Finding Their Voice title

Finding Their Voice

Driven leadership, dedicated alumni coaches, and talented students fuel major momentum for Berkeley Law’s Trial Team.
By Andrew Cohen
ALL RISE: Advocacy Competitions Program Director Natalie Winters ’18 and Trial Team Coach Spencer Pahlke ’07 have been pivotal in helping Berkeley Law become a leading school on the national stage. Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small
Finding Their Voice title

Finding Their Voice

Driven leadership, dedicated alumni coaches, and talented students fuel major momentum for Berkeley Law’s Trial Team.
By Andrew Cohen
ALL RISE: Advocacy Competitions Program Director Natalie Winters ’18 and Trial Team Coach Spencer Pahlke ’07 have been pivotal in helping Berkeley Law become a leading school on the national stage. Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small
Natalie Winters and Spencer Pahlke in a courtroom
ALL RISE: Advocacy Competitions Program Director Natalie Winters ’18 and Trial Team Coach Spencer Pahlke ’07 have been pivotal in helping Berkeley Law become a leading school on the national stage. Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small
Finding Their Voice title

Finding Their Voice

Driven leadership, dedicated alumni coaches, and talented students fuel major momentum for Berkeley Law’s Trial Team.
By Andrew Cohen

pencer Pahlke ’07 vividly remembers his exuberance colliding head-on with reality.

“Back in law school I was very interested in mock trial, but there were limited opportunities,” he says. “We had maybe 10 students on teams, one or two coaches. We went to a couple competitions, and there were no internal competitions. Our program wasn’t designed to be a player on the national stage.”

The semester after Pahlke graduated, two Berkeley Law students participating in a local tournament asked if he could help out — both prior coaches had left the program.

“I said yes, we had a ton of fun, and we won the competition,” Pahlke recalls. “That made me realize that even though I’d just graduated, I could play a role in building this. I’m so glad they asked me to coach. It really changed the course of my life.”

And the trajectory of the Trial Team — one of three branches in Berkeley Law’s red-hot Advocacy Competitions Program, which also gives students abundant opportunities to practice lawyering skills in appellate/moot court and alternative dispute resolution/negotiations. They compete against other law school teams at a slew of regional, national, and international events, and internally against other Berkeley Law students.

Despite his hectic schedule as a young associate at Walkup, Melodia, Kelly & Schoenberger in San Francisco, Pahlke poured himself into building the Trial Team and is now its head coach. The program is barely recognizable from his student days with 30 students, who take part in 8 to 10 external and two internal competitions a year, guided by roughly 20 coaches.

Jenna Forster competing at the prestigious Top Gun National Mock Trial Competition
STATING HER CASE: Jenna Forster ’22 makes a point at the prestigious Top Gun National Mock Trial Competition. Photo by Nick Texeira
Berkeley Law is a fixture at the annual Top Gun National Mock Trial Competition, which invites each of the nation’s 16 best trial advocacy schools to select a student to represent it. Jenna Forster ’22 placed second at last year’s event, and Collin Tierney ’14 won it in 2013. Unlike other competitions, participants don’t receive the case file until they arrive — just 24 hours before the first round begins.

The school has also excelled at the prestigious National Trial Competition and Tournament of Champions. Earlier this year, both student teams at the NTC regionals (coached by Aaron Laycook ’10, Derin Kiykioglu ’17, Brandon Hughes ’19, and Amanda Sadra ’20) went undefeated.

Meanwhile, Berkeley Law’s success extends throughout its Advocacy Competitions Program. Just in 2022, it has won two major negotiation competitions (see Negotiation Sensations) — including a 50-team international tournament among top law and business schools worldwide — and dominated the Roger J. Traynor California Appellate Advocacy Moot Court Competition (see First Time’s the Charm).

“Many programs will have a few years of success here and there as talented students come and go,” says Trial Team volunteer coach Dustin Vandenberg ’18, now a deputy district attorney in Santa Clara County. “But it takes an immense amount of work to build the kind of powerhouse program that we have.”

Alumni energy

Like Pahlke, Natalie Winters ’18 relished trial competitions as a Berkeley Law student and saw them pay instant dividends as a public defender in Colorado. In January 2021, she returned to the school as director of the Advocacy Competitions Program.

Winters now oversees all external competition teams as well as six internal competitions that give students — judged and trained by fellow students, practitioners, and judges — valuable training to compete and ultimately practice law after graduation.

Striving to demystify the tryout process, she also partners with the school’s equity and inclusion leaders to expand outreach to students traditionally underrepresented in advocacy competitions and cultivate a supportive environment for all participants (see Creating a Supportive Space).

“These competitions offer students who may never have envisioned themselves standing in a courtroom or seated at a negotiating table a chance to discover and develop their potential,” Winters says.

Alumni involvement has fueled the program’s ascent, with an ever-expanding coaching roster providing pragmatic advice and a collegial culture that Vandenberg describes as “competitive kindness.” That has helped forge a robust pipeline of alumni who competed as students and now want to give back and stay connected, which he says “creates the kind of success we’ve been seeing.”

While Berkeley Law cracked the top 10 in trial advocacy for the first time in this year’s U.S. News & World Report speciality rankings, Pahlke takes most pride in knowing that students can network with hundreds of advocacy competition alums across the country who help them land dream jobs and advance their careers.

“My philosophy is that we do better when everyone feels ownership in the program, from new team members to longtime coaches,” Pahlke says. “When we each own the program, we tend to it and desperately want to make it better every year. And we have a lot of fun doing that.”

Alumni assist the Trial Competitions class, coach in competitions, judge team scrimmages, and participate in panel discussions. The approach seems to resonate strongly with students, both in their performance and their gratitude.

“It’s impossible to overemphasize the benefit of learning from so many astounding advocates,” says recent Trial Team standout Cheyenne Smith ’22. “We also have alumni working in nearly every legal field imaginable … and connect students with attorneys in their intended field for advice and mentorship.”

Immediate dividends

Vandenberg, who advanced to the NTC nationals three times as a student, recalls being taught far more than just how to conduct a direct examination or give a closing argument.

“It’s about learning how to weave persuasion into every aspect of your trial,” he says. “It’s a skill set that’s almost impossible to pick up without the kind of one-on-one feedback and training that you get through our program.”

Now as a prosecutor, Vandenberg leans on trial techniques he honed during mock trial tournaments, including demonstrative exhibits that clarify complex testimony. At a recent jury trial, he marked up a detailed map during a cross-examination, showing how the evidence did not corroborate the defendant’s account of what transpired.

“My training at Berkeley Law is what helped turn a tedious cross-examination about side streets and stop signs into a compelling argument,” Vandenberg says.

Creating a Supportive Space

The Advocacy Competitions Program at Berkeley Law is taking several concrete steps aimed at cultivating a fully inclusive and anti-racist environment for students, coaches, and judges, including:

  • Started mandatory implicit bias training for all student leaders
  • Launched an annual workshop led by the school’s Coalition for Diversity and Board of Advocates to demystify the tryout process
  • Revised internal competition scoring rubrics to minimize opportunities for bias
  • Began providing implicit bias instruction to all judges before internal competitions
  • Facilitated a First Generation Professionals-Board of Advocates Q&A event during tryout season
  • Developing training to educate coaches on how to create and support an inclusive learning environment through the competition experience
  • Creating post-competition surveys to be more proactive in soliciting student feedback
  • Inviting a diverse panel of trial advocacy alumni to address identity in the courtroom and legal practice and to share their experiences
  • Giving students frameworks through which to analyze how their work affects power, belonging, and justice, and often affirms dominant culture
  • Providing students with readings that expand on their in-class discussions about power, belonging, and justice
Olivia Sideman ’17 similarly parlayed her student advocacy experience at the internal Bales Trial Competition into an early professional advantage. “That was the most formative experience of my 1L year and gave me hard skills directly applicable to my chosen career,” she says.

Just two months into her job at the Alameda County Public Defender’s Office, Sideman had her first trial.

“I felt confident going into it that I knew how to deliver an opening, cross-examine the witnesses, and close with confidence and passion,” she says. “I knew how to develop a theme and theory of the case, how to loop when asking questions, and how to use visuals to help guide the jury. This allowed me to focus on the substance of the trial rather than the performance. The jury was very surprised to hear that it was my first trial and, most importantly, I succeeded in getting a not guilty verdict for my happy client.”

Roxana Guidero posing with a plaque she was awarded
FLASHBACK: Roxana Guidero ’16, one of Berkeley Law’s many volunteer Trial Team coaches, was named best advocate at the National Board of Trial Advocacy’s 2014 Tournament of Champions.

Coaching commitment

Roxana Guidero ’16, who co-coached Berkeley Law’s 2022 Tournament of Champions national runner-up team with Jerome Price ’11, was a star member of the school’s victorious team at the same event in 2014.

“We often do trainings on how to be a trial lawyer at my firm, and time after time the skills taught are skills I already learned on the trial team,” says Guidero, now counsel at O’Melveny & Myers in Los Angeles.

“If you know how to ask a good cross-examination question, you’ll be able to transfer that skill from the mock trial world to the real world,” she adds. “If you understand the importance of simplifying your narrative for a jury in a mock trial case, you’ll understand it’s even more important in a more complicated matter where jurors are not other lawyers, but people who may have never been exposed to the legal system before.”

Berkeley Law’s coaches provide vital been-there-done-that insights, but also give students autonomy to develop their arguments, refine their advocacy styles, and even help run the program. As Trial Team student co-directors the previous two years, Smith and Forster oversaw tryouts, assigned teams for competitions, coordinated daily logistics, and were teaching assistants in Pahlke’s Trial Competitions class.

“It’s a lot of work, but I think having students involved in leading the trial program is one of its great strengths,” Forster says. “Because we’re actively competing while doing that, we know what it takes to prepare teams for competition, and we can make sure that all our teams are set up for success.”

The class features mini “flash trials,” where students try a case after only 30 minutes of prep time and get ample opportunities to argue in front of the class. That adrenaline-fueled ride reinforces the need for agile thinking and not being wedded to a single strategy.

Berkeley Law hosted the inaugural National Flash Trial Competition Sept. 8-11 in San Francisco (soon after Transcript went to press), with eight top trial advocacy schools each bringing two students. Pahlke thought of teaching flash trials from a colleague who got “elevator cases” at the district attorney’s office — his supervisor would give him a file to review while in the elevator heading to the courtroom.

“Flash trials are a longtime tradition at Berkeley Law,” Pahlke says. “Many district attorney and public defender offices also use similar drills as part of their interview process, and our students have benefited greatly from them. They’re anxious about it on the front end, but always say it’s their favorite part of class when they’re done.”

Nazeerah Ali
LEARNING CURVE: Bales Trial Competition winner Nazeerah Ali ’23 says mock trials have provided valuable preparation for both her classes and summer legal work. Photo by Kimberly Valladeras

Inside and out

Berkeley’s Law’s six internal competitions stoke student confidence and external competition success.

Nazeerah Ali ’23 competed in undergraduate mock trial tournaments at Howard University, but she was unsure about continuing in law school until participating in the Bales Trial Competition — where she was named best advocate.

“Competing alongside my classmates and friends made me realize how much I missed and enjoyed mock trial,” she says. “So I joined the Trial Team during my second semester of 1L year and I’ve been incredibly pleased with my experience so far.”

Ali channeled her Bales success into a spot on the national Tournament of Champions runner-up team. She also joined an NTC team that went undefeated at regionals — one of two Berkeley Law teams to achieve that impressive feat.

“The best part has been gaining tangible and transferable skills,” says Ali, who used them over the summer at East Bay Children’s Law Offices, helping staff attorneys represent Oakland youth in dependency court. “Mock trial prepares me for my law school classes and my future career as a litigator. I feel much more confident in courses like Evidence, Trial Advocacy, and Civil/Criminal Procedure.”

Intra-team scrimmages, extensive writing and editing feedback, and vigilant case theory review are all part of the Trial Team’s preparation. Members say their victories are driven by their coaches’ savvy insights and dedication to student development.

In particular, they say they rely heavily on the coaches’ feedback throughout the process. One aspect they point to in making the Trial Team formidable is adjusting a case to the evidence opponents are emphasizing — being able to present a slightly different angle each round to ensure the team is being responsive, as opposed to putting on a rigid case.

Forster — named both best prosecution and best defense advocate during this year’s NTC regionals — calls the coaches’ commitment “a big reason why being a member of the Trial Team was my favorite part of law school, hands down.”

Fifteen years after stepping in to fill a coaching void, Pahlke shows no signs of letting up. His relentless efforts continue to increase the number of Berkeley Law’s student participants, coaches, competitions, and triumphs, and he launched the podcast “Unscripted Direct” last year with Justin Bernstein, his counterpart at UCLA Law.

Pahlke hopes the podcast will help strengthen the national trial advocacy community and bring it closer together — much like his track record at Berkeley Law. In keeping with that culture, he and his fellow Trial Team coaches relish how the education process travels both ways.

“I’ve already implemented tips from the students in my career,” Guidero says. “I love coaching in this program because I learn as much as I teach.”

In House

Berkeley Law offers six internal competitions each year, giving students prime opportunities to compete in three broad areas: appellate advocacy/moot court, transactional negotiations, and trial advocacy. They are judged and trained by fellow students, practitioners, and judges, gaining vital experience for the external competition teams and their eventual careers.

Appellate Advocacy/Moot Court

McBaine Honors Moot Court Competition

  • Students prepare an appellate brief and deliver at least two oral arguments in a competition modeled after U.S. Supreme Court practice
  • Open to all J.D. 2Ls and 3Ls, as well as LL.M. students
  • Judges, Berkeley Law faculty, and practitioners evaluate briefs and oral arguments
  • Final-round judges have included Supreme Court Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor

Transactional Negotiations

Halloum Negotiation Competition

  • Develops real-world negotiation and business transaction skills
  • Open only to first-year students
  • Enables students to experience being corporate lawyers — making business deals and working cooperatively with people alongside and across the negotiation table
  • Teams of two students represent a side in a complex business deal

Halloum Business Competition

  • Joint venture between Berkeley Law and UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business
  • Open to all J.D. 2Ls and 3Ls, as well as LL.M. students
  • Students compete by negotiating various elements of a complex transaction in a limited timeframe
  • Judges include practicing lawyers, business professionals, and professors who rank teams based on their preparation, teamwork, and outcome

Pircher, Nichols & Meeks Joint Venture Challenge

  • Students from Berkeley Law, Haas, and the College of Environmental Design negotiate a simulated real estate deal prepared by the law firm Pircher, Nichols & Meeks
  • No prior experience in joint venture structuring, real estate finance, or similar activities is necessary
  • Teams receive a real estate deal fact pattern and a list of key legal and business issues
  • Students attend a presentation on real estate joint ventures and a coaching session with a lawyer, and negotiate the issues before judges with joint venture experience

Trial Advocacy

Bales Trial Competition

  • Teams of two students each, divided between prosecutors and defense attorneys, try a fictional criminal law case
  • Open to all J.D. 1Ls except those on the Board of Advocates Trial Team
  • Students receive training on effective direct examination, cross examination, and opening and closing statements
  • Board of Advocates Trial Team members coach the teams and judge the preliminary rounds with local practitioners; experienced trial attorneys judge the final round

Pahlke Internal Trial Competition

  • Exclusively for Trial Team members, who compete against each other for additional practice and experience
  • Founded and sponsored by Spencer Pahlke ’07, head coach of the External Trial Competition Program
  • Students review legal documents, witness statements, and physical evidence
  • In competition they argue motions, deliver opening statements, conduct direct and cross examinations, and make closing arguments
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, flanked by California Supreme Court Justice Carol Corrigan and U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge William Fletcher, asks a question to Edward Piper ’12 at the 2011 McBaine Honors Moot Court Competition
SUPREME EXPERIENCE: U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, flanked by California Supreme Court Justice Carol Corrigan and U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge William Fletcher, asks a question to Edward Piper ’12 at the 2011 McBaine Honors Moot Court Competition. Photo by Fred Mertz