Open and Shut Case for Undergrads

Members of the Mock Trial Team acquire knowledge that may one day save a person’s future.
by Michelle Enriquez
Justin Gaynor watches as a fellow defense attorney prepares a rebuttal.

Olu Orange, head coach of the USC Mock Trial Team, has spent more than a decade imparting to students some of the knowledge he has gained as a practicing attorney. Orange, who started the team in 2001, recruits students who display “intellectual agility and presentational presence” during a competitive tryout process.

It was the competitive process that first interested Justin Gaynor, a senior business-finance major who has been on the team for three years and said that his participation has changed his life for the better. “Mock Trial teaches you to be a well-rounded, confident, quick-thinking, goal-based individual,” he said.

Mock Trial helped Gaynor discover his passion for law. He shifted his career choice from finance to public interest law after having joined the team and participated in a public interest organization called the General Relief Advocacy Program (GRAP). Sponsored by the Public Counsel of Los Angeles, GRAP “trains attorneys and law students to advocate on behalf of clients who are trying to secure the state aid they deserve but are denied.” “Often, these benefits are the last thing standing between entire families and homelessness and hunger,” Gaynor said.

He tells this story: “I met a man named Clarence, who was homeless and hungry and had been denied the benefits he rightfully deserved. Using the advocacy skills that I learned as a member of the Mock Trial Team, I was able to ensure that his benefits were reinstated and that he did not have to spend another night on the street without food. This was a life-changing experience for me. It was at the very moment that Clarence smiled and thanked me that I made the decision to become an attorney.”

Community service programs provide Mock Trial Team members with “experiential learning.” Orange said that, too often, “lawyers graduate from law school knowing how to push pencils but not to present evidence.” Mock Trial competitions in conjunction with community service programs give students the opportunity “to effectively represent another human being in trial.”

Team members receive extensive law school preparation. They meet several times each week to fine-tune students’ knowledge and use of the Federal Rules of Evidence, the foundation upon which every federal trial is based. Orange also teaches them about the laws relevant to each year’s case competition. Gaynor contends that “Mock Trial is the best law school prep that is available to undergraduates.”

The Mock Trial Team is a winning proposition for everyone involved. Coach Orange gains “the satisfaction of knowing that I have passed along very useful knowledge that may one day be used to save a life, a family or a dream.” And Gaynor has learned “how to follow my passion in life and how to be a good person.”