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Mock trial has students thinking quick on their feet

Students say role-playing experience gave them confidence, a taste of real-world law practice

Wednesday Jan 27, 2016

In their class, “Legal Environment of Business,” Indiana University Northwest students learn about tort and contract law.

As they progress through the course syllabus, they likely imagine what it might be like to put these principles into practice in the real world. They wonder what it might be like to face a real judge, or to quickly formulate a response to a particularly compelling argument or testimony.

Clearly, reading about conducting a court case in a book is much different than actually conducting one, and it’s not until thrown into the role that any real learning can happen.

Over the course of the Fall 2015 semester, Adjunct Professor Jana Szostek made sure her students were well-versed in a tort lawsuit involving a business, an individual who had been paralyzed and a claim of gross negligence. In December, she moved the tables and desks around in her classroom, brought in a podium and a gavel and transformed her students into plaintiffs, defendants, witnesses and judges. She told them they were going to argue the case in a “trial” exactly as real lawyers do.

On the day of the mock trial, they took their places in the classroom and took on the personas of the roles they were to play. Dressed impeccably, poised and professional, it would be hard to distinguish between them and the real professionals. Over the next two-plus hours, there were opening statements, cross examinations and closing arguments. They referenced affidavits. They consulted notes, case studies and each other.

If they faltered, veteran attorney and fellow adjunct professor Todd Conover was there to interject if necessary and advise them, a momentary reminder that learning was the real objective here.

Conover, who has been practicing litigation law for 39 years, is a frequent visitor in classroom mock trials throughout the region. He is an adjunct professor of business law at IU Northwest, teaching three courses.

“Participating in a mock trial helps students better understand the judicial system and improve their public speaking as well as their critical thinking skills. In these academic competitions, they have to develop an oral argument and present it before an audience,” Conover said. “Given the time constraints, the students performed well. In both the trials they participated in, all the participants were fully familiar with all the facts of the case, they had read all the pleadings and looked at individual rules of evidence.”

Learning by doing – officially known as “experiential learning” in higher education -- is one of the hallmarks of an education from IU Northwest’s School of Business and Economics. It’s one reason the School is continually re-accredited by the AACSB, an achievement boasted by only five percent of schools nationwide.

Brandon Gale, of Portage, is majoring in business administration and is also pursuing minors in communications and marketing. He said the experience took his education to a whole new level.

“It’s like the next step,” he said. “I’ve taken communications classes but this has built up my confidence and helped me be more prepared.”

The students argued a tort lawsuit against a business. The lawsuit claimed that the company was “grossly negligent” by taking camp students on a hike, which resulted in a paralysis injury.

Lawyers have to be quick on their feet, something the students experienced firsthand as they fielded questions. Though they had researched the case, they had to recall the details of the case and formulate an answer or argument on behalf of the role they were playing. They were educated about the case but unaware of the points their student colleagues would make, or what the other’s side’s witnesses might say.

At the end of the “trial,” when both sides rested and after closing arguments were presented to the judges, Kaylua Hightshoe and Lance Pisowicz, everyone vacated the room and left the judges to their deliberation.

The judges ruled in favor of the defendant, stating that there was not sufficient evidence to say the company was “grossly negligent.”

As stated by Conover following the ruling, “Having heard all the evidence,” he said, “the statement you took does have a statute: 42. General statute section 7101 sub part B, defining gross negligence which requires the plaintiff to virtually show intentional conduct on the part of the defendant and we simply could not accept an argument that the defense intended this incident. It is unfortunate and very sad but again, this is a court of law and we must follow the law and that is our decision. “

Witnesses for the defense were Ashley Frantz, Samer Musa and Michael Sierra. Witnesses for the plaintiff included Jennifer Hernandez and Brandon Gale.

The plaintiff’s team consisted of Cambria Wynsma, Arcella Harvey, Robert Dawson and Jonathan Desiderio. The defense team consisted of Derrick Loyd and Elmer Thoreson.

About this story: This class aligns with priorities of IU Northwest’s strategic plan, including: STUDENT SUCCESS and ACADEMIC EXCELLENCE.

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