When a team from Knoxville’s Fulton High School earned high scores last month in a district-level high school mock trial competition, onlookers may not have realized the significance of that feat.
Only a few months earlier, the team of eight students knew nothing about the Tennessee Bar Association’s annual statewide competition that encourages high school students to develop lawyering skills.
They had never visited a courtroom or watched an attorney present a case at trial, and they had no idea they could learn lawyering skills through an opportunity offered by their school.
“When Mr. (Caleb) Andrist approached me and said we’re going to start this mock trial club, I was blown out of the water,” Fulton High School junior Adalind Reiley said. “This is something I have always wanted to do, but I didn’t think the school would have an interest.”
“I have been proven wrong,” she said.
Four University of Tennessee College of Law students were instrumental in preparing the high schoolers for the competition.
Andrist, a criminal justice instructor at Fulton High School and a former middle-Tennessee police officer, spent 15 years in law enforcement. But he wasn’t prepared to teach the students what they needed to do in the courtroom.
So Andrist made a call to the College of Law’s Center for Advocacy and Dispute Resolution to ask about the possibility of a partnership. It took little time for law students Tedi Ocken, Kim Riddett, Lauren Kriminger and Daniel Kilby to volunteer their help to build Fulton High School’s mock trial team.
From the first of November, the law students – who were just learning many of the skills they were being asked to teach – carved out six hours a week to meet Reiley and her teammates. They first interacted via Zoom calls and then in Fulton High classrooms. During one session, Dean Lonnie Brown and Interim Associate Dean Michelle Kwon stopped in to meet and encourage the students. As the February competition date grew closer, the practices moved onto the University of Tennessee campus where the students used the College of Law’s simulated courtrooms.
“Meeting the dean and being in the law school was one of the best parts of the whole process,” Fulton High School junior and mock trial team member Alyssa Bates said. “It was so amazing to be in a room like where we would have the competition. It was the first thing that made us understand we were really doing this.”
College of Law students taught the high schoolers how to deliver opening statements, conduct direct and cross examinations of witnesses, make objections and present closing arguments.
“At first they had no idea about the trial process, and they really only knew what they had seen on TV,” Kilby said. “We started from scratch and went over trial problems with them and helped them spot issues in the problems.”
As the high school students’ understanding of court proceedings grew, so did their confidence. Kilby said he was amazed by the students’ progress.
“It was pretty great to see how far they came and how quickly they learned and absorbed what they were doing,” Kilby said.
At the competition in late February, the law student coaches were there to cheer on their team, offering feedback after each round. The Fulton students’ performance so surprised some of the onlookers that it led one of the organizers to share a judge’s text message with Andrist.
“He said, ‘I just want you to know that the Fulton kids who I just judged absolutely kicked butt,’” Andrist said. “And butt wasn’t exactly the word he used.”
It was an affirmation that meant as much to the students as if they had won the competition.
“It made the students feel like people saw us and noticed us and next year when they see Fulton on the board, they’re going to know that they’d better be ready to go,” Andrist said.
Kwon, who oversees the College of Law’s diversity, inclusion and community engagement initiatives, hopes to build on the success of the partnership with Fulton High School and expand the outreach to other area high schools.
“The legal profession is one of the least diverse professions,” Kwon said. “So, we hope to plant a seed in the minds of diverse populations of young people who might not otherwise imagine a career in the law.
“For many years, law schools and the legal profession have tried to move the needle on diversity, and unfortunately it hasn’t moved much. We have to become part of that work in a meaningful way.”
Reiley believes the experience of growing her skill set through training for the competition and interacting with the College of Law students has significantly influenced her life.
“This was the first time that I really got to put myself into a leadership role where people were really depending on me,” she said. “I think it really gave me a lot more confidence that I can accomplish what I set out to do.”