A persuasive oralist, Mundell pays it forward

This is the third in a series of profiles of students from the Harvard Law School Class of 2017.

You would never know it from her unhesitating, responsive arguments in the Ames Courtroom, but when Amanda Mundell ’17 was growing up in California she dreaded giving presentations in class. “I was a very nervous speaker,” she remembers, “so I decided that I was never going to do anything like this. I really liked science, I would just focus on that, and that would be my future.”

But a high school speech class changed all that: She loved it so much that she tried out for her high school’s mock trial team. “When I made the team, I was hooked. I never felt as energized as when I was in the courtroom, or on my feet, or advocating,” she remembers. She jumped right in again as an undergraduate at the University of California, Los Angeles, serving as team captain and winning regional and national championships. “I was still pursuing science, I still loved it, but there was never a moment when I doubted that this type of advocacy was what I wanted to do,” she said.

At Harvard Law School, Mundell found “so many opportunities to study different areas of the law,” and even some of the comforts of home (her sister lives down the street). “I loved my evidence class with Professor [Alex] Whiting,’ Mundell recalls. “It was sort of like doing a mock trial every day. You would be objecting to testimony that the prosecutor or the defense attorney might be trying to elicit. But what was really great about that class was engaging with the underlying policy behind the rule.” And, for something completely different, there was tax, taught by Professor Alvin Warren. “I really like tax now. I like rules! I learned that about myself,” she says with a laugh.

Amanda Mundell ’17

Credit: Lorin Granger Amanda Mundell ’17

Last spring, Mundell and Joe Resnek ’17 won first place at the 41st Annual National Trial Competition, bringing the honor home to HLS for the first time in 40 years. Later, she was named Best Oralist in the semifinal round of Harvard’s 2016 Ames Moot Court Competition; then, with retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens on the bench, she was honored as Best Oralist in the final round, and with her team, as Final Round Champions and for Best Brief.  And she’s paying it forward, coaching mock trial teams at HLS and a California high school, hosting the regional National Trial Competition, and launching the HLS Mock Trial Association, a new student organization that has grown threefold in its first year.

Mundell admits that arguing before the bench, even in a mock trial, is still terrifying. Her advice to fellow competitors? “Trust that you have the right instinct to respond in the right way at the right time; once you trust yourself, all those worries and barriers just fall away.” Mundell also credits her teammates with preparing her for anything that might come her way in the judges’ rapid-fire questioning. And she wants participants to know how rewarding the experience can be. “I think people forget how often, in all areas of the law, attorneys are advocates for their clients. To put yourself in a position where you’re asked to advocate on your feet, in unfamiliar territory … takes a lot of courage, and a lot of preparation, and a lot of confidence.”

After graduation, Mundell will clerk for two years, first for the Hon. Steven M. Colloton in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, and then for the Hon. Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain in the Ninth. She sees many different paths for her professional life, but the ability to continue advocating will be an important consideration.

In advocacy of a different kind, she has begun writing a book about homelessness in America. The idea grew as she thought about a homeless woman in her hometown, someone whom she and her neighbors frequently encountered but never really got to know. With her late father as her traveling companion, Mundell has interviewed over 120 homeless people across the country, in the hope of offering first-person narratives that tell their stories.

The persuasive oralist is also a talented vocalist who sings pop, rock and a little bit of jazz with the Scales of Justice, the law school’s a cappella group. “The fact that I can sing is a happy coincidence, and a welcome distraction from life in law school,” she notes. But it points to something else Mundell appreciates about her time at HLS: “Of course at a place like Harvard there’s never enough time for all of the incredibly exciting and enriching things that take place on this campus every day. But to anybody who comes in as a 1L and thinks it’s impossible to find your place here, I can’t say enough to the contrary.”