You won’t see the names Vivian Pham, Divya Desale and Nicole Kwan in the sports pages, but in three weeks these UC San Diego students will be flexing their intellectual muscle — and seeking a national title.
They — and seven other teammates — will be on a court worthy of March Madness.
Make that “in court.” UCSD is one of 48 teams competing in the American Mock Trial Association’s national championships hosted by Hamline University of St. Paul, Minnesota.
UCSD is two years away from NCAA Division I status, but the Tritons’ mock-trial team has been top-echelon for years, competing with the likes of five-time champ UCLA, defending titlist Virginia and other powerhouse schools.
Close to 400 colleges compete in this league of would-be legal eagles. At the most recent regional tournament, at the Santa Monica courthouse, Stanford had eight wins. UCSD tied with UCLA, UC Santa Barbara and UC Irvine with six each.
UCSD’s Pham, a 21-year-old Tustin senior majoring in literature, was named the tournament’s top attorney for her work on defense. (All teams prepare to represent plaintiffs and defendants in fictitious cases judged by real lawyers and judges.)
Pham, a co-captain along with Desale and Kwan, beat student lawyers from Stanford, UCLA, Oregon State and Washington, among others.
So how many UCSD team members are headed for law school?
“A majority of our students are leaning towards a career in law,” says Caitlin Macker, one of three UCSD coaches. “However, we have a very diverse group of students and have several teammates who are pursuing careers in computer science, medicine and business.”
UCSD has competed in mock trial for many years, with a best national finish of fourth in 2013.
“UCSD’s A team had the second-best record in the Robert Mueller Division, and were awarded fourth-place based on tie-breakers,” Macker said.
But like a UCLA basketball team that loses a John Wooden, this year’s team is in rebuilding mode.
“We bounced back from a significant amount of coach turnover,” Macker said. “In 2014, our head coach, David Lichtenstein, retired after spending several years coaching the team to high levels of competition…. His co-coach, Corey Wlodarczyk, took over the program. In July 2016, Corey unexpectedly passed away.”
Macker, then a law-school student, became head coach in 2017. By then, UCSD had largely abandoned its formal program due to coaching changes.
But helping UCSD get back in the game are two former UCSD Mock Trial entrants — coaches Keshav Nair and Kyle Park. The trio revived a training program for returning and new members.
Unlike the NCAA basketball tournament, where schools have money to burn on travel expenses, the UCSD team is passing the hat to finance its first trip to nationals in five years. (It’s April 20-22.)
“Despite never receiving funding from the university or any other source of financial support, we have been actively trying to attend every tournament to get as much practice as we can,” said the team’s Facebook page. “However, this tournament is just too expensive for our team and we would LOVE your support.”
A GoFundMe page shows the team having raised $5,623 of a $6,550 goal. The money would cover air fare, lodging and tournament expenses. (A bake sale defrayed Santa Monica expenses.)
At Santa Monica regionals in early March, the faux case tried was State of Midlands v. Dylan Hendricks — about an attempted murder involving a love triangle.
“Kerry Bell-Leon is married with a child, and alleges that her spouse’s lover, Dylan Hendricks, tried to kill her,” Macker said. “The students played a variety of witnesses, from eyewitnesses to experts and detectives as they advocated both sides of the case.”
The national title case is called U.S. v. Parker Barrow — with charges including conspiracy to commit bank robbery, bank robbery and armed bank robbery. (“We have a very creative approach to the case in store,” Macker said Friday.)
UCSD — the only San Diego school headed for nationals — has five veterans returning. Besides Pham, the others are Sunnyvale junior Desale (majoring in economics and international studies), Arcadia sophomore Kwan (political science), West Covina junior Justin Koo (political science) and Los Angeles sophomore Noor Takidin (political science).
Mock-trial newcomers headed to nationals are Fremont sophomore Simrin Makhijani (probability and statistics), Santa Barbara sophomore Jenny Rothman (cognitive neuroscience), Irvine freshman Jonathan Kim (political science), Bakersfield sophomore Gabby Lipco (political science) and Arcadia freshman Brianna Fluhrer (English/socioeconomics).
Also traveling with the team are Maiko Bracken of Santa Clarita, Darshan Patel of Yorba Linda and Rohan Garg of Arcadia — prior team captains and part of the program’s executive board.
Times of San Diego conducted an email interview with the coaches, who were asked to introduce themselves.
Caitlin Macker: I wanted to be a trial attorney after I participated in a “mock trial” in fifth grade. I went on to compete on the Santa Barbara High School mock trial team and fell in love with mock trial as a competitive activity. I then competed on Boston University’s mock trial team and was fortunate enough to compete at the national championship.
I also competed on University of San Diego’s law school trial team in competitions all over California. Now I am a civil litigator and work at a boutique firm in Carmel Valley, Caldarelli Hejmanowski Page & Leer. I am still waiting for my first big trial as a new attorney but coaching the trial team gives me an outlet until then.
My most special memories of mock trial are those I’ve gained from returning as a coach. I love when I get to see a student give a powerful objection argument or explain a difficult legal argument. It is a humbling experience working alongside brilliant students and I enjoy watching them embark on their journeys to become lawyers in San Diego.
Keshav Nair: I started mock trial as a sophomore in high school, and knew after my first scrimmage trial that I wanted to try cases for a living. I competed for three years as a pretrial attorney at Agoura High school before coming to UCSD.
In La Jolla, I found a group of driven competitors and coaches, and our efforts culminated in two appearances at the National Championship Tournament, including the program’s first appearance in 2012 and a fourth-place finish in 2013.
I went on to compete on the mock trial teams at Baylor Law School in Waco, Texas, and had the good fortune to compete at multiple national tournaments with the Bears. I also helped coach Baylor’s undergraduate mock trial team, who garnered two national championship appearances, a top-five finish, and four All-American awards. I am now waiting on bar results and looking to start my legal career in San Diego.
Kyle Park: I began my mock trial career as a junior in high school, competing for two years at Punahou School in Honolulu, Hawaii, before joining the mock trial program at UCSD. Throughout my undergraduate career, I have served as a team captain, tournament director, closing attorney for the defense and expert witness on the prosecution.
Some of my fondest mock trial memories were traveling throughout the Southwest United States for regional tournaments, competing alongside passionate and talented student advocates, winning both individual and team awards, and captaining our A Team to win first place at the 2017 Claremont McKenna Empire Invitational Tournament.
This marks my first year as an alumni coach, and I am elated to continue coaching our program onto the national championship tournament in Minneapolis. It has been a true blessing and honor to give back to the program that has provided me with lifelong friends, priceless memories and triumphant experiences.
I am currently taking a gap year to pursue a career in music before applying to law schools in the future. I play the banjo for a San Diego based band called Zanti, Fossils & Flowers.
Times of San Diego: Which UCSD students are mainly attorneys, and which are mainly witnesses? Or does everyone switch?
Macker: Jenny, Jonathan, Gabby and Brianna play a variety of witness roles on both sides of the case, ranging from scientific experts and detectives to sympathetic victims and humorous characters. Divya, Vivian, Nicole, Noor, Simrin and Justin serve as attorneys. Many of the students have switched and performed other roles over the course of the season.
Your power rankings have been higher in the past — 15th in 2014, I note. But you seem to have overcome 214/235 this year. What accounts for your jumping into top 48?
It was a culmination of returning team member talent and prior bad competitive circumstances.
We had a few students return as sophomores, juniors and seniors who had strong oral advocacy skills and great courtroom intuition. This year, the team also made the tryout process more rigorous and required its applicants to write their own opening statements for the tryout.
In the past, the team had provided opening statements for applicants to simply read from, memorize and perform. The writing requirement helped us evaluate important traits for new members such as creativity, wit and persuasive writing skills.
In real life, lawyers research judges and their cases. Do you know the judges at nationals? Will you study their cases or habits?
Unfortunately, we will not know the identity of our judges until the start of each round. We do our best to research regional preferences and nuances of the judging pool in Minneapolis. Generally, the judges include local attorneys, former undergraduate competitors, and actual judges.
Mock trial teams are allowed to scout rivals, as in sports. Do you study potential opponents? Does it help?
On the West Coast, the majority of trial teams do not practice scouting at Regionals and at Opening Round Championships. Although it is not against the rules, West Coast schools share a special camaraderie.
At the national championship, however, East Coast and West Coast teams compete against each other and the stakes are much higher. Therefore, it is more common for teams to scout rivals at nationals. The UCSD students prefer to focus on fine-tuning our own performance rather than copying or studying the other teams.
If UCSD basketball went to a national tournament, the news would be all over campus. How well-known are your team’s exploits? Are team members experiencing any sense of celebrity?
We’re hoping this news article might give us a few new fans! Surprisingly, there are not any fantasy mock trial leagues but maybe our performance this year will help us gain a fanbase.
Tell about a special moment during a recent trial — any clever or ingenious move by one of your attorneys? Are you better on prosecution or defense?
The ability of every team member to adapt to each round stood out as the team went through ORCS with a record of 6 wins and 2 losses. Each one of the witnesses reacted skillfully to other schools’ cross examinations.
Two examples of excellent mock trial came in the team’s third ORCS round against Pomona College. In Vivian Pham’s defense opening statement, Vivian adapted her story to counter the prosecution’s points from the very beginning of trial and posed questions that the prosecution was unable to answer in trial.
Then, in Noor Takidin’s closing argument, Noor incorporated physical building blocks and used them to pinpoint the deficiencies in the prosecution’s case and visually demonstrate to the jury how a case with a flawed foundation will come crumbling down.
The team’s performance stood out because the students responded to the specific occurrences that happened in that trial and as a result, won that round. Additionally, Vivian Pham was selected not only as an All-National Attorney, but also as the top-ranking attorney at the Santa Monica ORCS.
What are your students like as witnesses? Is acting experience helpful?
Our students play a wide range of witnesses and are able to incorporate their own style into the witnesses they play. Some may choose to play a gruff and curt homicide detective, a colorful Uber driver or a distinguished professor of pharmacokinetics (the science of how drugs move throughout the body).
Are your students also on debate or speech teams? How did this experience help?
Many students used to participate in speech and debate in high school prior to coming to college. There are certainly many skills that are transferable, such as public speaking, argumentation and performance. Mock trial requires a clear knowledge of the facts of the case and the rules of evidence, which are elements that are not encompassed in debate or speech.
Have any past UCSD mock trial team members gone on to legal careers?
Program alumni have branched out into a variety of fields. Multiple program alumni have competed at the top law school mock trial and moot court tournaments, while other alumni have found success in fields such as education, technology and business. Some former competitors have become members of the San Diego legal community, and we expect more students to join in the coming years.
How is your team preparing for Minnesota nationals? Studying any tape of themselves or other teams? How far in advance do you get case materials?
Right now (mid-March), seeing as it is finals season, our students are mostly focusing on schoolwork for the time being. The nationals case will not be released until the end of March, so we are waiting on that before resuming practices. Our current priority is to ensure we have the finances to even reach Minnesota at all!
Although teams are assigned numbers so judges don’t know what school they represent, will your team know their opponents going into nationals?
The team will find out the which school they’re playing against, and which side of the case they’ll be trying, about an hour before each round begins. As such, there is a constant element of surprise to each round!
Defending champion Virginia is back. What are chances you’ll meet them in the tournament?
Based on the division draw, which splits the 48 teams into two pools of 24 teams, we may very well meet Virginia at this tournament! The first round is drawn randomly — rounds 2-4 are drawn based upon team performance, with the goal of pitting the very best against the very best. Nationals is normally full of powerhouses, ranging from five-time champion UCLA to recent national champions Harvard and Yale. Every round is a battle!
In college sports, professors cut star athletes slack as far as assignment deadlines or taking tests. Are members of your team getting consideration from professors because of travel and training logistics?
As UCSD students have not began their spring quarter, during which the tournament will take place, they haven’t been able to reach out to their professors yet. Historically, professors have given students some leeway when it comes to competitions, and we hope they will give them the latitude in this case, as they are representing the university at a national level!
Your team is mostly female. Is that typical for mock trial nationwide or for UCSD? Why do women outnumber men on your team?
It varies by school. Some teams may be male-dominated, some may be female-dominated, or others may be more balanced. I believe that the number of women on our team is solely the result of the tryout pool.
There happened to be many talented women who tried out and made the cut. Throughout the years, the ratio of men and women on our team has fluctuated based on who decided to try out and how many of them were talented enough to make it in!
Anything else about your team or coaches readers should know?
We want to first thank Times of San Diego for helping spread the word of our success. We also want to emphasize that what we achieved was completely a team effort: It was the hard work of the students and coaches, both putting in 110 percent, that enabled us to go as far as we did this season.
We’ve had a successful season, earning six different top-10 tournament finishes. This appearance at nationals is the culmination of hard work by all 26 program members throughout the year. We hope to see our hard work continue to translate to success on the road to Minnesota.