GPS Mock Trial has experienced a year of firsts, including the most participants—enough for five full teams, more than 30 students—in the club’s 9-year history. This year was also the first for an all-virtual competition.
Twenty-twenty one also marks the first state championship for the school, with GPS 1 placing first along with a third-place finish for GPS 2 during the competition; 61 teams competed to get to state. Montgomery Bell Academy 1 (Nashville) placed second. Juniors Lauren Thacker (GPS 1) and Ellie Fivas (GPS 2) were voted MVPs.
The Tennessee High School Mock Trial Competition is organized, hosted, and judged by members of the Tennessee Bar Association Young Lawyers Division. According to Stephanie Vonnahme, its Mentoring and Public Education coordinator, until this year no school has placed both first and third at the state level. Another first in an historic year.
Now with their sights on nationals, GPS’s team members are faced with learning an entirely new case, with details being released on April 1. The national competition, held May 13-15, will again be on a virtual platform. From GPS 1 and GPS 2 Mock Trial team members, a new team will be formed.
“Once the new case is released, we will decide which combination of students will be on which side—plaintiff or defense,” said attorney Tammy Combs, who serves as one of the coaches of GPS Mock Trial along with Judge Brian House; GPS history teacher Dr. Steve Harrison serves as club sponsor. It’s not yet known if the case for nationals will be civil or criminal.
This year’s Tennessee case was the same as the 2020 one—a civil trial that pitted plaintiff Bryson Sailor against defendant Drew Jennings. The problem? Whether a screw found in Sailor’s chicken sandwich was put there by the defendant or whether the plaintiff swallowed it on purpose. Throughout the competition, students prepare to try either side.
Last year GPS advanced to state only to have the meet called off due to COVID. This year the entire competition was held virtually, which presented a unique set of challenges. According to Reese Miller, president of GPS Mock Trial, the team had to learn how to skillfully unmute and know when to break into an argument. Other obstacles the online platform presented for all participants were difficulty reading the jurors and not knowing if your testimony is landing well with the judge or the opposing counsel. “It’s just not the same as being in-person in a courtroom,” she says.
For the state contest, several members of the GPS Mock Trial club, outside of teams 1 and 2, were called upon to fill in for members of both teams who had conflicts during the various rounds of competition.
This willingness to help didn’t surprise Reese or the coaches at all. Early on the girls set up a shared spreadsheet so each team member could see when others had time available during the school day to practice. “We’ve always had a dedicated group, but this year we rehearsed strictly online, and that made it easier to reach out to see when others could work with you,” Reese says.
Ironically, Reese thinks the virtual platform made them closer as a club because they were able to work with others besides their 6-member teammates.
The state win couldn’t have come at a better time for GPS—particularly for the senior class that has come so close to Nationals but never advanced. They celebrated recently with a picnic at Riverview Park.
Reese says the girls have their coaches to thank for their victory. “They are so dedicated to our teams,” she says. “They are both busy with their jobs, but they put everything aside to come help us. That makes us want to work even harder.”
To help them prepare, Judge House goes through the problem and makes a spreadsheet of every question he can imagine might get asked during the trial. That way the witnesses are prepared for anything that could come their way, but also lawyers get ideas for what to ask. “He’s very helpful for character development and helps us to create someone who is unique,” Reese says.
It’s no wonder that, throughout the contest, the students were told their courtroom skills matched or exceeded current practicing attorneys and were encouraged to pursue a career in law.
Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Roger A. Page, who presided over the finals, echoed that sentiment. He said he was blown away with how good the participants were and added that all of them “could be lawyers in just a few years.”
Although they can’t be as impartial as those outside of GPS, Mock Trial coaches Ms. Combs and Judge House had nothing but praise for their teams.
“Our teams put so much hard work and dedication into this season, overcoming the many obstacles and challenges that were placed before them,” Judge House says. “These young ladies truly represented themselves and their school with class. I am thankful that I was part of this year’s team.”
"I am so proud of all their hard work,” Ms. Combs adds. “With the help of a full-team effort between Regionals and State, GPS 1 and GPS 2 transformed into different teams with even more critical thinking and advanced reasoning. Going into State, I had high expectations and they exceeded them. It is my honor to work with these students. I am so happy for them.”
Reese says her four-year experience with the club has changed her in myriad ways.
“The biggest skill I’ve gained is being quick-witted and thinking on my feet,” she says. “Mock Trial has helped me so much in participating in my classes at GPS—stating my opinions and standing up for myself. I also learned to take a huge chunk of information and decide what matters most to an argument.”
The experience at GPS has impacted Reese so significantly, she applied only to colleges that had Mock Trial teams, and others on the GPS team plan to pursue careers in law. No doubt they’ll be confident and ready for any obstacles that come their way. Not even a pandemic kept them from reaching their goals.