California Mock Trial Q&A With Luke Ellis

In the past decade coaching mock trial for Miramonte High School, GJEL partner Luke Ellis has helped his team win eight Contra Costa County titles and has learned a great deal from his students along the way. In the Q&A below, Luke talks about his personal history, goal for the mock trial program, and his biggest surprises while working with Miramonte students.

What inspired you to begin coaching the Mock Trial team at the local high school?

The teacher at Miramonte who started mock trial called and asked me if I would be interested in getting involved. She knew I had kids at Miramonte and had an office in Orinda. I attended one class and was hooked so I’ve been the attorney coach ever since.

When you were a student, did you belong to a team like this?

When I was in high school, there was nothing like this. Mock Trial has really blossomed in the last decade. There are about 7000 students across the state currently competing each year and that number is constantly growing.

Did you know you always wanted to be a lawyer?

As far back as I can remember I wanted to be a trial lawyer. I was in college during the late 60’s and was inspired by the fundamental changes the country was going through. I felt the need to be involved and the law was a good fit. But I was also interested in education and have a B.A. in that area.

Did you know you would always practice in the field of personal injury?

I always knew I wanted to help people who were in trouble through some area of public interest law. I started out as a criminal lawyer, after working in the public defender’s office. I loved the courtroom and knew that was the place for me. But in the early 80’s I permanently made the switch to personal injury law. The extensive trial experience I got as a criminal lawyer was invaluable and gave me the tools to be a much better personal injury lawyer. I still work every day helping individuals in trouble, so in that sense my underlying career in law has never changed.

Is it your aspiration to excite as many young people as you can about the field of law and litigation?

It’s not my primary goal, because the law is not for everyone. But mock trial is a wonderful experience even for kids who have no interest in going on to law school. I do, however, have a number of former students who are now in law school all across the country.

What have you seen/heard from students after the mock court room experience?

I see kids grow tremendously and watch them push themselves farther than they ever thought they could go. It takes a ton of courage and poise for a high school student to stand up in a room full of adults and argue in front of a real judge. Every year the judges comment that the kids are examining witnesses and arguing evidence better than many lawyers practicing every day in their courts. That’s an unbelievable compliment but it really is true. I’ve had many students tell me that mock trial was the best thing they ever did high school.

Is there a correlation between students who have drama/acting experience and performance in the courtroom? For example, do they have more confidence in the courtroom if they have acting experience?

Drama and acting definitely help. In fact, in addition to lawyers, each team has field witnesses. The witnesses are of all ages, backgrounds and expertise. So these roles are especially attractive to the students with acting backgrounds. We also get a number of students out of the public speaking program at Miramonte, which is particularly strong and highly regarded in the state.

What difference do you believe you’re making?

Mock Trial is an academic team competition and in that sense is totally unique. There’s nothing else like it in high school. The students certainly learn about the justice system and trying cases. But in the process they learn to problem solve, think critically on their feet, and to stay focused under intense pressure. They not only compete with other students, but with adult judges continually questioning, challenging and testing them. These kids are learning valuable skills that will help them in the classroom and the workplace.

Is there a story you can tell about a student who stood out in your mind?

One student in particular comes to mind. She moved to our area from Ukraine just before high school. English was her fourth language. As a freshman, I could barely understand her. With 35-40 students in the class, it would have been easy to let her fade from the program. But she stuck with it and I stuck with her. By her junior year, she had become one of the best cross-examiners we’ve ever had. She was truly amazing. She exemplifies the fact that students develop at different times and at their own pace. In high school, students go through such tremendous physical and intellectual growth spurts. It happens every year; the student you see as a freshman is completely different a year or two later. Sometimes you can’t even recognize them. So no matter how difficult it is to keep a large class of kids, I always try to encourage them to come back.

What is your return rate of students who stay in the program 2+ years with you?

The overwhelming number of students who come into the program even for one year, stay with it for all 4 years of high school. Miramonte gives 5 units of ungraded credit for being in the program in recognition of the substantial time commitment involved. So even if the kids don’t have “leading” roles on the competition team, they get the benefit of the credits on their transcript. Plus, it seems that once the kids see what the trials are like, they always comeback. The trials are intense and quite addictive.

How do you define success when coaching a mock trial team?

My ‘pep’ talks before each round are not about winning, but about every team member focusing on getting just a little better than last time out. If we are constantly improving than I’m happy.

What values do you try to instill on the students about your profession?

It’s extremely important that the students understand you can beat an opponent without being mean-spirited. I think real-life judges and juries can sense when an examination or argument goes over the top or gets too personal. I like to think our program continues to be so successful because our students are as gracious when they win as when they lose.

Do the cases you try as a team align with current events?

The cases are always criminal, and usually involve a murder. Many of the legal and evidentiary questions involve cutting edge and timely issues. For instance, last year the motion to suppress centered on a computer search and the seizure of emails and tweets.

What’s your impression of how seeing the inside of a mock murder trial affects these kids? (i.e. if some kids know more about the law, they might make different decisions in life or have more respect for it)

I think all the students leave the program with an enhanced understanding of the legal system. Not just about evidentiary principles, but about the real life consequences of how momentary decisions can change the course of ones’ life. Most kids don’t realize that drunk driving can wind up being charged as second degree murder. Unfortunately, driving under the influence is a prevalent problem facing young people every year. But we about talk this, and they begin to see how the law can dramatically intersect with their lives. Throughout the year, we discuss current examples of trials in the media. For example the shooting by the Bart officer of the unarmed suspect; the Spector trial in Los Angeles where the famous record producer was accused of shooting a young woman he met in a nightclub; or the OJ Simpson case. My impression is that the students are much more thoughtful about the consequences of their actions, as they see how the legal system plays out in both “mock” and real life life situations.

Can you share stories about the appreciation by teachers, staff, parents, board of education and the like about your decade as a coach?

I have been fortunate to receive many kind words at the annual County awards night, and the Miramonte administration has been extremely complimentary and supportive of the program. The Educational Foundation of Orinda (EFO) funds mock Trial, and even in difficult financial years, our program is always funded. But most important to me, are the notes and cards I get from individual students and parents. One parent emailed me last year and said:

“Thank you for everything you’ve done for my children these past eight years…you have been the biggest influence in their development. And that influence has been enormously positive! Wherever they go…their ability to focus, deliver, and achieve are the result of your mentoring.”

And from a student:

“I am so glad I have done Mock Trial for the last 3 years because it has been my best experience in high school!! Thank you for all the amazing things you do for us!”

I’ve saved every card and note over the years. The hundreds and hundreds of hours I spend each year are reflected in these thoughts, and it makes it all worth it. I wouldn’t trade being a high school mock trial coach and I don’t see myself stepping down anytime soon.