BLSA mock trial team heads to national competition

Zoom grid of four students.

Clockwise from top left: Lexi Butler ’21, team captain Joy Holden ’21, Andrew Gonzales ’21, and Jonathan Roberts ’22

Joy Holden ’21 has competed in mock trials for more than seven years. She was captain of her mock trial team in college and is captain of the Harvard Law School Mock Trial Association team. And while Holden has always enjoyed the competitions, she says she never saw other Black student competitors, lawyers, or judges.

“It was really important to me that in my 3L year that I get a team of all Black law students to compete together,” says Holden. So, she corralled three of her friends — Lexi Butler ’21, Andrew Gonzales ’21, and Jonathan Roberts ’22 — from the Harvard Black Law Students Association (BLSA) to form a team to compete in the Constance Baker Motley Mock Trial Competition (CBMMTC).

The competition, sponsored by the National Black Law Students Association, simulates a civil trial proceeding in which the team plays both the advocates and the witnesses. In January, the HLS BLSA Mock Trial Team — the first HLS team to compete in the CBMMTC — won the regional round and will compete at the national competition on March 3. Roberts was named “best advocate” and won “best cross examination” in the regional competition.

Although the team is practicing and competing remotely, Butler says it feels like they’re together in person. “We still bounce ideas off of each other, seeing what works and what doesn’t work, rewrite something if it’s not working and help each other rewrite,” she says. “So even though it’s on Zoom, it’s been an extremely collaborative process. And I think we’ve all kind of grown and benefited from that, as we translate some of these skills into real life.”

While they have had to adjust to some aspects that are missing from the online format — like the opportunity to read body language and make eye contact — the team is gaining experience in what could be a new normal. “Zoom court proceedings are probably the future for certain cases,” says Roberts. “And to the extent that we can get this skill while still in law school, I’m very appreciative.”

Gonzales, who is competing in his first mock trial competition, says while there is little interaction with competitors from other law schools during the virtual competition, he has found the practitioners extremely supportive. “They give advice on practice experience, or offer themselves as mentors, or you can just ask them questions about what they do in their profession.”

Each of the BLSA team members participate in student practice organizations or clinics — from the Criminal Justice Institute (CJI) to the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau (HLAB) — that provide free legal services to eligible people in the greater Boston area. Holden says competing also helps them advocate for their current clients.

“Andrew is in HLAB, Lexi and I are in CJI, Jonathan and I are in Defenders [Harvard Defenders represent low-income people for free in criminal hearings]. And we’ve all taken the Trial Advocacy Workshop, so we’re really putting it all to use with our real clients and doing the best we can to help them in their situations,” Holden explains.

Roberts plans on becoming a public defender after graduation and says trial advocacy is central to everything he’ll be doing. And while it has been good to get practical experience through his work with Harvard Defenders and in the competition, he says he is also grateful for the connection and friendships he’s made with his teammates.

“I know once I graduate there are going to be three people who I know I can turn to,” says Roberts. “I just really do want to thank them for that.”

Team captain Holden says she loves that she gets to compete in the CBMMTC with Jonathan, Lexi, and Andrew. “Trial advocacy excellence is obviously really cool, but also being able to be mentored by Black lawyers and judges who are overseeing the competition and being able to have these three wonderful friends and competitors along with me was just icing on the cake.”