A trial is underway at the Richard J. Daley Center in downtown Chicago for the third annual Great Chicago Fire Invitational. Lawyers cross the courtroom with purpose in polished shoes and pressed suits, speaking smoothly and clearly to the jury about their client and the case. Witnesses respond nervously to biting questions, brightening the dimly lit space with colorful accents. As the judge stares down each speaker, the question looms: liable or not liable?

“Mock trial is basically what it sounds like: it’s a mock trial where one team is one side of the trial – either prosecution or plaintiff – and another team is the defense,” says Kate Hayner-Slattery, a co-captain of one of Northwestern’s three mock trial teams.

It all starts at the beginning of the academic year. The American Mock Trial Association (AMTA) releases a 150-page case file, giving colleges nationwide the details they need to put together a convincing argument for both sides of the case; they’ll have to perform each one during separate rounds of competition. After all, “winning” a round of mock trial is not determined by the actual facts of the case; it’s based on how each team member performs when presenting them.

“The winner is basically an addition of scores for each individual, so the person that did a statement gets a score, the person who is a witness gets a score,” says Alla Cherkassky Galati, (Weinberg '10), a Chicago lawyer and a coach for the Northwestern team.

Teams assign their members roles as witnesses or attorneys. For attorneys, grading is fairly straightforward; a judge scores them on categories such as eloquence and argumentation. Witnesses have more opportunity for creativity. They get scores for their acting ability and the quality of their characters' “backstories.” While the case file includes a few key details about each witness, teams can craft the rest of the character however they choose. The human resources manager might speak with a Southern drawl, or he could have a passion for fine French cooking – it’s all up to the team to decide.

Drop in on any Northwestern mock trial practice and it may seem like a sketch comedy team or a theatre troupe is at work, trying out accents or adding “Nordic heavy metal” vibes to spice up a character.

“Most of the mock trial characters are very plain,” says Weinberg sophomore Nick Anderson. “Where the true individuality of each team comes out is how they change the character.”

“Northwestern is an overall clever script-writing team,” Hayner-Slattery says. “We write good material [and] we present it well.”

National rankings seem to agree. Last year, Northwestern’s A team placed 13th in the National Championships held by AMTA. The year before, Northwestern’s A team placed 8th and the B team was the top-ranked B team in the country. This year, the program hopes to return to the top 10.

Winning is always great, but it’s not the only reason why students are passionate about mock trial.

“I think for me, mock trial is like the perfect combination of the two things that I really love doing, which is debating and acting,” says SESP junior Joy Holden. Holden, like about of half of the team, hopes her performances could assist her in her future career – she’s currently applying to law school. For all of the students, though, mock trial is about more than the final verdict.

“I’m an engineer, I’m a CS major, I’m not pre-law,” Hayner-Slattery says. “Maybe someday I could decide to go to law school, but I'm not doing this as a career preparation thing – I’m doing it for the thing itself.”