NU Declassified: How Northwestern’s Mock Trial team raises the bar

Mika Ellison, Assistant Audio Editor



Northwestern Mock Trial may sound like an activity exclusively for aspiring lawyers, but students in the program say the range of experiences Mock Trial provides and the creativity it requires means the club attracts a diverse group of people from across NU. The Daily explores what makes Mock Trial such a good team, and how those qualities got them to nationals this year.

MIKA ELLISON: Have you ever dreamed of being a lawyer? Researching your case and cross-examining witnesses? What about being an expert witness and performing chemistry on the witness stand? In that case, Mock Trial may be the activity for you. 


MIKA ELLISON: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Mika Ellison. This is NU Declassified, a look into how Wildcats thrive and survive at Northwestern. In this episode, I spoke to members of Mock Trial, a team at NU that involves a lot of research and creativity, and, according to its members, creates friends for life. 


MIKA ELLISON: Mock Trial is an activity where participants prepare and act out a court case. Basically, as some team members’ friends say, it’s lawyer roleplaying. During their season, which lasts for one school year, team members act as a witness or an attorney, or occasionally do both. But what stays the same through every competition? The competitiveness, friendships and occasionally showmanship. 

MEGAN MUNCE: And we have something that we say in every info session, which is you come for the activity, and you stay for the friends. And I think that’s — as cheesy as it — sounds 100% true. 

MIKA ELLISON: That was Medill graduate student Megan Munce, a former Daily staffer and Mock Trial’s current president. That’s an important position, considering that with the exception of the 2020 season, which was canceled due to COVID-19, NU’s Mock Trial team has placed in the top ten at the American Mock Trial Association National Championship Tournament for the past four years. It’s a competitive application process: In previous years, more than a hundred students have applied at a time, and the program only has the budget for four teams of about 10 people. 

BEN SWEDBERG: I mean, we are really scraping the bottom of the barrel for University funding. I mean there’s a ton of people every year who try out who don’t get to do Mock Trial. But we just don’t have the resources to support that many people. It wouldn’t be a good experience for anyone.

MIKA ELLISON: That was Ben Swedberg, a Weinberg junior who joined the team his freshman year. When judging applications, rather than focusing on candidates’ past experience, Mock Trial considers its possibility for growth with the intention of creating a team with diversity of experience and room for improvement. Applicants’ auditions, where they perform a five-minute speech, can be the most illuminating part of the process, according to Megan.

MEGAN MUNCE: There’s some people who I think just have an innate talent for just making people want to watch them. And that’s what we’re looking for when we have our tryouts. And I think that being someone who makes a judge want to look up and watch them and have fun with them is also a characteristic that makes a good friend, like it makes someone who tells good jokes, or it makes someone who always has the best stories to tell.

MIKA ELLISON: This aspect of the process attracts students who aren’t just there for a resume-booster. During Wildcat Welcome his freshman year, Ben Swedberg went to a pre-law advising session where Megan and Ruby Scanlon, another senior on the team, gave a presentation on Mock Trial. 

BEN SWEDBERG: And, like, two minutes at the end of the session, they said, “Oh, we found our best friends on Mock Trial, everyone come join Mock Trial.” And I was like, “I have no friends at Northwestern. That sounds perfect.”

MIKA ELLISON: Weinberg freshman Ben Hempker, who just wrapped up his first season with the team, said Mock Trial broadened his horizons. 

BEN HEMPKER: Sometimes people can think that like, “Oh, it’s all a bunch of like political science and pre-law people,” but it’s really not. I know people in Medill, I know people who are doing math, I know people doing physics — it’s basically all over, you can have people that you wouldn’t normally run into.      

MIKA ELLISON: Once students are selected, the team spends Fall Quarter practicing, teaching new members the ropes and preparing for tournaments and invitationals in the winter and spring. At the end of Fall Quarter — 

BEN SWEDBERG: We do something called Stack Night, which is kind of a stressful process where we kind of internally rank everyone in our program. 

MIKA ELLISON: Those rankings eventually determine the four teams that go on to compete at tournaments throughout the rest of the year. 


MIKA ELLISON: Despite the stress, members said they go on to develop close friendships with their teammates. They often nickname teams things like “A-bagel” or “Cinnamon.” Before competitions, Ben Hempker’s team developed a tradition. 

BEN HEMPKER: We always do like huddles, and then we have our little chant, we go down 123. And then we say trust, and then we go up 456. And we say family. So it’s just kind of a cute, reassuring thing we do before each round.

MIKA ELLISON: Ben Swedberg’s team had a similar ritual. 

BEN SWEDBERG: Before rounds, we would do little things, like one of our team members had a little stuffed rabbit. And we would all high-five the rabbit before we went in, or like, we all, it got really random. We would all eat a carrot and a mint and then put on lotion before we started the round. 

MIKA ELLISON: For them, it’s partially for team building, partially for good luck. 

BEN SWEDBERG: We started doing things, and then every time we did something, and then we won the round, we would be like, “that’s part of the superstition.”

MIKA ELLISON: A lot of the traditions team members described are intended to alleviate anxiety before trials. The events can be like hour-and-a-half-long performances —  complete with dramatic cross-questioning and improvisation by witnesses, all while being literally judged. Despite the competition, teams from different schools often get to know one another while scrimmaging or competing during the season. 

BEN SWEDBERG: Our team and Harvard’s A-team got really close this year. And then we got to nationals, and we ended up competing against them in the first round. And then they ended up going on to be the national champions. So congrats to Harvard. If you’re listening to this, we love you.


MIKA ELLISON: In Mock Trial, all teams are given the same case for the entire year. So, if everyone gets the same information, how can one stand out enough to consistently win over a judge? Megan walked through one example from this year. 

MEGAN MUNCE: We had this witness who was making conclusions about whether someone was stealing drugs based off of the level of purity of the drugs that they found. And we wanted to make it fun to watch. So, we got phenol red off of Amazon, and then bought like 10 bags of Sour Patch Kids and shook them so that the citric acid would come off. 

WITNESS: So here we have a bag of citric acid —

MEGAN MUNCE: And when you dumped the citric acid in the phenol red, it would turn from red to yellow, and it was really cool to watch. That’s essentially all that we did —

WITNESS: So hold out the bag —

MEGAN MUNCE: — on this witness’s direct. We didn’t really get out really any facts at all about the case. But he would go up there in front of the judges —

WITNESS: — And I’ll add it—

MEGAN MUNCE: —  and put some citric acid and phenol red, and it would change colors. 

WITNESS: And as you can see, this liquid here actually turns yellow. 

MEGAN MUNCE: And every judge we had was just like, smiling or laughing or asked about it after the round.

MIKA ELLISON: That sense of drama, as well as roughly 10 hours a week of practice, launched the team from qualifying tournament to qualifying tournament. NU Mock Trial ended up at the qualifying tournament for nationals, the Opening Round Championship Series, which took place this year in Memphis, Tennessee. 

MEGAN MUNCE: It just felt like a sleepover with 19 of your favorite friends in a cheesy way. 

MIKA ELLISON: The team ended up driving to St. Louis, Missouri, staying the night at a team member’s house, and driving the rest of the way the next morning. Megan remembers it as one of the best parts of her season. 

MEGAN MUNCE: Just getting to hang out and then wake up in the morning and eat breakfast together and then go head off to competition was sort of a perfect mood setting before we headed in as a senior, because when you’re qualifying in nationals, every tournament can be your last.

MIKA ELLISON: But it wasn’t their last. In fact, this year, Mock Trial qualified for nationals and placed 8th overall, Northwestern’s best finish in seven years. 

ANNOUNCER: In 8th place, from team 1581, Northwestern University.


BEN SWEDBERG: We like to joke that we broke the curse. Because, for the last four years, we’ve gotten 9th, 9th, 10th and 9th.

MIKA ELLISON: In the spirit of Mock Trial, Megan said her most emotional moment of the season wasn’t how the team placed, but rather an announcement that came right before the awards ceremony. 

ANNOUNCER: I want to have you join me in thanking one more group of people. 

MEGAN MUNCE: They said something like, we want to thank the people who have been there at every practice for you, who welcomed you to campus —

ANNOUNCER: These are the people who greeted you on your first day of college. They were there to congratulate you after your first round —

MEGAN MUNCE: — who were the first people to make you feel like you had a home in this activity.

ANNOUNCER: They were your biggest cheerleaders, probably sometimes your greatest critics. But they will be on your team forever, even though after today they won’t be on your Mock Trial team anymore. I’m talking about all of the seniors. If you’re a senior, please stand. 


MEGAN MUNCE: And it was a really emotional moment for me, one because the other three women on the team who are graduating seniors are some of my best friends on campus. But also to think about all of the older members of our team, and where I had come from, being a freshman who wasn’t really confident in myself, who didn’t really know how mock trial worked because I hadn’t really done it in high school. It just felt like a very full circle moment.

MIKA ELLISON: I asked Ben Swedberg, who joined Mock Trial for the friends Megan said he would make, if it had lived up to his expectations. He said not only has he made some of his best friends on the team — 

BEN SWEDBERG: There’s no one on Mock Trial that I don’t like. Yeah, I had to think about that. No, It’s true.

MIKA ELLISON: Mock Trial at NU is known for its welcoming atmosphere, but that can be in contrast to the demographics of lawyers nationwide. As of 2020, lawyers in America were more than 85% white. Munce said that can occasionally be reflected in Mock Trial teams. 

MEGAN MUNCE: You end up with a lot of teams who don’t have a lot of women attorneys or don’t have a lot of non-white members. And that’s something that we’ve been really trying to focus on. 

MIKA ELLISON: Megan is passionate about not only creating that environment at NU, but bringing it to the larger Mock Trial community.

MEGAN MUNCE: I’m excited by the passion that a lot of the current members in the team have for thinking about how Northwestern Mock Trial can be a safe space for people of different race and different gender identity and different ability status to exist inside of a larger realm of mock trial. 


MIKA ELLISON: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Mika Ellison. Thanks for listening to another episode of NU Declassified. This episode was reported and produced by me. The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Lucia Barnum, the digital managing editors are Will Clark and Katrina Pham and the editor in chief is Jacob Fulton. Make sure to subscribe to The Daily Northwestern’s podcasts on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or SoundCloud to hear more episodes like this.

Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @MikaEllison23


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