the physical evidence at the scene, and how alternative routes would have been more logical for him if he truly was going to pick up his friend at the address he claimed,” Vandenberg says. “In the end, the jury convicted the defendant of the charges. My training at Berkeley Law is what helped turn a tedious cross-examination about side streets and stop signs into a compelling argument.”
In keeping with the program’s collaborative culture, the education goes both ways.
“I’ve already implemented tips from the students on the team in my career,” Guidero says. “I love coaching in this program because I learn as much as I teach.”