UMKC Law Places Third in Top Gun National Mock Trial Competition Blog

Alison Stephens and Blake Smith after the Top Gun Mock Trial Competition

After continually advancing in competitions, including three national trial competitions this past spring, UMKC School of Law was invited to participate in one of the most significant tournaments in the nation. The Baylor Law School Top Gun National Mock Trial Competition is an invitation-only mock trial tournament where the best advocates from the top 16 trial advocacy schools compete for the honor of Top Gun. Blake D. Smith (J.D. ’17), with the assistance of Alison Stephens (J.D. ’17), placed third as a semifinalist.

James M. Morse, with co-counsel Casey Peaden, from Campbell University, Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law were the champions of Top Gun. Christopher Ray Clark, with co-counsel Nicholas Dellefave, from Syracuse University College of Law placed second.

Universities receive the Top Gun National Mock Trial Competition invitation based on their performances over the past three years and the achievements made in the current year. Unlike other competitions, the advocates do not receive the case file until a mere 24 hours before the first round of trials begin. Witnesses are provided and the competitors only have a short period of time to prepare them for the round. The winner earns a $10,000 prize.

“It was extremely humbling to be a part of such an elite group of advocates,” Stephens said of Top Gun.

In the past three years, UMKC’s mock trial teams have excelled in multiple tournaments. In Spring 2017 alone, UMKC Law mock trial teams advanced in the American Association of Justice Student Trial Competition, the prestigious National Trial Competition and the National Criminal Justice Trial Competition. In Top Gun, Smith served as the speaking advocate and Stephens served as the co-counsel. Previously, Smith was on the team that advanced in the National Trial Competition and Stephens was on the team that advanced in the American Association for Justice Student Trial Advocacy Competition. The two had never worked together.

The tournament began with a visit to the movie theater, the ownership of which was subject of the dispute, and watching a video explaining the fact pattern for the current litigation, followed by a file drop as heavy as 400 pages of depositions and exhibits.

“The case file was simply too large to consume it by yourself in that limited timeframe,” Smith said. “I had to fully rely on Professor Foreman and Alison (Stephens) to prepare the case, and they both delivered.”

In the problem, a dying man gave his ex-girlfriend an inter vivos gift that was worth up to 51% of $2.5 million, excluding his sister and current business partner. After studying the case, the team decided to prepare a “lack of mental capacity” and “undue influence” claim; they considered these two issues stronger than the possible forgery of a note and anticipated the team from Cumberland School of Law to bring up the same claim. However, in their first round, caught unprepared, the UMKC team found out Cumberland filed a forgery claim. Smith and Stephens immediately began re-reading the documents and forming arguments and questions on-the-fly. Smith had nothing prepared for the forgery and relied on his memory, Stephens and his instincts.

“It was intense, stressful, but through teamwork we pulled it off and swept Cumberland, winning all three ballots,” Stephens said.

The experience was memorable and was a landmark for the two 2017 graduates. Stephens marked Top Gun as “the highlight” of her law school career.

 “It was challenging and insightful,” she said. “To be honest, basically insane, but also rewarding.”

Smith added, “It was an honor to have the opportunity to represent UMKC at this competition.”

Stephens and Smith gave due credit to their team work.

“Blake was pressured to think on his feet and present a comprehensive and persuasive case in less than 24 hours,” Stephen said, “which is incredibly difficult and a feat not many can accomplish.”

Meanwhile, as the co-counsel, Stephens prepared the IT, research and more. In this case, that included key facts in the record, direct examinations, deposition designation and counter designation, and also exhibits that are prepared electronically. By divvying up the duties, Smith could focus on performing to the best of his ability, while Stephens provided the background work. It paid off, in the end, when UMKC was announced as one of the semifinalists.

“Alison’s work on the technology side made the presentation of our case clean, interesting, and persuasive,” Smith said.

The members gave credit to their coaches, Douglas R. Stripp Professor Rafe Foreman and Professor Michaelle Tobin, who developed the advocacy program that ranked  #21 in the nation according to U.S. News and World Report. The program provides practical learning experiences that better prepares students for life as an trial lawyers. Finally, being invited to the Top Gun National Mock Trial Competition is also exemplary of how much the program has thrived at UMKC School of Law.

 “The quality of our mock trial program makes UMKC unique,” said Smith. “In less than a year Professor Foreman can teach someone the techniques and instincts to compete at the highest level.”

To see the full list of competitors in the Top Gun National Mock Trial Competition, visit Baylor Law School’s website here.

Published: Jun 22, 2017