IN THE ARENA: UCLA Law's Trial Advocacy Program builds lawyers—and wins competitions

January 6, 2023

For more than half a century, experiential learning has been a cornerstone of the UCLA Law education. Live-client clinics, for example, provide opportunities for students to get real-world legal experience and help underserved communities. Trial advocacy competitions—mock trials—present another way for law students to get experience, essential experience for litigators and trial lawyers and enormously valuable experience for any kind of lawyer.

An unidentified member of UCLA Law's Trial Advocacy team“Trial ad is a vital component of legal education, and surprisingly few schools are actively embracing the benefits of mock trial competitions,” says Justin Bernstein, lecturer in law and director of the A. Barry Cappello Program in Trial Advocacy. “Mock trial is obviously valuable for students who want to try cases. But it is also enormously valuable for students who never plan to set foot in a courtroom. It teaches students to simplify legal concepts for a nonlawyer audience—and to communicate persuasively. It teaches critical thinking and public speaking. It teaches them how to think on their feet and stay calm under pressure. Those skills are crucial for all lawyers. I routinely have students tell me three, five, ten years after school that they use their trial advocacy skills more than any other.”

UCLA Law students have competed in mock trials for many years, but in 2018, famed trial lawyer Barry Cappello ’65, founder of the Santa Barbara– based litigation firm Cappello & Nöel LLP, made a substantial gift to the law school to create a more formal, rigorous, and ambitious program. Under Bernstein’s leadership, UCLA Law has become the team to beat in national mock trial competitions— the undisputed leader in trial advocacy, with benefits for students and the school itself.

—A CULTURE OF WINNING

For the past four seasons, UCLA Law has been ranked No. 1 in a field of more than 160 law schools by Fordham Law’s Trial Competition Performance Rankings. UCLA Law is not just the best trial team in the country—it is the best by a country mile:

  • In 2020–21, UCLA led the nation with 40 points, while the second-place team had 15. In 2021–22, UCLA scored 51 points; the second-place team scored 16.
  • In 2020–21, UCLA became the first law school to win the three national championships in the same season: the Tournament of Champions, the National Trial Competition, and the Student Trial Advocacy Competition. In 2021–22, UCLA did it again.
  • Since 2018, 31 UCLA Law teams won their events. No other law school has more than 10 winning teams.
  • In the 2021–22 season, UCLA Law had two separate winning streaks of at least 20 consecutive trials.
  • Every team member in the Class of ’22 competed in a championship round.

“What UCLA Law is doing far exceeds every other school,” says Joe Lester, the director of trial advocacy at University of Georgia School of Law.

Two side-by-side images showing unidentified members of UCLA Law's Trail Advocacy teams

“Trial ad is a vital component of legal education, and surprisingly few schools are actively embracing the benefits of mock trial competitions.” —JUSTIN BERNSTEIN

Lester runs Trial Team Central, which tracks results from every major competition. “UCLA’s dominance, particularly over the past 18 months, is unprecedented. They have won more in one year than the best programs win in a decade.”

Why is UCLA Law so good at this? Talent, of course, is the raw material. UCLA Law attracts great students, including some who participated in mock trials in high school or college. But Bernstein believes that great advocates are made, not born: “The trial lawyer’s mantra is preparation, preparation, preparation,” he says. “At UCLA, we prepare students to be ready to try cases the day they graduate.”

The UCLA trial team also excels because of its accomplished coaches: Bernstein—the youngest coach ever inducted into the American Mock Trial Coaches Hall of Fame, and recipient of the University’s 2022 Distinguished Teaching Award—and more than a dozen others. Some are award-winning alums, such as J.D. Rees ’14, Bailey Loverin ’19, Kyle DeCamp ’19, Aidan Welsh ’19, Brittnee Bui ’20, and Deeksha Kohli ’20. Some come from the ranks of Bernstein’s former students, such as prosecutor Andy Tran and trial lawyer Rahul Hari. During the pandemic, UCLA Law trial ad teams benefited on Zoom from the expertise of national champion coaches and trial lawyers all over the country, including Ben Wallace, a former United States Supreme Court clerk in Washington, D.C.; Laureen Bousmail, a public defender in San Diego; Amanda Mundell, an appellate attorney for the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.; Zach Fields, a clerk for the 9th Circuit in Phoenix; Melissa Watt, a litigator in Cincinnati; and Alex Bluebond, a litigator in Houston. Five UCLA Law coaches have competed at the prestigious Top Gun national trial competition, and more than a dozen have won championships as coaches or competitors. Adds Bernstein, “There has never been a law school with more national champion coaches at one time.”

Success also takes institutional commitment in the form of financial resources and support from the faculty and administration. For example, the team has received evidentiary advice from Professor Pavel Wonsowicz and advice on criminal procedure from Professor Beth Colgan. “Since receiving the major gift from Barry Cappello,” says Bernstein, “UCLA Law has built a practical, hands-on and immersive approach to teaching trial advocacy.”

AND A CULTURE OF LEARNING

Trial advocacy competitions are decidedly not academic exercises. They are as close to real-world situations as possible, with carefully constructed cases complete with witness statements, exhibits, stipulations, and jury instructions. Teams of two to four students prepare their cases for the courtroom, with guidance from coaches.

“Trial advocacy teaches you how to think like a lawyer and informs everything I do in my practice,” says Brittnee Bui ’20, now clerking for a federal judge. “The oral argument skills translate to presentations I make to partners and in court. The critical thinking skills involved in formulating a mock trial strategy inform my pretrial strategies in practice. Because I know how to plan for a trial, I can draw conclusions about how certain pieces of evidence will impact arguments at the motion to dismiss, summary judgment, and trial stages— which in turn informs settlement strategy.”

“Trial advocacy is the best preparation for lawyers interested in litigation or trial careers.” —BRITTNEE BUI ’20

While some students participated in a mock trial in high school or college, most discover it only when they get to UCLA Law. Andrew Gordon ’22 says his team had no mock trial experience at all when they started competing: “We were learning Justin’s approach on the fly; How do we pick dynamic moments for our opening? What’s our approach on cross and on direct?” Gordon’s team competed for four semesters with other students who had no previous experience, and three times they reached the semifinals of national competitions of more than 30 teams. After graduation, Gordon will work as a post-bar clerk in the Orange County DA’s office.

Trial team competitors learn how to perform effectively in the courtroom. “We learned how to make something complex sound elegant, intuitive and persuasive,” says Gordon. “Rhetorical force isn’t enough; you have to really understand the evidence as well.”

Justin Bernstein, Director of the A. Barry Cappello Program in Trial Advocacy

Bui says that trial advocacy significantly improved her ability to think on her feet. One event she competed in featured live witnesses. “I didn’t know how the witness would answer my questions and had to be ready to guide someone I met only 15 minutes before the competition,” she recalls. “This helped me learn to be more responsive, to form a narrative primarily through questions rather than answers, and to stay calm in stressful situations.”

“Lots of people have been talking about the growing importance of practical experience with their academic work in law school,” says Rees, now special counsel at Sheppard Mullin in trust and estate litigation, a mock trial competitor when he was at UCLA Law, and a coach. “Learning how to be comfortable and look comfortable when making an argument and applying the law will serve you well through your entire career.”

“Trial advocacy is the best preparation for lawyers interested in litigation or trial careers,” says Bui, “but even for others, these skills are highly transferable and will help build confidence.”

EMPHASIZING TEAMWORK

Trials aren’t won by individuals; they’re won by teams. “The most valuable skill I learned is how to work and communicate as part of a team,” says Bui. “I learned how to put aside my style or theories to hear what my teammates had to say, how to be willing to try something their way, and how to be open to learning from my peers.”

“Everyone on UCLA’s team is talented,” says Enrico Trevisani ’22, “but everyone also brings a different style and a different way of doing things. It’s a great way to learn.” Trevisani recently began working in the New York office of Michelman & Robinson.

It’s also a lot of work—competitions typically require 12-hour days and longer, in addition to all the effort required to prepare—but students really enjoy the experience. “Trial ad is an incredibly social experience, and we formed real connections with each other,” says Gordon. “I felt more camaraderie in trial advocacy than in any sports team I’ve ever been on.” Recalls Bui, “We put in effort to have fun at the end of the day because it’s easy for emotions to run high in stressful situations.”

“Competing was a ton of fun,” says Kohli, now a trial lawyer at Hueston Hennigan in Los Angeles (and a trial ad coach herself). “But it has definitely helped me professionally. Colleagues look to me for insight because of my trial ad experience. And being able to communicate persuasively is valuable every day.”

Several students also mentioned how mock trial was hugely beneficial in getting that first job. “Trial ad helps you prep for interviews,” says Gordon, “and it helped me get a job, straight up.” Sometimes trial competitions lead to job opportunities even more directly. “The Monday after we won Tournament of Champions in 2020,” recalls Bernstein, “a judge emailed me with compliments about our students. By Thursday, one of those students had a job offer.”

Mikayla Wasiri ’20, currently an associate at Quinn Emanuel in patent litigation, agrees. “The mock trial program helped me get the job and do the job,” she says. “Knowing, for example, the rules of evidence has given me a leg up over other associates. Joining trial ad was the best decision I’ve ever made.”

For the past two years, most prepping, coaching, and competing were done via Zoom— and the return to real courtrooms posed new challenges for recent competitors. Says Trevisani, “It’s a completely different ball game to try a case in person, to have to read the room and gauge people’s responses.” His team’s first “live” competition was at the Tournament of Champions in Fort Worth, Texas, in April 2022. The championship round was UCLA v. UCLA, in which the team of Trevisani and Regina Campbell ’23 prevailed over Natalie Garson ’22 and Stephen Johnson ’22.

That competition “was magical,” according to Campbell. “Working so hard to get there, competing alongside my best friends, and knowing that regardless of the outcome, we were all going to be champions—it was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. I’ll never forget that day!”

REPUTATION AND RECRUITING

“Trial advocacy has become an asset when it comes to recruiting,” says Bernstein. Trevisani is an example of that. He had participated in mock trials during his undergraduate years at the University of Arizona and says, “Trial advocacy was the biggest factor in my decision to come to UCLA Law.”

Rees, who has been an alumni coach for UCLA Law for years, has seen the program transition from a student-run endeavor into something that builds real brand recognition for UCLA Law. “Trial advocacy has turned into an incredible program, particularly since Justin Bernstein took over,” he says. “It would not be what it is today without his leadership and vision; he prepares the heck out of these students.”

The benefits of trial advocacy are many and obvious: It allows students to gain experience and confidence, to learn to work as a team, and to become more effective in the courtroom as well as as the law office. But the effects reach much further: “This program changes lives,” says Johnson, a trial attorney at Robbins Geller in San Diego after the bar. “Trial ad is a community that’s loving—it’s like a family.” He recalls that when the winner of the UCLA v. UCLA final in the National Trial Competition was announced “all four of us did a big group hug.”

“I missed the UCLA v. UCLA final round,” says Bernstein, “because I flew back to California to officiate at the wedding of a former student. But seeing the video of those four spontaneously hugging is one of the most special and heartwarming moments from 17 years of coaching. It’s the people that make this activity so wonderful.”

Alumni coaches welcome chance to give back and stay involved

Justin Bernstein, the director of UCLA Law’s A. Barry Cappello Program in Trial Advocacy, does more than just administer—he is a mock trial coach
himself. “I learned more from Justin than anyone else at UCLA Law,” says Andrew Gordon ’22, who is about to go into criminal law as a post-bar clerk for the Orange County DA’s office. While Bernstein helps coach every courtroom team, he also relies on alumni volunteers—currently 12 are actively coaching—who devote their time and energy to the challenge of making young lawyers successful in court. Stephen Johnson ’22 says that “this is the best set of coaches ever assembled.”

The ideal coach, according to Bernstein, is not just a good lawyer but also “someone with enthusiasm, real-world experience, and the ability to make our students even better. Before events, coaches help students develop their case theories, drill them on objections, practice sparring on cross-examination, and answer questions. They also travel with the teams and coach them in competitions.”

The students benefit, of course, but so do the coaches. “It’s just so rewarding to help these students become even more savvy,” says J.D. Rees ’14, “and I’ve learned so much from the students I’ve coached.” Deeksha Kohli ’20, who has
coached three teams, including one made up of four women of color who had never participated in mock trial before, says, “I love coaching.”


First published in UCLA Law's fall 2022 magazine.

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