08/30/2010 05:21 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Few Notes Upon Witnessing a Bunch of Pretend Lawyers Hoot, Holler, and Collapse Into Tears

Last week, the American Mock Trial Association released its 2010-2011 case packet, a 146-page document containing all the orders, instructions, stipulations, statutes, case law, affidavits, and exhibits needed for college students across America to try a case. If this list of fabricated legal documents doesn't exactly sound scintillating, that's because it isn't -- well, it wouldn't be, anyway, except for two things: 1) it seems like, as if via some mystical force, basically every student who has ever displayed an ounce of talent in the humanities has been told at some point that they ought to become a lawyer; and 2) because many of those students tend to be competitive, driven, and hungry for the chance to garnish their resumes with impressive-sounding extracurricular achievements, a lot of them wind up competing in mock trial.

What you get, then, is this unique microcosm of suit-wearing pretend attorneys who are nevertheless emblematic, to me anyway, of a broader 'achievement class' -- a subset of Millennials for whom aptitude and excellence have become a means of individual expression.

In the literature about Millennials you'll often find mixed reactions to this obsession with individualism: whether it's superficial, as with 'personalized' cell-phone ringtones and arcane social-media 'playlistocracies', or is rather born of genuine concern for self-realization. As an expression-obsessed media-saturated Millennial myself, I'll go ahead and hazard that it's a little bit of both. But as the coach of the University of Washington Mock Trial team, I can also say there's something almost beautiful about herding these Type-As into a courtroom and, over the course of a year, forging a unit called a "team".

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to judge the American Mock Trial Association National Championship Tournament, which was held in my hometown of Memphis, TN. The following article, which I originally wrote for a local paper but decided not to publish due to length, chronicles that experience.


A Few Notes Upon Witnessing a Bunch of Pretend Lawyers Hoot, Holler, and Collapse Into Tears

(The American Mock Trial Association National Tournament)

"Why are we here?"

It is 8:30AM at the Shelby County Courthouse in Memphis, TN, and Steven Strasberg is wandering around in a circle talking to himself.

"As my colleague Ms. Taylor told you at the beginning of this trial, something is missing," he says. "So I ask you again: Why are we here? Ladies and gentlemen, you were asked at the start of this trial to listen carefully to the evidence and weigh the facts in coming to your conclusion as to whether or not Jackie Owens committed murder. As you've seen over the course of this three hour trial, that evidence doesn't exist. Those facts were never proven. To be frank, almost everything is missing. And so you must ask yourselves that same question that I've asked you: Why are we even here?

Jackie Owens is not a real person. A three-hour murder trial has not been conducted. Not a single piece of evidence has actually been weighed. But Steven Strasberg is not insane. And Steven is not the only person in this hallway pacing around with a notepad in front of his face rattling off a soliloquy.

In fact, a swarm of charcoal-suited students have infested the Courthouse's marble-lined hallways, and have spilled over into the Shelby County Criminal Court down the street as well. All told, over 500 students, judges, coaches, and hangers-on have flooded downtown Memphis for the 26th Annual American Mock Trial Association National Tournament. The self-talkers are the "attorneys" chosen by their teams to deliver opening statements and closing arguments, and they're drilling the latest adjustments into their brains.

Over the course of three-days, each one of these kids will spend over twelve hours inside a looming mahogany courtroom getting skewered. They will shout. They will storm. They will sweat. They might very possibly cry. Inside each room, a panel of judges will evaluate each student's performance as either a witness or an attorney, reducing a year's worth of effort to a single number. The team with the highest combined set of scores wins the round.

That is how this tournament works, and that is why every one of its participants (who represent the most elite ~5% of the country's nearly 700 registered collegiate mock trial teams) are guaranteed not to sleep for more than three hours per night while they're here -- but it's not the part that captures me.

I am captured by the minute-long roar of support that rocked the full length of Beale Street when it was announced that eventual tournament champions New York University had won their division.

I am captured by the reasons why one student dropped out of the tournament and refused to even speak with his team because a judge's comment left him sobbing on a bathroom floor for the better part of an hour.

I am captured by the startlingly-large number of mock trial veterans who went on to marry the witnesses whom they directed in competition.

I am captured, in short, by how what has got to be the most contrived activity on the planet -- a bunch of people pretending to ask pretend people pretend questions about other pretend people -- can be so very real.

Let me explain.

The very structure of college mock trial makes concepts like "goodness" or "sincerity" or "honesty" useless. This is because even though each team has the exact same fact pattern to work with, they have to construct coherent arguments for both the prosecution and the defense, and they aren't assigned a side until just before the first round starts. Then they have to switch sides and refute that very same case in the next round. Truth, therefore, isn't merely relative -- it's nonexistent. Now, one might argue that in something like basketball, goodness or sincerity or honesty or whatever don't come into play very much, either. But in mock trial you're scored -- and I'm taking this right off the sheet they handed me when I sat down to judge my first round at the tournament -- on qualities like "passion," "believability," and yes, "sincerity." It's all about technique. Whoever is best at faking being genuine wins the round.

This is what some of the best and brightest students in America are training upwards of twenty hours a week to do. At first glance, this should scare the hell out of us.


Indulge me for a second.

I am a game designer by trade, and one of the surest ways of getting someone to play your game over and over again is to make up sets of objectives and spell out very clearly how your players should attain them. The player completes those objectives, wins a gold star, and goes to bed feeling like he or she has accomplished something. The he or she wakes up, digs up another objective to check off the list, and repeats this process ad nauseam.

This is a fine thing to do when you're playing a game. It helps you perfect technique. But if the good ol' "best and brightest" actually believe that this is what they should be doing in life -- that what they're supposed to focus on is achieving something, anything, regardless of whether it's good or sincere or honest --we have a huge problem on our hands. Because when you fixate upon doing something just to do it, just to check it off a list -- that's called addiction.

That reason, addiction -- what amounts to a societal addiction to achievement -- is why every single one of these students can recite his or her SAT score from memory, and is why every single one of these students has been told, "You'd be so great at it!" when they ask a parent or teacher or mentor why they should pursue a career in law.

And yet.

Let's head now to a toast inside a bar. The bartender has just handed me a Crown Royal on ice while congratulating my mom on her phenomenal choice of sweater, and in front of me a girl is standing on a chair.

The girl, whose name is Maggie and who has been described to me as "actually as sweet as she seems even though she seems way too sweet to be real," seems way too sweet to be real. She calls people "sugar" with zero signs of irony. Her shoes have bows on them. And she's obviously cool, in the way that you knew Samuel L. Jackson was cool before people had to tell you that Samuel L. Jackson was really really cool. I want to hang out with this girl, and I want to have a beer with this girl, and I want to sort of find a casual way to ask her for her autograph without it getting all awkward -- except the thing is she's crying. I don't mean she is sobbing casually and accidentally and maybe it's just a trick of the light. I mean she is hardcore bawling her eyes out standing up there on that chair, and she's trying to talk but she can't, and the audience is captivated by the radiance that pours from this girl, they are best I can say enthralled, and I am enthralled, and I wait for the words on her lips like the first drops of a flood.

Rhodes College, the team whose after-party I am crashing, has just been crowned one of the top ten teams in the nation. What is beautiful, what gives me hope, is that at this very moment no one in the room cares about this. And they don't care about this because for the last three hours, they have been participating in a ceremony that is passionate and sincere and un-ironic and good.

Every year, after Nationals, after all the work is over, members of all three Rhodes teams get together to toast their teammates. To talk to them as peers and tell them how they feel. To explain to the team's graduating seniors what the last four years have meant. Speeches last as long as they need to last. Bullshit is expressly prohibited. And everyone -- maybe for the first time in their lives -- is vulnerable.

A guy named Kashon walks up to me.

"Thanks," he says.

"For what?"

"I don't know."

Maggie's words never come, and she alights from her chair, and still everyone is staring, and she too is staring, and she is blinking. What she wants to say is, "All this time we have spent together, all this work that we have done together -- it is somehow very important," but she says nothing. Yet she says everything, and everyone knows. More people speak. Time passes. In the audience a boy and a girl lean against one another like the ruined pieces of an ancient statue. In the corner a kid named Michael is crying, he cannot stop crying, and he falls to his knees, and no one in the room will ever fault him for it. And there are grown men holding one another, they hold onto one another like the edges of sheer cliffs, and they stand with one another, and they stand there together, and they stand.

Why are we here?

Before she started talking, Maggie, who is maybe 5'1 in heels, hauled that chair up over her head and announced to everyone that she'd be perching on it.

"So I can see you," she said, climbing up on top.