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Iowa Mock Trial

A workforce skill-building program


Iowa business leaders have long been faced with a crucial question: How can we develop and keep skilled workers in the state?

Some see the state’s best resource for preparing future professionals as teaching critical soft skills to children starting in sixth grade. Iowa Mock Trial leaders see the program as an example of that. It’s been challenging young people to think outside the box and take the lead since its start in the 1970s.

In mock trial, teams of eight to 10 students are challenged with reviewing case files and preparing arguments for court. The twist is they must be able to argue both sides of the case, act as attorneys and witnesses, and adjust their approach on the fly.

Iowa was one of the first states to start a high school mock trial program and the first to run the program in middle school. There were 128 registered middle school teams in the program this past fall, which is the largest in the nation, and compared to other states’ high school team numbers where there are more teams nationally, leaders estimate middle school participation numbers would still be in the top quarter.

John Wheeler might be considered the godfather of the program. He became involved while he was a student at Drake Law School. He was a staff member at Drake’s Center for Law-Related Education. He was hired as a curriculum specialist and program planner for law-related programs, including mock trial. Now as director of the Iowa State Bar Association’s Center for Law and Civic Education, one of his largest responsibilities is leading mock trial.

“If we offer them a way to stretch their academic brain muscles, they are capable of doing really super things,” Wheeler said of students.

Esha Bolar, a senior at Johnston High School, has been in mock trial since middle school. As quickly as it became her favorite extracurricular, she also experienced a string of success. It started with a trip to the state semifinals in her first year. Then as a junior she accomplished a personal goal that she dreamed of from the start: She won the outstanding attorney award at the state competition.

Mock trial has helped Bolar sharpen many skills and bolster her confidence. She recalls the first time she gave an opening statement at practice. She was well prepared, but she still had to conquer her nerves as she stood before her team shaking.

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Johnston Middle School’s Mock Trial team. Photo by Duane Tinkey

“I’ve grown so much from that,” she said. “Because of mock trial I’ve been able to talk without fear. Even if things go south at trial, I have the knowledge that ‘I can always come back from this.’”

The program revealed the leader in Bolar. Her biggest takeaway has been how mock trial has opened her mind, something she said everyone could benefit from.

“It really teaches you the aspect of taking a step back and looking at the big picture,” Bolar said. “You look at the merits of both sides and learn how to work with people. It has taught me what it really means to work as a team.”

As a senior, Bolar both competes and coaches younger students, including her brother Krish. The seventh-grade student’s confidence and public speaking ability have grown drastically, she said. 

While Iowa Mock Trial is among the most successful programs in the country, there are still gaps throughout the state. Aaron Jones, an attorney at Belin McCormick and a former mock trial competitor, has been working to fill those gaps, starting with the Des Moines metro.

Jones found a small handful of schools that did not have a program in the metro, and one of them, North High School, launched its first team this year. 

Jones said that Iowa at large reaps the benefits of mock trial’s teachings. “Mockers” go on to become leaders in business and the community. While many, if not most, do not pursue careers in law, the experience prepares them for their careers.

Starting a program was simple, he said, and it brings great rewards. During Jones’ research he found students to be ecstatic at the idea of starting a team. After that, teams need an adult, either on the school’s staff or in the community, to dedicate a few hours per week to coaching.

Johnston Middle School’s Extended Learning Program teacher Molly McConnell has been at the head of the school’s program, which is one of the state’s most successful, for about six years. The responsibility does not overwhelm her, though, she said. She uses the resources around her — law professionals, business leaders in her community and other students — to give her and her team the support they need.

“Don’t underestimate what our kids can do,” she said. “Giving them ownership of the work they’re doing is huge for kids. Mock trial is beneficial in so many ways to students.”

Joe Fisher is a freelance contributing writer.

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