Alexandra Puszczynski never thought of her all-female team of student advocates as ‘all-female’ until her friends started congratulating her on the team’s historic mock trial win.
“I think it’s because we get so comfortable working together as students,” said Puszczynski. “I never notice in the advocacy program if the best teams are made of guys or girls. All I think about is ‘Wow, he or she’s really good.’”
“Really good” just about sums up Campbell Law’s competitive advocacy program. Student advocates have collected five national championships, six national runners up, seven national semifinalists, four regional championships and 14 national individual best advocate awards since 2012. But this is the first to be won by a team of female students.
At the Capitol City Challenge National Invitational Mock Trial Competition in Washington, D.C., the Campbell team worked its way through the opening rounds to beat the University of Denver School of Law for a place in the semifinals. They then topped Stetson School of Law in the finals to bring home a championship. One of only two all-female teams at the competition last March, they were the only all-female team to pass the preliminary rounds, let alone top 23 other teams for the title.
Director of Advocacy & Assistant Professor Dan Tilly assembled the winning team of three third-year law students Meredith Kittrell, Latasia Fields and Dale Stephenson (now graduates) and one second-year student, Alexandra Puszczynski.
“I have made a concerted effort in the years I’ve been here to simply pick the most outstanding, qualified individuals for the program, and we have some phenomenally talented female advocates who have repeatedly scored very high and won competitions,” said Tilly. “There are a number of things that female lawyers have to overcome in the courtroom, and I could not be more proud of this group because they’re just great lawyers.”
Kittrell and Fields have been contributing to those high scores since their second year, trying cases together as co-council. The pair has met with success over and over again. But in her years of competition Kittrell has observed that two-woman teams are rare. She attributes this to the fact that all co-counselors need a good dynamic to appeal to a jury. In some regions, women who are particularly strong or direct in the courtroom can come off as spiteful rather than commanding.
“Latasia is very blunt and straightforward,” said Kittrell, “so sometimes people perceive her as being too aggressive. Men can take the same approach in the courtroom and get no notice.”
Kittrell herself tends to veer toward the passive. “I often hear the critique ‘you don’t sound like you believe in what you’re saying,’ but timid guys get comments like ‘just be a little more confident next time, you’ve almost got it.’”
Stephenson agreed that she occasionally perceives biases in mock trial judges’ feedback. “I once had a male partner who brought humor to his presentation and received no comments on it,” she said. “But personally I’ve felt that I have to watch out for humor in court. I’ve gotten feedback suggesting that if I use humor, people will think of me as an ‘airhead’ that isn’t taking the case seriously.”
The team was quick to point out that mock trial competition feedback varies greatly from region to region. In larger cities with more diversity, they feel that differences in style between men and women are noted less frequently. But all agreed that there are certain courtroom norms that women should assume will be in effect all over the country. For instance, wardrobe. Women are expected to wear a skirt or a dress in the courtroom — pants or pantsuits aren’t proper “etiquette.”
“I think it would be nice if a girl could walk into a courtroom with pants on and no-one would care, but at the same time, this is a profession where looking your best and adapting to that courtroom etiquette is important,” said Kittrell. “A lot of people complain that they can’t wear pants to competition or have to have their hair pulled back, but the fact of the matter is, even in a real scenario I wouldn’t go into a courtroom with pants on or hair down. For me there is a certain etiquette that you follow to put on your best. “
Campbell Law’s current student body is 64 percent female, and as all students gain courtroom experience during their time there, they graduate with a good understanding of the wardrobe and rhetoric of the courtroom. But a report by the legal publication Law360 found that while women make up 50.3 percent of current law school graduates, only 35 percent of lawyers at law firms are female.
Gender aside, a national mock trial competition naturally poses great challenges to any team, especially those facing a deadline. Campbell’s entire trial advocacy program was busy planning and hosting their own mock trial competition until the national championship was only two weeks away, giving the students and their coaches limited time to practice.
On top of assignments for other classes and personal responsibilities, the preparation for a case competition can be overwhelming. Teams are given all of the facts and are expected to know the depositions, exhibits, witnesses like the back of their hand in order to be ready to represent either side of the case at the drop of a hat.
For Puszczynski, the youngest of the group, the speed of the competition was the most nerve-wracking part. During the four-day event, the team competed in the morning, found out the results during lunch, immediately grabbed their materials and set up the room for their next challenge, with no more than a few minutes to settle in.
The third-year students were mostly concerned about being adaptable and quick on their feet. Mock trial teams must be prepared to flip sides with each round, but they also may need to make changes based on the judges’ feedback on their case materials, which varies with region just like expectations for wardrobe and speaking style. As Stephenson put it, “you don’t know the feel of the competition until you’re there.”
“The feel” of a competition can make a huge difference for lawyers, who depend on being able to appeal to an audience that might change from region to region.
“Certain schools don’t compete in certain places,” said Fields, “because some regions are more diverse in terms of gender and have different preferences about how you present your case. Where you’re from can be a disadvantage.”
The team pointed to Kittrell as an example because of her distinct southern accent. While she tones it down to the best of her ability, judges have commented on it in competitions north of Tennessee, including the nationals in Washington.
At mock trial competitions, evaluation and critique is given by the jury, which at Capitol City Challenge was made up of approximately 50 local professionals, including experienced federal and state prosecutors, public defenders, and private practice attorneys. Comments are given after each round, and can either psych you out or teach you how to up your game. Kittrell has a strategy for staying positive through a critique.
“When a judge tells us they didn’t like something, I smile as graciously as I can,” she said. “And if it’s something out of my hands, usually I’ll just write ‘oh well’ in my notes and move on.”
Sometimes a note and a smile is the best way to respond to feedback. After weeks of preparation for a case, there’s only so much a team can change in crunch time. The Campbell team came thoroughly prepared, but still had to make a last minute PowerPoint to appeal to the judges, who wanted to see technology in use in the courtroom rather than the printed exhibit boards the team had created.
“If you make a beautiful chart that you think helps your case, but you hear in three different rounds that judges don’t like the chart, you do have to adjust and remove some of what you’ve worked on in order to be successful,” said Fields.
The preference for screen-based presentations at the competition might have thrown the Campbell team off guard at first, but their technological savvy helped them as they began to advance through the preliminary rounds.
“One of our biggest advantages was that we were one of few teams that knew how to use the hardware they provided,” said Kittrell. “Campbell has three courtrooms that we practiced in, and all three have iPads. It really helped that we were able to highlight and navigate our materials well on the iPad.”
Student lawyers who weren’t iPad users struggled to cast their documents to the big screen and display sections of text to the audience from the tablets gracefully. Other teams handed out their exhibits in paper hard copies, which cost them points with the jury.
Even without the advantage of home turf technology, the Campbell students’ individual knowledge of the case helped them present a cohesive front as a team. As witnesses, Stephenson and Puszczynski were responsible for knowing their depositions backward and forward. Kittrell recognized the value of having teammates who worked hard to comprehend every aspect of the case.
“A lot of people don’t place as much value on the witness role,” said Kittrell, “but they are your second set of advocates. It just looked good on the whole team that everyone knew the case so well.”
The Campbell team was coached by assistant professor Anthony Ghiotto, whose hands-off approach challenged them to use one another as a soundboard and work independently. Stephenson appreciated the laid-back faculty guidance.
“He told us ‘this is your case; I have a different personality and what works for me may not work for you.’” Stephenson said. “He knew that telling us to do anything that wasn’t us would show to the jury and judges. It really gave me confidence in my own abilities.”
Ghiotto was assisted by 2016 graduate and former Wallace Fellow Brittany Stiltner, who gave more direct coaching at the team’s evening practices. Even with Stiltner’s feedback, the third-year students felt uneasy entering the competition.
“I did not think that we were going to win,” said Fields. “But when we got there it really came together, and I realized that the material we had was very good. I honestly thought, ‘Sure, I’d love to win but I just want to make the break.’ We had to make the break.”
“Making the break” is making it past the preliminary rounds for a place in the top eight teams. Once they had secured their spot in the semifinals, Fields and her team started to feel optimistic. The third-year students can remember the exact moment they knew they had a shot.
“There was a short break in the final round where we were allowed to leave the room,” said Fields. “We walked out, looked at each other and just realized, wow — we could win.”
“I think I realized it when I gave closing,” said Kittrell. “As plaintiff I gave my closing first, and during the other team’s I remember looking at Latasia at the counsel’s table and thinking ‘we definitely have it.’”
Stephenson added, “I had a moment when I was being crossed as a witness. I had read my deposition 10 minutes before, and I could see every word so clearly in my head. I sat there so confidently while the other team flipped through pages and pages trying to impeach me. That was my ‘we got it’ moment.”
While Puszczynski finishes up her last year at Campbell, Stephenson, Kittrell and Fields will start careers in personal injury defense, real estate law, and workers’ comp law, respectively. They begin the bar exam on July 24. If their time at Campbell Law is any indication, they will pass with flying colors.