Yale Law Grad Soars as 'Top Gun' Trial Lawyer in Baylor Law's National Mock Trial Competition

  • News Photo 5170
    (L to R) - Sarah Chervinsky, a 2011 Yale Law School graduate who will be working as a public defender in New Orleans, won Baylor Law's 2011 National Top Gun Mock Trial Competition. With Sarah are Roy Barrett and Hayes Fuller of the sponsoring law firm Naman Howell Smith and Lee, PLLC.
  • News Photo 5171
    Photo 2: In the fictional case, Barrett v. Amicable Life Insurance, Baylor star quarterback Robert Griffin III (at table, far left) portrayed a non-party witness and gave his "deposition" to Gerald Powell (at table, far right), The Abner V. McCall Professor of Evidence and director of the Practice Court Program at Baylor Law School.
June 13, 2011

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Tom Cruise might not have been in attendance, but Baylor Law brought in an all-star cast and crew for its own Top Gun. Federal and state judges, noted trial lawyers, two Texas lawmen, a top psychology professor, a Heisman Trophy candidate - they were all there, and in the end, a young woman from Yale turned in an Oscar-caliber performance.

Baylor Law's 2011 National Top Gun Mock Trial Competition, which is in its second year, was limited to 18 law schools and is unlike any other mock trial competition in the nation. A single student represented each school, instead of the usual two; participants did not receive the details of the mock case they argued until a mere 24 hours before the competition began; and the winner was awarded $10,000. Baylor, as the organizing institution, did not field a team.

Sarah Chervinsky, who graduated from Yale Law School in 2011 and will be working as a public defender in New Orleans, was crowned the winner. She represented the defendant in the finals against Shannon O'Guin from Samford University's Cumberland School of Law for the plaintiff.

Rigorous competition

"The winning lawyer, Sarah Chervinsky, told me that it was the most intense thing she had ever done," said Gerald Powell, The Abner V. McCall Professor of Evidence and director of the Practice Court Program. "For four days she got a small dose of what our Baylor law students experience on a daily basis. And she was on cloud nine that she had succeeded against all odds. What a great achievement. It is very gratifying to give these young advocates the opportunity to grow and mature as lawyers. Someday, somewhere a client will benefit from what the competitors learned at Top Gun - what they learned about the art of trial advocacy as well as what they learned about themselves."

Chervinsky concurred with Powell about the rigor of the competition.

"The Top Gun was the most intellectually and emotionally grueling thing I have ever experienced," said the personable Chervinsky, who teared up when she was announced as the winner. "I have competed in mock trial since I was a freshman in high school, and I have been inches away from a national championship. I have been chasing this since I was 14 years old."

The competition is sponsored by the law firm Naman Howell Smith and Lee, PLLC, which has offices in the Texas cities of Austin, Fort Worth, Harker Heights, Temple and Waco.

"Everyone was impressed by the philanthropy of our decades-long friend Naman, Howell, Smith & Lee in underwriting the Top Gun prize," said Baylor Law Dean Brad Toben.

Organizers say the event was designed to provide a venue for schools with strong trial advocacy programs to go head-to-head with one another.

"Barrett v. Amicable Life Insurance"

The competition kicked off June 1, when competitors attended orientation and a welcome dinner. At 7 a.m. Thursday, June 2, they received the case file, and also assisted in taking a deposition of a witness, who was portrayed by Baylor's stellar quarterback Robert Griffin III, in preparation for trial. Additionally, they reviewed existing depositions, records and photographs and took a tour to the actual places where events in the case supposedly occurred.

The preliminary rounds began Friday morning, June 3. All competitors participated in at least four rounds with the top four competitors after those rounds advancing to the semifinal rounds. New information was presented Saturday night before the semifinals on Sunday, June 5.

The final four were presented with new facts, two new experts and the opportunity to take two expert depositions that night with only minimal time for preparation. Each student was able to bring a coach, but many were at the competition on their own, including the eventual winner Chervinsky. However, she was quick to credit her former trial team partner, 2009 Yale Law graduate Andrew Thomas, for being a virtual coach and muse.

This year's problem, which was written by Baylor Law Professor Jeremy Counseller, Powell and Practice Court Assistant Will King, involved a life insurance policy dispute. In the fictional case, Barrett v. Amicable Life Insurance, the policy holder has died in a fall from Lover's Leap, and the insurance company has claimed it should not pay the plaintiff and widow, Mrs. Cordelia Barrett, because she murdered her late husband. She claims that the fall was an accident or that he was murdered by a business partner, Russell Bell.

Star witnesses

The finals featured testimony from actual Texas Rangers, a professor of psychology, who portrayed an expert witness, and Griffin, who portrayed a non-party witness. New Baylor Law faculty members Jill Lens and Luke Meier took the roles of Barrett and Bell during the finals.

"Both the competitors did a fantastic job," Lens said. "The winner, Sarah Chervinsky, did an especially good job cross-examining me. She even had me convinced that my character killed her husband to get the life insurance proceeds."

Meier agreed with Lens about the caliber of the contestants.

"The students in the finals were simply amazing. It was so much fun to watch them struggle with the realities of trial practice. There were times during the competition where I actually forgot that I was watching law students rather than seasoned litigation attorneys. I was prepared for my trial testimony by the eventual winner, Sarah Chervinsky. Within two minutes of beginning to work together, I could tell that she had a bright future as a litigator ahead of her. She had a firm handle on all of the moving parts associated with a jury trial," he said.

All rounds were presided over by state or federal judges with experienced trial lawyers serving as members of the jury. During the finals, the Honorable Andrew Hanen, United States District Judge from the Southern District of Texas, presided. Serving on the jury were Baylor lawyers Roy Barrett and Hayes Fuller of Naman Howell; Mark Mann of the Mann Firm in Henderson, Texas; Jason Stephens, founding partner of Stephens, Anderson & Cummings, LLP; and Louis Muldrow, professor emeritus and former director of Baylor Law's Practice Court Program.

"We thank our devoted friends - and a score of Baylor judges (federal and state), who took time away from their chambers, their offices, their families and a weekend - to serve as judge and jurors. To have esteemed federal judges and state district judges preside at each of the 39 trials that unfolded over the days of the competition put us on a level of credibility that was simply unparalleled in legal education's interscholastic circles," Toben said.

Chervinsky, who earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago, was the student director of the Trial Advocacy Team at Yale Law School and actually founded the program as a 1L in 2009. Since that time, the Yale team made a name for itself on the national stage. In only three years, the team won two NTC New England Regional Championships. It was a quarterfinalist at the NTC nationals last year, and this year missed the break for the quarterfinals by only one point. It also competed in the AAJ for the first time this year and placed third in the New York regional. Chervinsky, who competed in each of the competitions, received the award for the Best Advocate at the NTC regional in 2009 and 2011.

O'Guin is a two-year member of Cumberland's National Trial Team and was the 2010 AAJ regional winner and the 2011 AAJ regional finalist. She also received Cumberland's Advocate of the Year award for 2011.

In addition to Yale and Cumberland, other schools that sent competitors to the Top Gun were Akron University Law School, Barry University School of Law, Chicago-Kent School of Law, Denver School of Law, Duquesne University School of Law, Georgetown University Law Center, Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, Northern Kentucky University College of Law, Northwestern University School of Law, South Texas College of Law, Stetson University College of Law, Suffolk University Law School, Temple University School of Law, University of South Carolina School of Law, University of Wisconsin Law School and Washington University School of Law.

ABOUT BAYLOR

Baylor University is a private Christian university and a nationally ranked research institution, classified as such with "high research activity" by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The university provides a vibrant campus community for approximately 15,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest, continually operating university in Texas. Located in Waco, Texas, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 80 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 11 nationally recognized academic divisions.

Media contact: Lori Fogleman, director of media communications, (254) 710-6275

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