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With an air of confidence, a seventh grader wearing a suit and royal blue tennis shoes recounted the story of how he lost his leg after crawling through a hole in a fence and jumping onto a moving train. The railroad company was at fault, he said on the witness stand, for not building a more secure fence around the tracks.

One of his classmates took the stand shortly after and solemnly explained that her son was injured that day as he walked home, alone, from school because she was working at the time and couldn’t pick him up.

These stories were part of the testimony Friday at a mock trial in Washington where nearly 50 middle school students gathered alongside top litigators—actual attorneys—to present cases before two D.C. Superior Court judges.

The students acted out the roles as part of the fifth annual career day and mock trial for Higher Achievement scholars, hosted at Mayer Brown’s D.C. office. D.C. Superior Court judges Judith Bartnoff and Neal Kravitz presided over the mock trial.

Higher Achievement students acted as lawyers, witnesses, jurors, bailiffs and clerks in the trial. Dozens of partners, associates and staff at Mayer Brown volunteered. They shared their experiences in the law, and they coached the scholars through the stages of trial. They also gave them tours of the firm’s offices.

Mayer Brown has a partnership with Higher Achievement, an afterschool and summer academic program that seeks to close the opportunity gap for middle school youth in at-risk communities. The mock trial and career day were part of the “Making the Case for Kids” program started by Mayer Brown to serve students from some of D.C.’s most underserved areas.

Daniel Masur, partner-in-charge of Mayer Brown’s D.C. office, helped forge the firm’s partnership with Higher Achievement more than five years ago. The law firm hosts field trips for the students and considers Higher Achievement alumni applicants for three summer internships at the firm.

“We’re looking for an opportunity not only to give money but to actually get people involved in things with the kids and use that to bring together our community in support of a common goal,” Masur said.

At trial
Although law is only part of their summer curriculum, Higher Achievement students spent the entire summer practicing and perfecting their lines for the trial. They split into two groups and conducted separate trials regarding the same case, in which a 12-year-old boy sued a railroad company for personal injury.

In one courtroom, Judge Judith Bartnoff of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia presided over the students and staff. She’s served as a judge for 21 years on the local bench.

The students’ giggles and side chatter ceased as Bartnoff called the court to order. One of the scholars acted as the plaintiff’s mother. The girl remained poised and convincing as she answered the defense attorney’s questions without flinching.

“It was hard when they asked me questions and I didn’t always know the answer,” she said.

She said the experience made her want to be a lawyer someday. “I’m not sure what kind I want to be, but I’m looking forward to it,” she said.

‘Sense of reality’
After the closing argument, Bartnoff advised the jurors to listen to their peers and be open to changing their minds.

“I think there’s a big difference between watching something and actually trying to do it,” Bartnoff said. “There’s so much that they see on the news and on TV shows about lawyers and trials and this obviously is a mock trial. But it gives them a sense of reality that they may not get from what they see on TV.”

In the other moot courtroom, Judge Kravitz gave no special treatment to the attorneys and witnesses. He spoke with the same tone that he takes in his courtroom in D.C. Superior Court and overruled nearly every objection made by attorneys on both sides. 

“It’s an exciting opportunity for these students to experience what a real trial is like and to practice putting together their strongest arguments in favor of the positions they want to take, a skill that will be very important to them in whatever fields they pursue,” he said.

Jacqueline Lasch, a summer associate at Mayer Brown and student at Harvard Law School, served as an assistant coach to the defense attorneys. She was impressed by how prepared the students were and hopes the experience sparked their interest in law.

“It’s nice to show them what the world of law can be,” Lasch said. “Hopefully this will instill in them a desire to be a lawyer, or some sort of respect or understanding of the legal process.”

At the end, there were split verdicts. One group ruled in favor of the plaintiff, and one ruled in favor of the railroad company. In the courtroom that found the railroad company liable, students negotiated a $15,000 reward after one student recommended awarding the plaintiff $1 million.

Beth Sadler, manager of donor relations at Higher Achievement, said summer events like the mock trial provide students with access to opportunities available to them in D.C. that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to tap into.

“It’s exciting to see them take on their roles and own the project,” Sadler said. “Our scholars often look back on their summer experience and talk about the field trips and about how hard they’re working in their classes. This is one of the highlights of their summer.”

Reprinted with permission from the July 27,2015 edition of The National law Journal © 2015 ALM Properties, Inc. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.