THE NATION’S BEST LAW STUDENT ADVOCATE IS RIGHT HERE IN OUR OWN BACKYARD.
Mr. Wilcox, a member of the University of Denver Sturm College of Law’s National Trial Team, was in Texas this past spring, competing in the Top Gun National Mock Trial Championships. As the name implies, Top Gun gathers the country’s best law student advocates to compete in the year’s climactic trial advocacy tournament.
Being a graduating third year law school student, this was Mr. Wilcox’s final tournament in which he could compete. His reputation was that of a very hardworking student with much talent, but with great humility. But being from the small town of Miles City, Montana, he was never one to celebrate, and rarely smiled at his achievements. Mr. Wilcox himself had been named Best Orator two years in a row in DU Law’s Hoffman Cup, named after DU Law’s late, esteemed alumnus and former Dean, Daniel Hoffman. He and his teammates, while having come close to winning tournaments, had never prevailed, and certainly had never won a national championship. So standing in the Championship Round of Top Gun, opposite the team from Yale Law School, and this being the sixth round in two days, Mr. Wilcox was both invigorated and enervated.
Top Gun is a tournament like no other. It is the most arduous of all tournaments in the nation. Like most trial advocacy tournaments, in each round the advocates present their cases before a jury of three scoring jurors and a presiding judge. The advocates are scored on their application of the Federal Rules of Evidence, the logical cohesiveness of their case theory, theme and thesis, and the prowess they exhibit “in the well” in examining witnesses, presenting evidence, objecting, and all things trial.
What makes Top Gun definitively unique, aside from the fact that it attracts the best teams in the country, is that the case itself is not released until twenty four hours before the competitors must present the case for trial. There are six witnesses to start, with new witnesses and live depositions being added as the rounds progress. And, only the competitor and one coach per school may read and develop the case. There is no other outside help or assistance.
“Educationally, it’s a very effective learning forum. It closely emulates the practical aspects of trial work and readies a student for trial work,” said David Schott, Director of The Advocacy Department at DU Law, and the coach who attended Top Gun this year with Mr. Wilcox. “It is very similar to the processes and pressures that Assistant D.A.’s and P.D.’s experience. The advocates and their coaches have less than a day to prepare their case. The advocates meet their witnesses just a few minutes before trial. They are advocating predominantly ‘on their feet’.”
One more little twist is the advocates and coaches do not know which side of the case their school will be required to present in any given round. Thus they only have twenty four hours to prepare both sides of the case for trial. This is where the tournment actually gets grueling. The competitor and lone coach essentially lock themselves into a room for eighteen hours or so, and begin analyzing both sides of the case, and outlining cogent approaches to each side.
Top Gun is the brainchild of Professors Jerry Powell and his colleagues in the trial advocacy department at Baylor Law School. Baylor is home to one of the top five Trial Advocacy Department’s in the country. (The Advocacy Department at DU Law, having never been ranked previously in the school’s history, catapulted to 11th place this year.) Professor Powell and his team purposely make the tournament a tough experience to test not only the critical thinking skills that are learned in the first year of law school, but to add the real world pressures and practices too. Most observers resoundingly agree that Baylor has succeeded in their mission.
With the nation’s law schools realizing they have to forge a revised avenue to their century-old doctrinal approach to law school education, and focus more on professional skills, Top Gun is “applied critical thinking” at its best. A student who can succeed in Top Gun is a student who is ready. They are ready to step into a courtroom and ready to advocate at a high level.
“As I stood there before Judge Starr, all I could think was, ‘This is it.’”, reflected Mr. Wilcox, “This was everything I had worked for, everything I had been taught. This is what all the late nights and long hours were about that my wife Kate had endured with me.”
Judge Starr’s next words were, “The 2012 Top Gun National Champion is…The University of Denver.”
Applause and cheers erupted throughout the courtroom.
…If one looked closely, a small smile could be seen creeping over Mr. Wilcox’s face. He is ready.