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  • Writer's pictureDanielle Waugh

Pretend lawyer turned real reporter

For seven years, I pretended to be a lawyer. I got my start at fifteen years old, studying the federal rules of evidence, learning how to object to a real judge, spending countless hours inside our local courthouse practicing my openings, closings, and cross examinations. I am sure in my ill-fitting pant suit I seemed awkward at first, but over the years, it was in those courtrooms I became truly confident in my own skin. And to this day, I credit my time on the mock trial team as the thing that made me a better public speaker, strong live reporter... and ultimately shaped so much of my personality.

If you haven't heard of mock trial, it's an addicting after-school activity for complete nerds like me. High school and college students are given a case file written by real attorneys. They file includes exhibits, depositions, indictments -- everything you need to put on a trial. The students portray the lawyers and the witnesses, and the jury is made up of attorneys and judges who pick the winning team/side of the case.

The Greensburg Salem High School Mock Trial team, 2007

It may sound boring -- but I can't tell you how much fun I had competing for Greensburg Salem High School and Syracuse University. My teammates became my best friends. We got to travel to tournaments across the country, and won a few trophies along the way! And while I did not end up going to law school (at least not yet!), mock trial was the one activity outside of traditional journalism training that taught me how to be a reporter.

Mock trial makes you think on your feet. When you're in front of a judge and you get an objection you weren't expecting, you have to respond on the spot and articulate a convincing argument. Sometimes witnesses say something unplanned, and you have to think of the right follow up question to ask. This is excellent training to be a live reporter. You are often thrown into evolving situations, and during a broadcast, you have to be in that moment and get off script. Practicing that skill in the courtroom helped me maintain my composure in highly stressful situations on the air -- a skill I had early on in my career.

Presenting an exhibit to the jury

It gives you the gift of gab. As the "closer" tasked with delivering the last speech in the trial, I had to summarize the evidence and give one last argument to win the case. Because each trial is different, you can't script out your closing argument and deliver a memorized, well rehearsed speech. You have five to ten minutes to fill -- and it better be good! The ability to speak extemporaneously is, in my opinion, a skill that takes a lot of practice to develop. If you can comfortably deliver a ten minute speech off the cuff, then filling a few minutes in a live broadcast feels like a piece of cake. At this point, my biggest problem is talking too much in my live shots and going too long! After years of mock trial, the live reporting aspect of the job was the easiest part when I got started -- and frankly, the most fun!

It helps you navigate the courts. For many new reporters, covering the courts can be intimidating simply because of all the legal jargon. Voir dire, objections, motions and appeals -- it can all be hard to follow and understand at first. Mock trial gives you an introduction into the legal process and gets you speaking the same language as lawyers. When you have that training, you can more easily sit in a trial and understand what's happening and why -- which makes the storytelling process much simpler. When you get the chance to interview a lawyer in a big case, you can come to the table with higher-level questions -- not wasting any time trying to understand the basics.

You learn the art of asking tough questions. In mock trial, your "jury" is usually made of practicing attorneys who are evaluating your delivery and content, giving each speech or examination a score of 1-10. To get a high score as an attorney -- especially on cross examination -- you need to ask tough questions, calling out the witness for any inconsistencies, confronting them with sometimes difficult facts. For some news interviews, you sometimes have to channel that same cross-examination style. In a confrontational interview, it helps if you can think ahead, anticipate what your witness/interview will say, and formulate a line of questioning.

It's a team sport. While every individual on the mock trial team has a role to play, your team score is a combination of everyone's efforts. You can be the best attorney in the trial, but if your teammates aren't prepared, you may still end up on the losing team. The ability to work together, support each other, and practice as teammates is a valuable skill in ANY profession. Newsrooms are big teams where everyone has their role to play and their time to shine...but we can't put on an entire newscast alone.

Some of my teammates at Syracuse University

You learn your power. It's a real challenge to dive into a court case as a teenager, make arguments in front of a real judge, and have to face the fear of public speaking in a competitive setting. Coming out on top and winning a case is an injection of confidence like no other, especially when you're in high school. One of the greatest highs I've ever experienced was winning fourth place at Nationals when I was a junior in high school. Your junior year is a big one: applying to college, second guessing your abilities and decisions, wondering how you stack up against students from across the country. While we did not win the big prize in that tournament, ranking that high was a big deal for a small public school like mine. I will never forget the feeling coming home from that trip, reflecting on our team's accomplishment -- telling myself I can do ANYTHING and be anyone as long as a I work hard. The way I carried myself in the courtroom is the way I try to carry myself in my work to this day. Mock trial taught me how to present myself professionally, and (hopefully) come across as an empowered and appropriately assertive woman.

Needless to say -- I highly recommend any aspiring broadcaster do something like mock trial or debate to help them build up their public speaking skills before they start their first job. It's hard to imagine who I'd be today without the things I learned and friends I made while pretending to be an attorney.

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