Berkeley Law’s victorious trial team: Coach Justin Chou ’11, Jordan Kahler ’15, Roxana Guidero ’16, Janice Lu ’15, Jason Wu ’16, and Coach Spencer Pahlke ’07
By Andrew Cohen
Berkeley Law added more hardware to its trophy case recently, winning the National Institute of Trial Advocacy’s Tournament of Champions in Waco, Texas. One of the nation’s most prestigious law school competitions, the annual tournament features the top 16 trial advocacy schools based on their three-year record at designated events.
Having advanced to the semifinals after four rounds of arguments, the team of Roxana Guidero ’16, Jordan Kahler ’15, Janice Lu ’15, and Jason Wu ’16 bested top-seeded Yale and then Campbell to claim the championship. “This is a huge achievement for our trial program,” Wu said. “We’re extremely proud that we came out on top.”
The team was coached by Berkeley Law alumni Spencer Pahlke ’07 and Justin Chou ’11, both from the law firm Walkup, Melodia, Kelly & Schoenberger. Team members universally praised the coaches for their dedication and guidance.
“From the early stages of preparation to the night before our final rounds, they pushed us to make each performance a little better than the last,” Kahler said. “Justin spent a lot of time on themes and theories, helping to find the heart of our case. Spencer gave precise feedback on how to use our voices and bodies to fullest effect in the courtroom. We wouldn’t be enjoying this victory without their guidance and support.”
Guidero, named Best Advocate in the final round, called the level of competition “amazing.” While she laments that “real-life cases are often determined by the skills of trial lawyers rather than the merits of the case,” Guidero said “unfortunately that’s the system we live in and it’s not going to change.” She stressed the need for law schools “to support, challenge, and train students in practical skills … When we’re talking about trials that directly affect people’s life and liberty, these skills are vital.”
That emphasis is evident at Berkeley Law, which has won top awards at regional and national tournaments in recent years. The student-run Board of Advocates, which oversees the school’s internal and external skills competitions, includes more than 80 students who compete in three main areas: Alternative Dispute Resolution, Trial Advocacy, and Appellate Advocacy.
Preparation, poise, presentation
At the Tournament of Champions, teams argued a hypothetical case regarding a large collegiate athletics conference that enticed four schools to leave a smaller conference. This led to the collapse of the smaller conference’s television deal, putting it in breach of contract. A school in the smaller conference sued the larger conference for damages. Guidero and Wu represented the plaintiff, Lu and Kahler the defendant.
Team members began working on the case in early September. They met as a group twice a week and in attorney-witness pairs once a week—in addition to drafting and honing arguments individually. Early practices focused on case theories and overarching strategies, with ample feedback on content and execution.
In the final days before the competition, the team held two test-run “scrimmages” to refine final arguments and ensure that their case theories fit together. The students’ experience in previous trial advocacy competitions also served them well.
“Adapting to our opponents’ case strategies on the fly was both the most challenging and gratifying part of the competition,” Wu said. “We only had the opportunity to practice internally, so we had little idea of what opposing case theories we would face. It was extremely satisfying to see our team respond to our opponents’ strategies with poise and craft.”
Lu appreciated not only how the coaches’ expertise helped elevate her performance at the competition, but how it will impact her future legal career.
“Since I want to become a trial attorney, their experience and insight in this simulated trial context is extraordinarily useful,” she said. “Even small suggestions, like how to use certain hand gestures and how to phrase certain legal concepts, will travel with me as an attorney.”