The Cal Poly Mock Trial team in pink and cow-print cowboy hats. Credit: Jessica Smith | Courtesy

Imagine entering a trial room and seeing the usual individuals: attorneys, judges and witnesses. Now picture them wearing pink cowboy hats, all in pursuit of one goal: trophies with horses on them. 

All of these qualities described Cal Poly’s mock trial team during their winter quarter tournament, the SLO-Town Hoedown, which took place Jan. 28-29. 

SLO-Town Hoedown was organized and created by mock trial vice president and history senior Jessica Smith. 

Unlike in the fall, this quarter, teams are power-stacked, meaning the tournament is more competitive. This also allows teams to prepare for regional tournaments and put their best foot forward.

This was a successful event for history sophomore Jack Price, who ended the tournament with a 17-rank witness award.

Smith began planning for this tournament back in July. The process began by first figuring out who the team wanted to invite, sending out interest forms and invitations and figuring out cost.

Since Cal Poly’s campus was hosting the event, they were able to utilize classroom space for the trials.

The team remains in contact with a variety of alumni and practicing attorneys from past events who were happy to join and help out with judging.  

Political science senior and mock trial president Melissa Toussimehr said these networks “create a really tight-knit community of people that you can rely on in both a professional sense but also in a social sense.”

The team orders trophies and ballots for scoring the event and awaits the first day of the tournament. 

The mock trial teams don’t get scored based on the trial outcome but on how well they perform, articulate their argument and engage the jury. By the end of the tournament, students can converse with the judges about tips on how to get better, gain feedback and expand their network, often by receiving business cards.

This feedback can also be provided by the team’s adviser, Todd Porter, who teaches mock trial classes POLS 295 and POLS 395 and has been an attorney since 1990. His responsibilities in mock trial are to help teach trial skills, such as the structure of a particular case, but also to support the board. 

However, even with this help, mock trial is a predominantly student-run program.

“There is tremendous leadership in the organization,” Porter said. 

There are several responsibilities that the student-run board is in charge of during the team season. Typically, more people are in the program than in the actual mock trial classes, so the teaching component of the program is student-run. The board is also responsible for signing up for invitationals and registration for the teams within the program, as well as organizing transportation and housing for travel tournaments. 

Additionally, students determine what role they want to play during tournaments. However, this does not limit them to that role for the entire season. 

Students can experience being both an attorney and witness and can diversify their role throughout the season, expanding their range and comfort zone.

Whereas other teams may have more resources, such as coaches who travel with the team and offer advice and feedback on performances, Cal Poly’s mock trial does not according to Toussimehr. She said accomplishments of mock trial, such as going to nationals last year and going to states next weekend, have been due to the success and hard work of the students. 

“How far we’ve been able to get in the mock trial world has been something I’ve been very proud of because of how student-run we are,” Toussimehr said.

The amount of time these students spend together helps to further bond their community.

Mock trial requires practices on every Monday through Thursday from 8 p.m.- 10 p.m.. Tournaments often are from Friday to Sunday. 

Close proximity helps students get to know others outside of their majors and who want to better themselves in their public speaking and argumentation skills. 

Members of mock trial extend their time together outside of meetings and tournaments by meeting up for team dinners and bonfire hangouts. 

Mock trial helps build up useful skills that students take with them into their everyday lives with or without attending law school. 

In addition to practicing being an attorney and building a network within the legal field, students can build useful skills that they can generalize to other fields and everyday life. 

By organizing SLO-Town Hoedown, Smith said she learned more about herself as a leader and how to delegate tasks to others. 

As someone who does not plan on attending law school, Smith said mock trial has helped her learn how to deliver speeches, craft emails, improve her organizational skills and be more aware of how she appears while presenting to other people. These are all skills that students can take with them through classes, everyday conversation, and any area of the workforce said Smith.

Mock trial goes beyond just the skills students develop though; it is often about the feeling it brings, Toussimehr said.  

“The feeling that I got from being in that courtroom and being able to advocate for someone was very powerful, and I fell in love with that feeling,” Toussimehr said.

Cal Poly has had four teams being sent to regionals, one team qualifying for the Opening Round Championship Series (ORCS) and having been sent to nationals for two years. 

If students want to join, it is recommended that they try out for fall quarter for the new season. It is optional for students to continue to the more competitive winter quarter, but it is required to at least be a part of the program during the fall to do so.