GALA varsity mock trial members speak on the importance of mock trial programs in late 2022. (Photo Courtesy of Maya Henry)

Education

How a fake courtroom became ground zero for the high school experience

At GALA, a unique combination of theatre and law has created an unprecedented community battling its way up the competitive rungs of California mock trial.
<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/bookpapaya/" target="_self">Maya Henry</a>

Maya Henry

January 17, 2023

In 2019, the inaugural mock trial team at Girls Academic Leadership Academy (GALA) was composed of ten seniors, two juniors, four eighth graders, and one teacher sponsor who offered up her classroom after school to the make-shift team. The team met for hours every weekend, teaching themselves legal jargon, courtroom etiquette, and centuries of landmark rulings. When it came to the $500 competition entrance fee, the team relied on a grant from the competition showrunner, The Constitutional Rights Foundation (CRF), itself. When the team’s first round of competition rolled around, the dozens of hours of memorization and practice amounted to a loss after the preliminary rounds and a resolution to do better the next year.

Three years and three seasons later, GALA climbed to the LA County finals, with its varsity mock trial team claiming second place out of 84 competing teams. Even better than the plaques and recognition the team has received as the top public school in the county competition, though, is, as junior Sophie Shulman puts it, the “unparalleled community” that the team has created.  

Mock trial itself is a novel concept, uniquely combining theater and law into a cutthroat competition in which teams of high school students simulate a real trial based on provided testimonies, charges, and police reports of a fictitious crime. While some students assume roles as witnesses who must prepare to be cross-examined, others suit up as lawyers, preparing opening and closing statements to sway the judge’s ultimate verdict. Annually, more than 8,000 students in California schools compete in such competitions organized by CRF, creating a fierce competition for participating schools.

As GALA’s team attests to, the lead-up to mock trial season can be described as, at best, intense. For the first half of the fall semester, witness statements are practiced hundreds of times, attorneys and attorney coaches meet for hours on end to perfect word choice, and pretrial attorneys quiz themselves hourly on the provided cases they must be able to quote on demand come the first trial. “All the preparation we do is incredibly challenging but really beneficial,” Siga Sakho explains. 

Like most of the varsity team at GALA, Siga’s been part of the program since her freshman year in 2020, is now a junior, and will compete for the last time in the fall of 2023. Audrey Arbuckle, a junior as well, credits mock trial as one of the highlights of her high school experience, especially considering she joined during the first full year of completely virtual learning. Audrey credits the team spirit and “communal and consistent drive” from the team as a reason she was able to have fun during what she calls the “dark ages” of 2020 and early 2021.

Looking back at the past three seasons in which most of the team has competed, the growth is clear. Simply sitting in on various team meetings and practices over the years, it’s blatant that not only has the team grown in its technical skills – utilizing the proper types of objections, for instance – but also its overall confidence and courtroom presence. Practices have transformed from witness statements peppered with giggles to no-nonsense run-throughs where mistakes are identified, corrected, and rerun. When CRF invited members from the GALA team to speak on the importance of student civic engagement at the Beverly Hilton to a crowd of more than 600 earlier this year, the student representatives expertly previewed the forthright attitude they would later bring to the season on-stage. 

Though the team needed to place first in the county finals to move on to the statewide California competition taking place in early spring, the growth on both a team and individual level is still worthy of applause. As individuals, “we’ve all grown into ourselves and our confidence,” Felix Hemstreet, who was named Pretrial Defense Attorney of the Year, reflects. As a team, the group of 23 has gone from looking up what a pretrial motion is to presenting on the importance of learning such legal processes to conferences of hundreds. 

From an outside perspective, what perhaps is most impressive about GALA’s mock trial team is the seemingly unbreakable bond between members. Students help one another study, talk each other through stress, and debrief after every trial, finding humor in otherwise strictly serious settings. After all, Yasmeen Arteaga explains that one of the reasons she’s returned to mock trial time and time again is the people. As Yasmeen puts it, “finding your community is crucial in high school, and we found it here.”

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