Baylor Law School's One-of-a-Kind Top Gun Tournament Deemed Great Success

June 9, 2010
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(L to R): Jeffrey Goodman from Temple University's Beasley School of Law in Philadelphia was named the winner of Baylor Law School's inaugural National Top Gun Mock Trial Competition. Goodman is pictured with Roy Barrett, a partner with the law firm Naman Howell Smith & Lee PLLC, which sponsored the competition, and The Honorable Priscilla Owen, judge on the United State Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, a Baylor and Baylor Law graduate who presided over the finals.

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Only 24 hours to prepare a case. Sitting state and federal judges presiding at every round. A $10,000 winner-take-all cash prize. Baylor Law School's inaugural National Top Gun Mock Trial Competition was a very different breed of tournament, and competitors, coaches, judges and witnesses had nothing but praise for the one-of-a-kind event.

The National Top Gun Competition was limited to 16 law schools with a single student representing each school, instead of the usual two. Baylor, as the organizing institution, did not field a team.

When it was all over, Jeffrey Goodman from Temple University's Beasley School of Law in Philadelphia was named the Top Gun.

"I graduated two weeks ago and thought I was through with trial competitions," Goodman said. "But then I read the Top Gun rules, and I wanted to compete. I have really enjoyed the format."

Second place went to Michael Schwalbert from Washington University School of Law in St. Louis.

"I really like thinking on my feet, and so many of the mock trial competitions are scripted. I would rather compete in Top Gun than any other trial competition," said Schwalbert, who was so excited about the competition that he paid his own travel expenses.

The competition was sponsored by the law firm Naman Howell Smith & Lee PLLC, which has offices in Austin, Fort Worth, Harker Heights, Temple and Waco. State District judges served as presiding judges during the preliminary rounds, while federal judges presided during the elimination rounds, all delivering a level of expertise usually not found in interscholastic circles. Additionally, lawyers - the majority of whom were Baylor Law School alumni - served as jurors in all rounds.

"This competition was to reflect the realities of trial practice. No second place. Winner take all," said Baylor Law Dean Brad Toben. "Thanks to the generosity and competition sponsorship of our decades-long friend of the Law School -- Naman, Howell, Smith & Lee -- we were able to make the Top Gun 'trophy' a cool $10,000 to the winner.

"We received high kudos and accolades uniformly and across the board from the competitors, our guest judges, lawyers who served as jurors and from 'real' witnesses from the community," Toben added. "Many approached me to sing praises about their entire competition experience and expressed their firm hope of making the invitation list next year. Everyone was intrigued and pleased with the fresh, distinctive format and impressed by the philanthropy of Naman, Howell, Smith & Lee in underwriting the Top Gun prize. We are indeed confident that Top Gun will soon be mentioned in the same breath as the other three 'majors' in the mock trial world -- the AAJ competition, the ACTL (the American College) Competition and NITA's Invitational Tournament of Champions."

Also competing were Jared Zuercher from Akron University, Margaret Garner from Barry University, Jerimiah Lewellen from Chicago-Kent School of Law, Garrik Storga from Denver School of Law, Jonathan Macri from Fordham University, Brent Wisner from Georgetown University, Britni Tweedy from Loyola University-Chicago, Jake Douglass from Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, Lawrence Hilton from Northern Kentucky University, Joshua Banister from Pepperdine University, Timothy Douthit from Samford University, Jeff Hohl from South Texas College of Law, Katelyn Knaak from Stetson University and Patrick Driscoll from Suffolk University.

"We saw a need for a new type of competition that provides a forum to challenge the very best mock trial competitors," said Gerald Powell, The Abner V. McCall Professor of Evidence at Baylor Law School. "The Top Gun Mock Trial Competition gives law students the chance to go up against the very best of their peers, and gives all of us an opportunity to see the most experienced and talented law students in the country."

Baylor Law organizers chose a guardianship case for the competitors. Participants arrived June 2 for check-in and an opening reception. The next day was devoted to preparing the civil case. In addition to preparing their opening and closing statements and witness examinations, students also watched a "Mission Impossible"-style video in which Powell gave basic instructions. They then visited relevant sites of the fictional dispute.

"Giving the details of the case just 24 hours before the competition begins means the student participants must be on top of their game," Powell said.

Preliminary rounds were held June 4. Eight teams advanced to the elimination rounds on June 5. The Honorable Priscilla Owen, judge on the United State Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, presided over the finals on June 6. For the finals, new expert witnesses (actually two Waco doctors portraying doctors) were introduced to the case.

Each student was able to bring a coach but many were at the competition on their own, including the eventual winner Goodman. However, his virtual coach, Sara Jacobson, Director of Trial Advocacy and Associate Professor at Temple, had high praise for the competition.

"As someone who was coaching via the Internet, the top notch support you and everyone at Baylor provided made my job much easier," Jacobson said. "Our advocate also complimented the way you ran a challenging tournament. It sounded like it was as close to a real trial as one could get."

"Demand for a spot in the tournament was high," said Practice Court Associate Jessica Casenave, who helped to organize the event. "We had to turn entrants away and compile a wait list."

The 16 participating law schools are, like Baylor, known for their trial advocacy programs. In April, Baylor Law's trial advocacy program moved up to fourth in the nation in U.S.News and World Report's 2011 edition of "America's Best Graduate Schools."

Such programs give law students real-world experience and foster excellence in legal practice, teaching students to serve clients. At Baylor, this emphasis permeates the entire three-year curriculum.

"Students learn not only how to try cases in a real world setting, but they also learn the law of procedure and evidence, which are the foundations of trial advocacy," said Powell, who also serves as director of Baylor Law's renowned Practice Court program.

Contact: Julie Carlson, Baylor Law School, (254) 710-6681