The packed room at state Supreme Court in Mineola was quiet as a riveting closing argument was delivered. The trial -- a lawsuit in which a young man sued a computer college for deceiving him into enrolling -- had gone on for nearly two hours. Each three-member legal team presented opening and closing statements, introduced documentary evidence, questioned witnesses and argued evidentiary objections.
Now, the counsel for the plaintiff finished an impassioned five-minute presentation and sat down. All eyes turned to the judge for the verdict. I fidgeted in my seat, feeling anxious.
This wasn't an actual trial. It was the New York State Bar Association's annual High School Mock Trial Tournament. Despite its name, the proceeding feels like the real thing.
As a practicing attorney, I've had the privilege of acting as volunteer coach of the Plainview-Old Bethpage John F. Kennedy High School team for a decade. Each year is rewarding, and this season's team put in countless hours of preparation despite many other academic and personal commitments.
The team consisted of eight seniors and four juniors -- a plaintiff's squad of three lawyers and three witnesses and a corresponding defendant's squad.
From the moment it received the detailed materials for the fictional case of Martin v. CPU in December, the team treated the case like a matter of life or death. The students practiced just about every weekday afternoon, on most weekends, and sometimes at the ungodly hour (at least for teens) of 8 a.m. They emailed and texted me constantly with ideas to improve their arguments.
Their passion, focus and commitment paid off as both parts of the team advanced from the initial round of 45 schools to the quarterfinals.
In the case at hand, the no-nonsense John Kase -- who recently retired as supervising judge of Nassau County Court -- finally spoke from the bench. With little explanation, he ruled against our client and in favor of the team from Rambam Mesivta High School in Lawrence. And just like that, our season was over.
Afterward, there were hugs and crying. And some unwarranted but predictable self-recrimination.
"We should have practiced longer," one student said.
"I should have known the rules of evidence better," said a second.
"I should have been more aggressive with my objections, even after the judge overruled me," said another.
And I berated myself for failing to prepare the team for an unexpected argument that came up from the defense.
At our post-trial dinner at Grimaldi's in Garden City, I urged the students to focus on the positives: They'd honed skills that will serve them well in life -- reasoning, writing, persuasive argument in public, thinking on their feet, working together. They also learned a painful lesson: No matter how competent and prepared you are, there may be times when even your best won't be good enough to succeed. But that doesn't make you a failure. Sometimes, your opponent is just a little better. And, sometimes, life just isn't fair.
I learned something, too: If my team was at all representative of Long Island's teenagers, then our future is in good hands.