The Verdict: Inside UCLA Law’s Innovative Jury-Trial Competition

October 8, 2021

When UCLA School of Law hosts a new tournament called the Verdict, starting on Oct. 16, it will be presenting a first-of-its kind law school jury-trial competition.

While most trial advocacy competitions ask lawyers or judges to score students on their courtroom performances as a proxy for what lay jurors would find persuasive, the Verdict includes lay jurors who submit verdicts on the merits. Like in real trials, the winning team will be the one that best persuades the juries.

“We wanted to create the most realistic, educational experience for the participating students,” says Justin Bernstein, director of UCLA Law’s A. Barry Cappello Program in Trial Advocacy. “At traditional competitions, we pretend that motions and objections occur outside the presence of the jury. But here, there is an actual jury. This means that we have actual sidebars and motions outside the jury’s presence. Students have to think strategically about how often to object -- how to balance excluding harmful evidence with not annoying jurors with excessive objections. In other words, this forces students to think like real trial lawyers.”

Bernstein adds, “I anticipate this will be an annual event and one of the most important things we do for the trial advocacy community.”

The case problem for the first competition, which runs Oct. 16-18 over Zoom, was written by Bernstein and UCLA Law students Sarah Stebbins ’23, Stephen Johnson ’22, and Kenneth Capesius ’22. The case is set in Hollywood: During the filming of a Kurt Cobain biopic, the director allegedly required the lead actor to use extreme method acting — including heroin. When the actor died from an overdose, his surviving spouse brought a wrongful death suit against the studio. “One of the most interesting features of law school mock trial is that every tournament is different, in everything from format to case,” Stebbins says. “I’m thrilled to get to help put together a completely new tournament experience using live jurors, which as far as I know has never been done before.”

The tournament is funded by UCLA Law alumnus Mark Baute ’86, the managing partner of Baute Crochetiere Hartley & Velkei. His contributions allowed UCLA Law to offer every lay juror an Amazon gift card for their time. The Hon. Jackson Lucky, a retired Riverside County Superior Court judge, will preside over the championship trial and recruited state and federal judges to preside over every trial in the competition. “Many say that jury trials are the crucible for trial lawyers. This first-of-its-kind mock trial tournament simulates a ‘real’ result: the jury’s decision on the merits,” he says. “No other competition creates that opportunity.”

The tournament’s director, J.D. Rees ’14, a litigator at Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, is in charge of jury recruitment and running four simultaneous trials over Zoom. “It has been an honor to help put on a mock-trial competition worthy of our law school,” he says. “As a 2014 grad from when our team was still completely student-run, I am amazed — and proud beyond words — to see the growth of our program. The Verdict is an affirmation that UCLA Law has arrived in the mock-trial scene.”

In its first year, the Verdict competition has drawn great interest, with eight of the nation’s top law schools for trial advocacy fielding teams: Baylor Law School, Samford University Cumberland School of Law, Loyola Law School (Los Angeles), Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law, Stetson University College of Law, University of Denver Sturm College of Law, Fordham University School of Law, and University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law.

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