Mock trial team finds national success
The Illinois State mock trial team toils away in the campus shadows with minimal support or recognition, yet shines brightly among its national competitors. The small percentage of individuals who realize the University even has such a team inevitably ask how a school that doesn’t offer a law degree ended up with an award-winning program that has helped prepare lawyers for nearly a quarter of a century.
Politics and Government Professor Emeritus Thomas Eimermann doesn’t just know the answer to that question, he is the answer.
The team—which has sent at least one group to the national tournament in 11 of the past 19 years and captured the national championship in 2003 by beating Gonzaga University—is just one offshoot of the roots Eimermann planted when he joined what was then the Political Science Department in 1970.
“When I was hired, I was given responsibility for developing a formal pre-law program at ISU,” he said, recalling there were only two law-related courses. “The opportunity to build a program from the ground up played an important part in my decision to accept the position.”
Eimermann initially identified existing courses across the University that would benefit undergraduates considering a law career. He also expanded the number and variety of law-related courses within the Political Science Department.
He formed and advised the Law Club, which mentored students through discussions that ranged from getting the law degree to contemporary legal controversies. Still in existence, the club arranges law school recruiter campus visits and student trips to area law schools.
Hours of preparation are required of team members and coaches, seen practicing at the McLean County Law and Justice Center. Shown are Jesse Guth, Anastasia Sotiropoulos, Joe Blanche, and coach Tom McClure in the role of judge.
When paralegals began to receive formal recognition from the American Bar Association in the mid-1970s, Eimermann seized an opportunity. ISU became one of the first four-year public universities in the nation to offer the curriculum.
“Paralegal was a place for growth and it became our niche,” he said. “It attracted traditional students interested in law, but with no desire to be an attorney; and nontraditional students, such as legal secretaries, who were able to command a higher salary with the degree.”
As the program’s founder and director, Eimermann further enriched the curriculum with classes on civil procedure and appellate practice, tort law, family law, probate, criminal law, and investigative techniques. He also developed the University’s own Law School Admissions Test prep course as an alternative to paying approximately $1,000 for a commercial prep course. ISU continues to offer the 12-hour noncredit prep class for $175.
But the most intense preparation by far comes through the mock trial team, which has empowered many of Eimermann’s protégés to find their passion and profession. He learned of the program from a Drake University Law School mailing. A law professor there started the intercollegiate competition in 1985.
Seeing an opportunity to enhance the pre-law experience, Eimermann created the team and a trial advocacy course. Still mandatory for team members, the class covers the rules governing the conduct of trials. The skills involved in preparing and delivering opening statements, as well as direct and cross examinations, are also studied.
Eimermann recruited Appellate Judge James Knecht ’68 to serve as the team’s first attorney coach. Mick Hall ’89 was on the initial team and later went on to serve as an attorney coach, which is the role of litigation expert. It involves working closely with the students on strategy and tactics as they prepare their case. Eimermann was the educator coach responsible for administrative details, including the team budget and travel logistics.
“When we participated in our first tournament there were only about 30 schools involved nationally. Today there are 380 schools with teams in the American Mock Trial Association, including 18 in Illinois,” Eimermann said.
Regional qualifying tournaments are now the pathway to nationals, with teams participating in several invitationals throughout the academic year to hone their performance. It is not uncommon for ISU students to go up against Big 10 schools, universities with law programs, and the Ivy League. Illinois State began hosting its own major invitational in 2002, and continues the event each fall.
Eimermann praises the dedication of alumni and staff for maintaining the tradition, as well as extending the team’s successful record. ISU now has one of the leading programs in the Midwest, with both squads advancing to nationals again last year.
While he is still engaged and supportive, Eimermann retired from Illinois State in 2002. He ended his term as educator coach in 2007, handing over the reins to a dual alum he advised, Thomas McClure ’76, M.S. ’01.
An assistant professor in Politics and Government as well as the director of Legal Studies, McClure was a practicing civil and criminal litigator for more than 20 years prior to joining Illinois State as an adjunct faculty member in 2003.
His mock trial team partner is Scott Kording ’02, a Bloomington trial lawyer with his own private practice who has worked with the team the past four years and is now the attorney coach. He was an assistant under Hall, who with Eimermann coached Kording as an undergraduate on the team.
“Mock trial at Illinois State was a game changer for me. I knew then that I wanted to be a trial lawyer” said Kording, who met his wife, Melanie (Bertilson) ’02, on his first day of speech class as a freshman.
Kording came to the University as a Presidential Scholar. Active in student government, he served as both vice president and president of the student body and was also a Bone Scholar. During his senior year, Kording took top All American Honors at the national mock trial tournament.
His own experience creates an appreciation for the effort of the 16 team members, who invest as much time as student-athletes. Kording estimates they devote 20 to 30 hours a week to practices, with nine full weekends lost to competition throughout the academic year. As a coach, Kording’s prep time, teaching, and travel equates to a part-time job.
The case material is received in August, which is when the work begins. There are always more witnesses available than can be used, so who will be called to testify varies depending on each team’s strategy. Preparation requires being ready for any of the characters to introduce any of the evidence.
“Students have their eyes opened as they learn to think quickly based on not only the witnesses but the reactions and rulings of the judge,” Kording said, noting team members write their own opening or closing statements and determine what to say in court. “It is incredible prep for law school, as we give them a good foundation.”
Politics and Government Professor Emeritus Thomas Eimermann is the architect of Illinois State’s pre-law program, including the mock trial team.
He and McClure focus on strengthening each student, not just taking competitions. “Although we certainly like to win, that is not our focus,” McClure said. “We want our students to become successful litigators armed with skills they can use after they graduate.”
Close to 300 students have benefited from mock trial since its start. Beyond gaining a realistic sense of the American legal system and specifically a litigation attorney’s work, they have gained enormous confidence as they honed analytical skills, oral communication skills, and an ability to think on their feet. Team members also establish lifelong friendships and build an invaluable network of mentors who write letters of recommendation, give career advice, and become life coaches.
Kording still considers Eimermann a mentor. McClure refers to him as “the hub,” noting Eimermann taught all of the key players involved with the mock trial team since its start. And he continues to influence students, as he and McClure are now coauthoring a textbook.
Eimermann’s legacy also lives on at Illinois State through an Attorney Advisory Board that he helped create, as well as the Thomas Eimermann Pre-Law Advisement Center. He and his wife, Kathleen, established the Thomas Eimermann Scholarship to assist a politics and government student committed to mock trial competition.
“I came with a vision for courses that would be good for students to test if they liked law or not and that would help them jump ahead when they got to law school,” Eimermann said. “It gives me a great deal of personal satisfaction to see all that has been accomplished over the last 40 years.”
KUDOS TO THE COACHES
Illinois State’s mock trial team thrives on the efforts of faculty and alumni. The following individuals have volunteered long hours of service to create the opportunity for students to compete.
(general manager for the team)
Tom Eimermann, 1985–2007
Faculty member emeritus
Tom McClure, 2007–present
Faculty member, attorney, and alum#
(guide preparation of the case)
James Knecht, 1985–1990
Judge and alum
David Butler, 1990–1991
Judge and alum
Tom Brown, 1991–1999
Mick Hall, 1999–2009
Attorney and alum*^#
Scott Kording, 2009–present
Attorney and alum*#
Doug Kotlarczyk, 2000–2002
Barry Tolkin, 2004–2008
Scott Kording, 2006–2009
Attorney and alum*#
Mick Hall, 2009–2011
Attorney and alum*^#
Adam Ghrist, 2010–2011
* Participated in mock trial as an ISU student.
^ Wrote the case materials used nationally for the 2003-2004 academic year competition.
# Received a 2010 Lawyers Who Care award from the Illinois State Bar Association for dedicated work with the mock trial team.
MOCK TRIAL: HOW DOES IT WORK?
In intercollegiate mock trial competition, students are given copies of court documents and witness statements from a hypothetical case. Each year the cases alternate between civil and criminal matters. This year’s competition is based on a criminal case against a young man accused of murder and driving under the influence following an auto accident in which his friend died.
Materials for the case total 100-plus pages that include a summation, victim statements, police reports, witness affidavits, and other raw material teams use to develop a strategy.
Each team participates in two trials in which they play the roles of prosecutors, defense lawyers, and witnesses. Those in the lawyer role must present opening statements and closing arguments, as well as direct and cross examinations.
A modified version of the Federal Rules of Evidence applies. The student attorneys must make and defend evidentiary objections in the same way they are handled in actual trials.
Students playing witnesses are required to respond to the attorneys’ questions as real witnesses would, and to make it as difficult as possible for the lawyers on the opposing team.
There are always more witnesses available than can be called, so team members must choose carefully who to include based on their strategy for the case. This fact alone makes each competition its own unique experience for students.
Scoring is based on a team’s overall performance. Individuals are judged as well, with honors given to the top four lawyers and four witnesses in each competitive round.
MOCK TRIAL TEAM’S ACHILLES’ HEEL
Illinois State’s mock trial team has what it takes to soar. The students are dedicated and talented, consistently making it to the national level. Alumni are involved and supportive, with more than 70 serving on an Attorneys Advisory Board. Faculty are equally committed to continuing the team’s winning legacy that truly is remarkable, considering the monetary support has always been minimal.
As the team’s educator coach, Thomas McClure is responsible for juggling the tight budget that consists of approximately $10,000 annually. The funding comes out of a $25,000 pre-law program budget and is paltry compared to the backing ISU’s competitors enjoy. Loyola’s team, for example, typically has a $30,000 account.
“Travel is our biggest problem. To stay competitive, we have got to go to tournaments,” McClure said. “Teams that are not willing to go to multiple tournaments are not going to do well.”
Competitions are held across the country. ISU’s team stretches its dollars by skipping overnights whenever possible, which means hours spent on the road instead of resting or preparing.
McClure praises the Department of Politics and Government for its stalwart support. He is grateful for the scholarship Thomas Eimermann and his wife created to help a mock trial student. Now he is hopeful that alumni will respond to an ongoing fundraising effort started by the Attorneys Advisory Board, which is working to create an established source of funding that will carry the team far into the future.
The board started the Pre-Law Endowed Program Fund in March with a goal of raising $500,000. Beyond funding the pre-law program, donor support will cover mock trial operating expenses and allow for growth with such things as high school mock trial workshops, which in turn will bolster efforts to recruit stellar students.
Director of Development Mary Crawford is working to secure $5,000 gifts to be made over five years as one way to reach the goal. Several graduates of the program have already teamed up to make such a pledge. To learn more about the endowed fund or the Thomas Eimermann Scholarship, contact Crawford at (309) 438-7725 or email@example.com.
Donations may also be made online at Advancement.ilstu.edu/support.