Jacob Morse could see the finish line.
He’d endured four days of rigorous competition against the nation’s best and brightest future attorneys in Waco, Texas, and all that laid before him was his closing argument in the championship round of the Top Gun National Mock Trial Competition.
But before his grand finale, Morse was sent to his usual break room for one last opportunity to strategize with his coach and co-counsel. Only, something was different about the room this time.
In the corner, sitting on a thin, metal stand usually used for poster presentations was a giant check. Dollar amount: $10,000. In the memo line: “No points for second place.” The “pay to the order of” part was blank.
“I’m trying to think about what to say to the jury, and I’m face-to-face with this giant check,” Morse says. “It was a very tangible moment. I told myself, ‘I’m here. I’ve got nothing to lose.’”
Morse is smiling as he tells this story. He won, of course, ending his three years at Campbell Law School as the top student advocate attorney in the country. Recent Top Gun national champions have hailed from New York University (2015) and Yale Law School (2016).
Campbell University joined that list in June, adding another notch in its belt as one of the top advocacy law programs in the nation. And for Morse, the title culminates a three-year stint at Campbell Law that even the school called “nothing short of amazing.”
As a second-year law student in 2016, Morse was a member of the South Texas Mock Trial Challenge championship team, himself earning the “outstanding advocate” award. At Baylor University’s Academy of the Advocate program, he earned “best closing argument” and “best storytelling awards” from his colleagues in Scotland. And in his third year, prior to Top Gun, his team finished as runners-up in the National Civil Trial Competition in California, and he earned more solo advocate awards at the challenge in Texas.
“Jacob is just a remarkably bright individual,” says his coach, Dan Tilly, the director of advocacy and assistant law professor at Campbell Law. “And he’s just so nimble … able to adapt. You have to be extremely smart and have great courtroom savvy to succeed in these competitions, and not many students have that. And when you take someone who’s naturally talented and has the kind of work ethic he has — he puts in hundreds upon hundreds of hours of preparation — that makes him or her a very difficult person to beat.”
Top Gun is different from your typical “mock trial” competition. First, it’s invitation only. The 16 competitors come in with reputations of success or come from programs known for nationally for their advocacy programs.
And unlike the team competitions, where students usually receive their case files weeks in advance to allow for tons of preparation and script-writing, Top Gun competitors don’t receive their cases until they arrive in Waco, 24 hours before the first round begins. The judges at Top Gun are real current or retired judges. The juries are distinguished trial lawyers.
This competition isn’t for the weak.
When you meet Jacob Morse or hear him speak, you quickly realize why he’s a natural. He speaks with confidence, pausing only momentarily at times to see the words before he says them. He speaks with his hands. He invites eye contact.
Even these mannerisms are a result of experience. Morse says when he first arrived at Campbell Law after earning his undergraduate degree from UNC-Chapel Hill and interning for U.S. Rep. David Price in Washington, D.C., he was green. He recalls sweating and trembling in his first mock trial competitions.
“A lot of it is confidence, which some may confuse with arrogance,” he says. “Whatever you call it, you can’t enter a competition like this and believe that because someone is from Harvard, they’re going to whip your [tail]. You have to believe in yourself, and that comes with experience. It also comes with having a team that’s confident in you. I still doubt myself at times, but I’ve never had doubts that my teammates or my coach’s believed in me and thought I couldn’t win this tournament.”
That coach, Tilly, and that teammate in Waco, co-counsel and classmate Casey Peaden, were “vital” in Morse’s success in the Top Gun competition. Because the packets arrive only 24 hours before the trials, and because competitors like Morse need a good six or seven hours of sleep in order to properly function the next day, Tilly and Peaden swapped pulling all-nighters during those four days to pore over the files and law books and take extensive notes.
“In those four days, I’d say we each put in 65 to 70 hours total,” Tilly says. “You start at 7, you compete, and if you move on, you work well into the night to prepare of the next day. You need every advantage you can get in a competition like this. Those who are willing to grind it out succeed in Top Gun.”
Morse joined his first mock trial teams in high school and as an undergrad at UNC, and in Chapel Hill, he even joined a pre-law group. He wasn’t exceptionally good (yet), but he did discover one thing — he loved it. The traveling with his team. The studying. Reading the “rules of evidence.” The competitions themselves.
“I played football in high school, and I had to quit because of an injury,” he says. “Also, I really wasn’t that good. But my best friend’s dad owned a law firm in [his hometown of Mooresville], and that friend invited me to join the mock trial team. All I knew is it involved public speaking, but later I found that it was about tackling problems and arguing your ideas. It was fun. I fell in love with it.”
Morse knew he wanted to attend law school and have a career as a litigator. Campbell Law, he says, was a no-brainer, because of its reputation and its growing advocacy program. He received a full ride as a recipient of Campbell’s first Leadership Scholar Award.
First-year law students at Campbell aren’t eligible to compete in the mock trial teams, so Morse went head first in his second year and became one of the few Year 2 students to compete at Top Gun in 2016. Prior graduates Andrew Shores (’13) and Kaitlin Rothecker (’15) had both placed in the Top 4 in Waco after graduating. No Campbell student had ever won it.
One of the things Morse learned over the last two years heading into his final collegiate competition was to go with his gut on things. Whether a student gets to be prosecution or defense is their choice, and that choice is determined by a coin toss. In his final round, Morse won the coin toss, but went against the norm when it comes to choosing sides. Most competitors, he says, prefer to represent the plaintiff’s side because that side tends be more “likeable” and gets to dictate how the case is being tried.
Morse, however, chose defense. He almost always chooses defense.
“You hear ‘defense lawyer,’ and sometimes that has a negative connotation,” he says. “But I prefer the defense side, and in the finals [at Top Gun], we really liked the evidence for the defense. My only loss in the tournament was on the plaintiff’s side. So when I won the coin toss, I felt like I had the wind at my back. I was comfortable.”
Morse says his ability to read people and sense the atmosphere of a courtroom helped him more in that final round than which side he chose. He could tell early on the judge — a distinguished senior federal district court judge — was growing impatient and frustrated with his opponent’s numerous objections. “He was tired of hearing them, so I adapted my strategy more to getting on his good side,” he says. “At the end of the day, being likeable is such a big part of being a trial attorney.”
That evening, Morse held the $10,000 check for the cameras at Baylor Law School with Tilly and Peaden at his side. It was a particularly proud moment for Tilly, who earned his law degree from Baylor and served as the senior executive editor of the Baylor Law Review as a student.
“When I first met Jacob three years ago, I could quickly tell he was a very special individual,” he says. “Just endowed with confidence and a remarkably intelligent human being. Very personable. And when you’re a genuinely good person and you interact well with people, that comes across so well in the courtroom. As director of advocacy at Campbell, I was impressed with him from Day 1. I knew this guy was special.”
A top advocacy program
Jacob Morse’s title in the 2017 Top Gun Mock Trial competition only added to Campbell Law School’s growing reputation as a leading advocacy program. His win comes on the heels of a major announcement last spring that Campbell law had cracked U.S. News & World Report’s ranking list as the 21st-best advocacy program in the nation.
Not only was Campbell Law the lone North Carolina law school on the list, it was the only law school located in the mid-South region.
“Advocacy is our hallmark, and I am delighted to have our accomplishments finally recognized,” said Campbell Law Dean J. Rich Leonard.
Advocacy training begins in the first year at Campbell Law and continues throughout each of the three successive semesters in which students are enrolled. Advocacy training continues in the second and third years with required offerings in evidence and trial advocacy, and an array of upper-level electives tailored to civil, criminal and alternative dispute practices.
Outside of the classroom, Campbell Law’s historically strong competitive advocacy program has particularly blossomed in recent years. Since 2012 Campbell Law student advocates have collected four national championships, five national runners up, seven national semifinalists, four regional championships and 12 national individual best advocate awards.
Aside from competitive success, the G. Eugene Boyce Center of Advocacy was established in September 2015 with an $8 million dollar gift. The center comprises three competitive courtrooms, conference rooms and a suite of adjoining offices. More than $450,000 in start-of-the-art technology upgrades has been recently added to the center.