“Even if we hadn’t won, I can say there’s nothing we would have done differently. We left it all in the courtroom because we knew it was our last competition.” Mia Falzarano a Wake Forest University law student
As the youthful masses in Chapel Hill were taking to Franklin Street to celebrate a national championship won by oversized young men wearing short pants, a smaller (and more sedate) crowd at Wake Forest University was enjoying a national title of its own.
That one was won on a court of a different sort in Cleveland, Ohio, by kids wearing smart suits and business attire.
Four students in the WFU School of Law took home a title in a prestigious trial competition that the school has been chasing for years.
The kids at Wake Forest beat out teams from Harvard; the University of California, Davis; Tulane; and Loyola Marymount, among others, before besting upstarts from Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., in a final round last Sunday to win a competition that caused similar levels of stress and anxiety as the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
“I’d be lying if I said my heart wasn’t pounding,” said Mia Falzarano, a Wake Forest law student in her final year and de facto most outstanding player.
“Even if we hadn’t won, I can say there’s nothing we would have done differently,” Falzarano said. “We left it all in the courtroom because we knew it was our last competition.”
To better understand what the Wake Forest law students accomplished, it will help to understand what they were asked to do.
This particular tournament, sponsored by the American Association for Justice, is called the Student Trial Advocacy Competition. It features teams from 16 regions around the country, some 250 teams from 150 different law schools. Some, including Wake Forest, field more than one.
Each team works on the same problem, something which might come up in a civil courtroom during a real-life lawsuit.
This year, students were asked to deal with a scenario in which a Pokemon Go player is injured during an assault on the premises of a business. The question for the future lawyers to wrestle with is this: How much, if any, liability does the business bear for the injuries suffered by the Pokemon player?
“It’s something that’s happened all over the country,” said Matt Breeding, a Forsyth County prosecutor who coaches the team.
(Indeed it has. Something eerily similar happened here in November when a 39-year-old man was beaten severely while playing the game downtown.)
The law students spent months looking at the question from both the side of the plaintiff (the victim) and the defense, which represents the fictional business. In each round — set up like an athletic tournament with preliminaries, regionals and finals — teams go head to head with the role of plaintiff or defendant decided by a coin flip.
Each team has two students who focused on the plaintiff’s side and two others for the defense. For Wake Forest, that was Falzarano and Drew Culler for the plaintiff and Cheslie Kryst and Ethan White for the defense.
And because this is a competition designed by lawyers for law students, the permutations are intentionally tricky and the judging — done by actual judges, including Justice Barbara Jackson of the N.C. Supreme Court — harsh.
“There was a level of nerves I had throughout the entire competition,” said Falzarano, who is headed for a job with a law firm in Dallas after graduation next month. “Every round we felt nerves. But we were confident with the team we went in with.”
Like any other competition on a court, field or classroom, this one included a certain level of gamesmanship.
“It was kind of funny because in the final round, (Belmont) came in with all sorts of electronic trial equipment worth more than my car trying to intimidate us,” Breeding said.
Sealing the win
In the final, the team from Belmont won the coin toss and chose to take the defense position.
“It was a little easier,” Breeding said. “But we were hoping that’s what they’d do.”
That’s because Culler and Falzarano would be center stage, as they had prepared the plaintiff’s argument.
“Everybody had different pretrial rituals,” said Falzarano, who also won a moot court national competition earlier this year. “We all really enjoy doing this, and we knew to have fun and enjoy ourselves.”
The final round, like each of the other rounds, basically amounted to a civil trial compressed into three to four hours. It included cross-examining expert witnesses on the severity of the injuries suffered by the Pokemon player and the nuances of property law and liability.
Breeding said Falzarano’s argument was something to behold, the equivalent of a steal and a breakaway slam dunk to seal a win.
“I swear you could hear a gasp even from the coaches of the other teams,” he said. “She’s better than a lot of people who’ve been practicing for 20 years. She will do whatever she wants to do (after passing the bar exam).”
Waiting for the panel, a jury box full of lawyers and a Superior Court judge from Cleveland, to decide the winner was nerve-wracking. Its decision in favor of Wake Forest, issued after 30 minutes, was no surprise to the students.
Like the big boys in light blue-accented shorts down the road, the Wake Forest law team narrowly lost in the 2016 finals. It had been close, and the team knew what it would take to win this go-round.
“It was relief and excitement all at the same time,” Falzarano said, “and some emotions I can’t even begin to explain.”
As much as the trophy the team brought home, that sentiment — a lawyer rendered speechless — tells you how big the win was to the students at Wake Forest.