Back by popular demand, Wittenberg once again will boast a Mock Trial team. The team is up and running, this time under the direction of newly hired coach Chris Leapley and in partnership with the Department of Political Science and Office of the Provost.
“The team previously competed very successfully in the early 2000s,” explained James Allan, professor of political science and department chair. Allan, along with colleague Rob Baker, professor of political science, came up with the idea to revive this engagement opportunity for students.
“The team will be more formalized than before,” Allan said. “We've hired a part-time coach in Chris, a local attorney who officially started at Wittenberg on July 1. He will have responsibilities for coaching the team and preparing the group for competitions. He will also be responsible for outreach to high schools for recruitment and will take on the position of pre-law advisor.”
The former Mock Trial Team – the Mock Trial Association Team – was student-run and student-funded and regularly competed against much larger schools. The team placed in the top 10 in regional competitions three times from 2003 to 2005 under the direction of inaugural coach Johnny Pryor, Wittenberg class of 1999 and a former assistant prosecutor for Clark County, and Lowell Stockstill, professor of management, the team’s first faculty adviser. Pryor, along with Arthur Kraatz, Wittenberg class of 2007 who currently practices law in Louisiana, established the first Mock Trial program at Wittenberg. In its second year of participation in the American Mock Trial Association (AMTA), the 2005 Wittenberg Mock Trial team received honorable mention in the National Mock Trial tournament.
Looking ahead, Leapley is excited to build on the team's prior success across multiple avenues.
“I am extremely passionate about this opportunity and cannot wait to get started,” Leapley said. “In addition to having a competitive team, I have several other initiatives I'm looking to pursue in order to increase Wittenberg's reach and reputation among the mock trial community. A few of those include potentially hosting a high school or even collegiate invitational in the coming years and hosting a summer Mock Trial camp for high school and/or middle school students.”
Leapley, who participated in mock trial in college and in law school, has been practicing law for nearly 15 years and currently has a nationwide practice as a litigation management attorney for Tokio Marine Insurance Holdings. He remains active in mock trial, where he has served as a volunteer coach and judge for regional and national competitions. He said he always wanted to coach mock trial and teach at the university level.
After seeing the posting, Leapley said he “had to pinch myself because it seemed too good to be true. I will also be the University's new pre-law advisor and will teach law-related courses on campus. Although mock trial is not exclusively pre-law, I think combining these various roles together makes a tremendous amount of sense as it will enable me to work closely with students not just in preparation for mock trial competitions, but also in preparation for law school and other activities on campus. I will be active in recruiting new students to campus through mock trial and pre-law offerings, as well.”
He added that the process of starting the team back up was fairly straightforward in that Wittenberg just needed to re-register with the AMTA. However, the execution of building another competitive team is a bit more challenging.
“Mock trial at the university level has grown exponentially since Wittenberg last had a team,” Leapley said. “Today there are thousands of teams nationwide representing over 600 institutions. Mock trial is one of those opportunities a lot of prospective students may be looking for in selecting a college or university to attend. I recently took part in one of the Destination Witt Orientation sessions and spoke to almost half a dozen incoming students who were very interested in joining. I think the University saw a real opportunity to offer something that isn't seen on a lot of smaller college campuses at this time. Bringing a Mock Trial team to campus gives Wittenberg yet one more way to stand out among its peers.”
As with any new program, most of the universities participating in mock trial currently are larger institutions, and most competitive teams are structured more like their counterparts in intercollegiate athletics.
“Teams have faculty coaches, university budgets and established training schedules,” Leapley said. “The fact Wittenberg had a team in the past is helpful in that we have a tradition we can point to and help recruit new students to the program or advocate to be included in various invitationals. However, going into this season we don't have anyone on the team with collegiate mock trial experience, so this first year is really all about building the foundation for a championship culture. But, given the caliber of students at Wittenberg and the tremendous amount of support this program is already receiving from the University, I have no doubt we will be able to quickly develop a program that will compete at a very high level.”
Several students have already expressed interest in joining the team, and a student organization was recently created and is being led by Emma Gearhart, class of 2026 from Ashland, Ohio, who is pursuing a degree in sociology. Although the student organization is separate from the competitive team, the two will work closely together on a number of campus initiatives. Additionally, Leapley is connecting the program to the AMTA and identifying competitions. The nature of AMTA competitions allows teams to compete with others from all over the county, including Ivy League schools.
“I've already arranged scrimmages with local universities, and we have been invited to compete at Ohio State and Kent State later this season. We will also be sending two teams to the national tournament next spring,” Leapley said. “This year’s team is open to anyone who wants to participate. A team is generally between six and 12 students, and we are thrilled to have enough interest for two full teams in our first year. In future years we will likely establish some form of tryout or audition process, but for now I just want to encourage any interested student to participate. I also want to be clear that mock trial is not just for those considering law school or a career in law. It’s great for anyone who wants to be part of a team, work hard, have fun, and learn new things.”
Being a part of a Mock Trial team also looks great on a resume and gives students the opportunity to hone their public speaking skills. This first-year participation in mock trial will require registration for a one-credit hour course. In addition to the course, students will be expected to attend practices on a regular basis.
“I’m absolutely thrilled that we are adding a Mock Trial team and that Wittenberg will be competing in the American Mock Trial Association during the 2023-2024 academic year,” said Provost and Professor of Education Brian Yontz. “I have seen firsthand how mock trial can be pivotal in the development of students’ intellectual capabilities, communication, problem solving, and academic confidence. I truly believe that Chris’ leadership will bring Wittenberg’s Mock Trial team to national prominence over the next five years.”
Each mock trial team prepares for tournament competition by practicing for a fictional legal situation. Teams receive a packet of case materials from the AMTA to prepare a court case to argue against other colleges and universities. For those interested in being a part of Wittenberg’s Mock Trial team, email email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, or email@example.com.