Ask an attorney or judge whether virtual trials are something that can or should be done, and the answers will be varied, with myriad questions and a long list of the possible problems.
In matters of technology, however, we may want to consider asking a group of teenagers instead. Each year, the Justice Teaching Center for Civil Learning at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, Florida, sponsors Florida's High School Mock Trial Competition, which provides students an annual opportunity to participate in a fictional case as both attorneys and witnesses and from the perspective of each party. Judges preside in an actual courtroom setting, and local attorneys volunteer to score the proceedings. The participating students put in countless hours of practice and demonstrate trial etiquette and technique that would fare well in any official proceeding. To put it simply, these students are demonstrating the bright future of the law.
The Polk Association for Women Lawyers (PAWL) has been privileged to organize and host the Tenth Judicial Circuit’s High School Mock Trial Competition for the last few years. At the beginning of 2021, it was unclear whether the competition could go forward as challenges to our public health and court system loomed large. What had traditionally been an in-person, round-robin competition allowing teams the opportunity to experience the excitement and challenges of a courtroom trial had to pivot to a virtual competition if it was to be had at all.
But the students throughout Florida were ready and willing to try. And with their successes, we as attorneys and judges were again given a glimpse of the future of the law, this time a look at how a criminal trial might operate on a virtual platform.
Given the directive to host a virtual event, PAWL quickly organized a daylong competition for the two local teams competing: George Jenkins High School and Lakeland Christian School. Each of these schools have dedicated programs permitting students to learn about the legal system and participate in competitions such as this one to develop their knowledge of the legal system and proceedings.
These high school students and their advisors worked tirelessly to prepare not just for the rigors of the normal competition but for the transition to a proceeding conducted entirely via Zoom. Jennifer Steimle, the Chair of this event for PAWL, and then President-Elect Sarah Corbett worked with each team to ensure they understood the new rules of the competition and its modified format.
The teams battled virtually on April 1, 2021. As the inevitable technological glitches occurred, these competitors demonstrated remarkable poise under pressure. There was no fear or trepidation here. A smooth and simple request for the question or answers to be repeated was made and proceedings continued smoothly.
The competitors presented virtual exhibits with ease, leaving the presiding and scoring judges in awe of their technical savvy and professional demeanor. None of the initial chaos of transitioning from an in-person competition to a virtual proceeding appeared as these polished teams completed two strong rounds of competition. Following a close vote by our judges, LCS was declared the winner and advanced to represent the Tenth Circuit in the state-wide competition. After winning the title of State Champions, LCS advanced to Nationals, with competitors from 46 states.
PAWL is proud to have been a part of the competition that provided these students with invaluable experience in working together as a team to develop a case strategy and effectively present both sides of the fictional case they were assigned. Although this competition is designed to be a learning opportunity for its competitors, it is clear that this was a two-way street. The passion, professionalism, and skill with which these teams presented their cases was an inspiration to those of us privileged enough to be part of this process. Now more than ever, PAWL believes the future of the law is in competent, inspiring hands.
Jennifer L. Steimle is a Child Support Hearing Officer in the Tenth Judicial Circuit. She is serving her second term as the Vice President of Membership for the Polk Association for Women Lawyers and is the Chair of their annual High School Mock Trial Competition. She graduated from Stetson University College of Law in 2002 and received her LL.M. in Taxation from the University of Florida Levin College of Law in 2003.