Legally bound

The members and coaches of the St. John’s Mock Trial Team epitomize the notion that with great talent comes great responsibility. Having just celebrated its fifteenth year of excellence in competition against the most prestigious universities in the United States, this team has earned itself the status of one of St. John’s most successful teams of any kind, academic or athletic, in intercollegiate competition.

Complete with an exceptional coaching staff composed of three accomplished trial attorneys, a slew of St. John’s most gifted and motivated students and a trophy case that lacks adequate room for their numerous awards, the St. John’s Mock Trial Team is certainly a force to be reckoned with. Ironically, this fact is little-known in the St. John’s community.

Each year, the team competes in the National Intercollegiate Mock Trial Tournament, run by the American Mock Trial Association (AMTA), where its students are able to demonstrate their aptitude and skill as directly compared to students from Ivy League universities. At The Fifth Annual Columbia University Big Apple Invitational Tournament, its final preseason competition, where only the highest nationally ranked schools are invited, St. John’s Mock Trial Team finished in tenth place, coupled with two individual student awards.

“These pre-season tournaments are solely done for the experience, and it is vital to compete against very good schools to get a sense of our competition,” said Director of the Legal Studies Program Professor Bernard Helldorfer, team founder and practicing attorney. “The students get a chance to compete under real pressure and see how capable they are to think on their feet.

The greatest value is giving them a chance to discover that they are just as good as these students from other strong academic schools across the country.”

Now having proven that they are of equal academic quality when ranked against the best of the best-a surefire testament to the expertise of their coaches, who work voluntarily out of sheer desire for the success of their students-the team is set to tackle the Regional Round of the competition against twelve different universities. And this is no small task.

“It really takes huge commitment and a lot of acting ability as well,” said Jomaire Crawford, Junior Mock Trial Member. “It’s not simply reciting facts, but injecting life into your character-whether it be a witness or attorney. Every day, I do my own individual work and meet with my partner during breaks between classes.”

The first ever St. John’s Mock Trial Team brought this dedicated mentality to life, earning a bid to Nationals from their first Regional tournament and finishing top ten in the country, setting a standard that all subsequent years would maintain.

Helldorfer founded the team in 1991 after having heard of this new extracurricular activity at a conference for the American Association for Paralegal Education.

Initially, Helldorfer met with some difficulty when funds to support the effort were seemingly unavailable, but his determination and persistence eventually saw the birth of this University academic team through the support of the Office of the Provost.

Next was the job of recruiting bright St. John’s undergraduates, for which he enlisted Professor Oscar Holt, his longtime law school pal and criminal defense trial attorney, to assist him in doing. What began as a temporary coaching partnership between Helldorfer and Holt grew into a lasting and influential collaboration that students find to be potent enough to generate paramount results.

“It’s an honor to work with such qualified coaches and learn what it really takes to succeed in this field-agility, skill and commitment,” said Genevieve Trigg, Senior mock trial member. “Sometimes you get confronted with a question that you’ve never encountered before, and you have to be able to answer it in your favor. Our coaches are tough because they have to be, and we’re all really grateful.”

To prepare for Regionals, which will be hosted by our very own SJU for the sixth consecutive year, the two squads are expected to engage in rigorous eight-hour formal practices as well as extensive teamwork outside the courtroom that can total up to 350 hours. Through this, the team must learn the technical and procedural strategies necessary to effectively dispute a court case. Each student is appointed as an attorney or a witness for either the prosecution or the defense, and the topic of the court case that is released by AMTA to all participating universities rotates yearly between a civil and criminal case.

“We are aggressive in our training because it is necessary for the students to perform at the level of tradtionally elite schools,” said Holt. “Also, we only have three months to achieve the quality of attorneys and witnesses that make formidable opponents. These students come from all walks of life, and they learn to take their differences and successfully meld them together into a confident team”.

To fully develop the skills of qualified professionals, students even compete against their own coaches, actual practicing attorneys, thus receiving the added benefit of their refined experience. Professor Kareem Vessup, who was a member of the team as an undergraduate and went on to become a lawyer and then third co-coach of the team, says his participation in the St. John’s Mock Trial Team was fundamental to the evolution of his career.

“Because Mock Trial was such a catalyst in my life, I wanted to give back. I am where I am today because of it,” said Vessup. “Competing opposite the coaches offers the students opportunity for real improvement, and if they’re able to hold their own against us, there should be no situation they encounter in competition that they won’t be able to deal with.”

As their track record has proven and their devotion confirms, there is little this team can’t handle. The St. John’s Mock Trial Team is one of SJU’s most ambitious and praiseworthy groups to date, and will undoubtedly continue to thrive and impress.