One of the youngest programs in the country, NIU’s undergraduate mock trial program started in 2012 and is already earning a national reputation, recently hosting a tournament on campus that drew teams from across the United States.
Last month, NIU’s Political Science Department and the Law School hosted 22 teams from across the country who brought more than 200 students and coaches to DeKalb for a weekend mock trial invitational tournament. The Huskie Cup also drew about 70 alumni volunteers to help judge the trials.
It was NIU’s first time hosting a mock trial tournament since Political Science Professor Mitch Pickerill launched the team a few years ago.
“Because we have built a national reputation, we were able to attract teams from some of the best programs in the country – over half of our field came from programs with power rankings of 80 or higher – so I knew we would be able to put on a much more competitive tournament than we would have been able to as a new program five years ago,” Pickerill said. “Mock Trial is very competitive, and many of the top programs travel extensively so they can attend the most competitive tournaments possible.”
NIU’s mock trial program has advanced to the National Championship Tournament for the past two years and is currently ranked 39th out of almost 700 teams that complete nationwide. Pickerill explained fall tournaments such as the one that NIU recently hosted give teams an opportunity to develop their cases and practice for the national tournament. The case they prepare – and that which they argued during the NIU tournament – is based on a case problem that the American Mock Trial Association releases each August for the national tournament in the spring.
Mike Palacios is a senior from Palatine, IL, majoring in business management with an emphasis in leadership. He joined after being encouraged by a friend who was part of the team at NIU.
“I’ve always wanted to be a lawyer and planned to go to law school, so I felt like the mock trial team would be a great experience,” he explained, adding he took the LSAT in September, and will soon begin applying to law schools.
“There are certain people who would sacrifice just about anything for the sake of the team,” Palacios said, describing the team as a family. “I attribute the team’s successes to our amazing coach, Mitch Pickerill, and extremely dedicated team members.”
Kaitlyn Harper is a senior political science major from Minooka, IL. She plans to attend law school after graduation and said she joined the team after having Pickerill as a professor when she transferred to NIU in 2014. Today, she calls her mock trial team membership “the best decision of my life.”
“There is so much involved in mock trial that people on the outside don’t necessarily see,” she said.
Harper said the rigorous public speaking and argumentation training, and opportunity to learn from a modified version of the Federal Rules of Evidence, which is used by attorneys, have given her an advantage in her career aspirations.
“We get to apply the knowledge we’ve gained in a way that allows us to test ourselves and better prepare for careers in the law and otherwise,” she said. “My confidence and self-awareness have improved beyond measure since I joined the team two years ago, but the best part is that I have a family on campus. My teammates are my best friends, and there’s no better feeling than having success at the national level after working so hard together for so long.”
Pickerill said he tries to take his team to four or five tournaments each fall but has to be selective due to a limited travel budget.
“As we have climbed in the rankings and gained a national reputation, we have gotten invited to some very elite tournaments,” he said. “We have had to turn most of them down, and we try to be frugal by going to as many local, or fairly close, tournaments, as possible.”
NIU will co-host an opening round of the American Mock Trial Association tournament in March 2018 with North Central College at the Kane County Judicial Center.
Since hosting the Huskie Cup, teams have attended four more weekend tournaments at the University of Illinois-UC, University of Arizona, Illinois State University and the University of Iowa. The NIU teams have had strong showings in all of the tournaments with one team taking fifth place in a field of 28 teams at ISU and Kaitlyn Harper winning an Outstanding Attorney Award. At the Arizona tournament Alex Drilling won an Outstanding Witness Award.