Riverhead High School revived its mock trial team this year, giving students a competitive outlet to build important skills like public speaking and reasoning, and explore a career in law.
Mock trials are school-related competitions that allow students to try a mock case. Each team acts on the opposing side of a court battle as attorneys, witnesses and timekeepers. Attorneys prepare opening and closing statements, and perform cross-examinations and direct examinations on witnesses in an attempt to win the case. An attorney acts as a judge presiding in the courtroom and decides a victor in the trial at the end of trial who came out on top.
Riverhead attorney Lane Bubka, who is also an advisor to the Riverhead Town Youth Court, revived the team this year. Students learn the basics of law and the hierarchy of the courts, and then move into learning how to develop fact patterns, Bubka said. But the skills learned participating in a mock trial go beyond just developing the legal minds of the next generation.
“The way I pitched it was, yes, you’re gonna learn about law, how to argue a legal case,” Bubka said. “But really what you’re doing is learning how to publicly speak, how to critically analyze a problem, how to persuasively try to negotiate or persuade somebody else to see your side of the story and maybe convince them that your position may be the more accurate one.”
“So if they’re trying to convince their parents that they should be allowed to do something or trying to convince a teacher that they should get some extra time or another chance, the skills they learn here will pretty much give them advantages everywhere,” he said.
Lorena Correa, a sophomore and captain of the team, said she is interested in pursuing a career as a lawyer. In addition to the activity looking good on a college application, Correa said she loves “being able to compete and express myself in a way that I wouldn’t be able to do in other clubs.
“Mock trial has helped me progress in my public speaking, and progressed in me as a person learning more about life and the law,” she said.
Riverhead’s team went 2-2 in their first year, ending their season with a loss against Commack High School on Wednesday. Most of the students on the team are not seniors, so the program is “building a good base to hopefully continue the program through the years to come,” Bubka said.
Students put in a tremendous amount of time and dedication to prepare for their cases.
“We pretty much work almost every single day,” Bubka said. “If we’re not at the high school, the kids come to my office and we’ll work for hours. We usually get dinner almost every night and work through the problem and work with each other and practice with each other to get ready for the competitions. I know that they Zoom each other or FaceTime each other every night late into the night working on it, because they care that much about it.”
“They’ve just really poured their heart into it and really done extremely well for having no prior experience. So I’m really proud of them,” he said.
Bubka said the team is made up of 12 students; most of them are members of the school’s NJROTC. Bubka, who was a member of the mock trial team while he was a student at Riverhead High School, said the team dissolved around 15 years ago after the previous teacher who served as the program advisor retired and the district couldn’t find a replacement. Bubka said he had been “begging” the principal to get the team started again and finally got permission this past school year.
“I wanted the youth court kids to be able to experience kind of what I got to do and what got me into law back in the day,” Bubka said.
Daleska Ortiz, a sophomore, said she joined the team after being pulled along by a friend to the club. Her favorite part about being involved is being able to connect with her peers.
“I feel like it’s brought us together more, even if we didn’t know each other at the start,” she said. “And now I feel like we’re like family. All of us talk on a daily basis.”
“I feel like mock trial is something everyone should be interested in,” Ortiz said. “It’s not just if you want to be a lawyer. It helps with public speaking, helps you get closer to people that you haven’t, it helps you with anything with law. Even if you don’t know anything about law, once you start getting into cases, you learn a lot of things you wouldn’t learn in any other class or club.”
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