Wednesday, February 16, 2011

I May In Fact Just Be A Curmudgeon

So if you haven't guessed, I have now, and pretty much always been, a geek. I was that guy playing D&D, working in high school journalism while doing speech and debate. The only thing I did not do was watch anime in the original Japanese because I got so frustrated trying to read quickly and watch what was going on the screen.

When I did speech and debate, I did it through a fairly hard core program that as a group had a lot of success. Those who coached me were rarely touchy-feely types who were overly concerned with my self-esteem. They were concerned with turning me into a polished speaker who could hold an audience's attention and grab judges votes. Self-esteem came from doing well.

And that brings me to what happened recently. A call went out for judges to judge a competition (it was a mock-trial competition). Now I never did mock trial back in the day, but I have judged it a few times, though not for a few years. The last time I judged, I was told to make my comments constructive, and not to just tear down the student being judged. Which I think is the way to do it.

However, the other day, when I went to judge, I was told by the organizers to be as positive as possible. Huh? Whats the point of my judging and critiquing their presentations and questioning if not to tell them how to get better?

Apparently, the self-esteem is the big thing because, as one of the organizers said, "Some of these student's don't come from the most economically advantaged backgrounds." We warned about criticizing too much because it might deter them from coming back.

Let me get this straight: you want me to overly positive in my comments and to refrain if possible from the negative aspects of what they did because the students are poor? That's all the more reason they should be fairly and justly criticized. I'm not saying I, or any other judge out there, should tear them apart because we can. If people want to improve, then they have to know what areas need to be improved upon.

So when the time came to give the critiques, I went last. I was really hoping that the other judges on my panel were going to show me the way, because they were both former participants in mock trial and had been judging regularly (as opposed to my last judging experience which was happened pre-9/11). And what did they say? They both gushed over the participants and how well they did, without offering a single criticism.

Did they not see how both sides failed to answer direct questions posed to them in the pre-trial phase? These questions were not out of left field. They went to the heart of case that the students were going to try. I was not expecting Theodore Olsen-type answers, but really the questions each had a simple answer that should have been a core value for either side. For the prosecution it should have been all about the victim. For the defense team, it should have been all about the constitutional right at stake.

I know what its like to work hard at that age and be critiqued by someone who has little familiarity with either the competition or the substance of what is being argued. But I also know how valuable fair, constructive criticism was compared to the "Great job" only ballots that I got back from some judges.

So here are a few of the things that I did not get to say last night, mostly because one team left without asking for any feedback. And for that team, it was a serious mistake, even though they got the conviction.  They are:

  • Don't turn your back on the jury. 
  • Don't stand so that you are the only person who can see the witness. Yes, your suit jacket was nicely pressed, but I would have rather heard what you had to say and your witness' testimony. Its not a conversation between yourself and the witness. Its a conversation between the witness and the jury that you are prompting. 
  • Cross Examination is cool, but its easier. The better mock trial attorneys I saw were the ones who were able to bring out the story on direct. 
  • Just because cross examination is cool doesn't mean you go up without a plan. Know where you are going. Simply getting admissions are useless if you have not teed up the issue earlier so that the jury knows its important.
  • When arguing the pre-trial motion, known what your core value is and stick to it. Don't dance around the questions that the judges will ask you. If you are asking the judge to do something and he asks you how it goes in line with something else in the document universe (like another decision) find a way to bring it on to the ground you want the judge to rule on. For example, the other day the case dealt with a law on cyberbullying. In the packet there were cases going both ways. The judge threw up relative easy question on how you distinguish between this case being litigated and one where a restriction on free speech was upheld. For the defense, you need to go and distinguish it head on. The teams I witnessed, both talked around the point, seemingly afraid to stand up for their position. It undercut their advocacy. There is not a perfect answer, but there were multiple options for ways to handle it. 
  • Both sides needed to listen better to the testimony which was being given. Both sides missed beautiful straight lines because they were wedded to their prepared questions and did not deviate from the order that they were written. The other side opens themselves up, go for it. The worst that can happen is what...? Its not like anyone is really going to go jail here. Have fun. Try it out. 

And finally there is one comment to a female participant lawyer that there is no way I would ever be allowed to say to the group and I would be hesitant to say it to her directly, but I will here. You know who you are. That skirt is only appropriate in a courtroom where David E. Kelly is running the show. Really.

By the way, Mrs. Angrybell, who has been reading this as I have been typing it confirms that, yes, in fact, I am a curmudgeon.

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