Justin Koo of UCSD as defense attorney at national championships at Hamline University.
Justin Koo of UCSD as defense attorney at national championships at Hamline University. Photo via Caitlin Macker

If UC San Diego’s Justin Koo becomes the next F. Lee Bailey or Johnnie Cochran, he might pinpoint April 2018 as his breakout moment.

Koo and fellow undergraduate team members returned last month from St. Paul, Minnesota, where UCSD’s pretend-legal team fell just short of elite status at the American Mock Trial Association’s national championships.

Snow was on the ground April 20-22 for the AMTA's national championships in Minnesota.
Snow was on the ground April 20-22 for UCSD at the mock-trial national championships in Minnesota. Photo via Caitlin Macker

But while the Tritons finished midpack in the 48-school field, Thurgood Marshall College junior Koo rose to the top legal-eagle level after his performance as a defense attorney.

“Justin was the highest-ranked All-American attorney with 27 ranks,” said one of his coaches, Caitlin Macker. “He was tied as the top attorney in the country and first place in our [division].”

Teamwise, UCSD won five ballots and lost seven. It beat eventual top-10 finisher Northwestern University. (Miami on defense beat Yale on prosecution for the national title.)

“Three of the ballots we lost in the final round against Georgia Tech, allowing them to take a seventh-place overall in the tournament,” Macker said. “The top 10 team awards began at six ballots, so had we won just one more ballot, we could have been in the running for a top 10 finish.”

As a result, UCSD’s moot-trial ranking jumped 123 spots from 214 to 91 next year, she said.

Koo, a political science major, was the first UCSD student chosen an All-American attorney in five years. (Ayelet Bitton won the honor in 2012 and Keshav S. Nair in 2013.)

“Many programs that qualify for nationals leave without any All-American attorneys, so the whole program is proud of Justin’s award,” Mackler said.

After the awards ceremony, she said, members of other teams come up to UCSD and asked about Koo.

“We all share pride in his award and the major role he played in putting UCSD back on the undergraduate mock trial map,” she said.

Koo, returning in 2018-19, has hopes for a national team title.

“After our showing this year, during which we managed to take a team composed of half first-year mock trial competitors to nationals, I have no doubt that we have a shot at winning nationals next year,” Koo said.

It would require hard work on everyone’s part, he said. But his only expectation is riding the momentum next year and for years to come.

West Covina native Koo was interviewed via email.

TIMES OF SAN DIEGO: What set you apart in your arguments? What aspects of your case or performance impressed the judges?

JUSTIN KOO: There were a lot of strong programs with exceptional competitors, so I don’t think my arguments were all that different from some that I saw during the course of competition (especially since we all work on the same case).

However, I try to, as my coaches have taught us to do all year, respond actively to the trial and refer to specific instances that happened in trial. A point that may have initially seemed mundane that came out during cross examination, explained in the right light during closing argument can be extremely powerful.

As for what I think impressed the judges — based on what was told to me — is that the performance I gave was believable and passionate. There could be no better compliment than that, as I wanted to perform during that competition as if the trial, all parties, and the stakes were real.

How did you get the news of your honor? What was your immediate reaction? How did your team and classmates celebrate your award?

I got news during closing ceremonies, wherein representatives from the American Mock Trial Association call up the best performing witnesses and attorneys based on their ranks (maximum of 30).

As they announced from lowest to highest ranks, by the time they got to the highest ranked attorney, I had absolutely no expectation I would be called, so my immediate reaction would be disbelief. As it was the end to a long day of competition, and everyone was pretty exhausted, we celebrated by grabbing dinner at a local restaurant near our hotel.

Have you picked out a law school you’d like to attend? Applying for any scholarships? How will your moot trial award help in landing a school or grant?

As I’m only a third year, I still need to take the LSAT, which will dictate the pool of law schools I have to choose from. As of now, I frankly can’t say I’ve narrowed down the list. When it comes time, I hope to apply for scholarships related to trial advocacy, and hopefully this mock trial award assists me in both my applications or scholarships.

What subjects most interest you?

The most interesting would be political science classes, particularly the 104 series focusing on constitutional law taught by Professor Glenn Smith. Out of the classes he’s taught, my favorite would have to be 104I, which looked at controversial issues such as freedom of speech and executive power.

What kind of law would you like to practice?

As of now, I honestly have no clear idea. Some elements of criminal defense have interested me, as have some areas of constitutional law, as well as the allure of corporate law. Although I initially wanted to focus on criminal law, my exposure to the field have simultaneously expanded my horizons and blurred my focus.

Any interest in running for elective office someday?

As of now, I don’t have any plans to run for elected office.

Anything else readers should know about you, your team or the Minnesota trip?

I’d like to give some well-deserved appreciation to people who have helped me get this far. From when I started competing three years ago, the immense amount of support I received from my coaches and teammates helped shape me as a competitor and advocate.

I owe much of my success to our coaches: Caitlin Macker, Devon Franza, Kyle Park, Keshav Nair, Melange Gavin, and our coach who passed, Corey Wlodarczyk.

Some other people I’d like to thank are: My parents and the rest of my family; my co-counsel during nationals and longtime friends, Nicole Kwan and Vivian Pham; my co-president during our 2017-2018 term, Maiko Bracken; my friend and fellow teammate Rohan Garg; my fellow teammate as well as reliable and hilarious witness I’ve directed most of this year, Gabby Lipco; and Rebecca Nguyen for all her constant support.

UCSD coaches Divya Desale, Nicole Kwan Keshav Nair and Macker worked on the following answers:

TIMES OF SAN DIEGO: Who did Justin tie with for All-American Attorney?

COACHES: Technically, it was not a tie. There are two divisions at the national championship. Each ballot contains a ranking section where the judges rank the attorneys in the round. A competitor gets certain points based on how the judge ranks him or her in the round.

For instance, if a judge ranks Student A first and Student B second, Student A will receive more ranks than Student B. In our division, Justin was the highest ranked all American Attorney with 27 ranks. In the other division, there was only one other student who received 27 ranks. Justin was on our defense team and delivered the closing argument.

UCSD seems to have done better on defense than prosecution. Why?

It is difficult to reconcile the differences in scores because our prosecution panel performed excellent in every round. We noticed no notable differences in our prosecution competitors versus our defense competitors.

However, some of the factors that could have contributed to our scores are the facts in the case packet [United State v. Parker Barrow, a fictional bank robbery] and the opponent we faced in those rounds. The case packet included facts that were very favorable for prosecution teams and it forced schools to come up with very creative case theories for defense.

Creativity is often rewarded by judges because it demonstrates a team’s ability to “spin” bad facts. Additionally, our prosecution panel faced very skilled opponents. For instance, in the fourth round, they hit Georgia Tech, the team that finished seventh in the nation.

When you go against the stronger opponents, ballots and scores become more of a free-for-all because we can never know what the judges prefer stylistically until after the round.

You faced Alabama, Cornell and Northwestern before Georgia Tech. Where you happy with the draws? What days did you compete against these teams?

We faced Alabama on Friday, Cornell and Northwestern on Saturday, and Georgia Tech on Sunday. Overall, we were very happy with our pairings. A majority of the teams were very civil, fair and made the trials enjoyable. Mock Trial can be a combative activity, much like litigation, so we were very fortunate to compete against polite advocates.

How much money did you raise overall for the trip?

For the national tournament, we raised $8,400. This is going towards our travel and boarding for the trip. Although unlikely, any leftover funds will pay for our smaller expenses, such as the materials we used to present the case or Uber and Lyft charges between tournament locations.

Who judged your contests?

The judges were a mix of practicing attorneys, law clerks, and mock trial coaches. We were not judged by the same individuals who judged the final round.

Did your team watch the final, learn anything from it? Did your team agree with the final judging result?

Yes, we watched! While watching the first round, we were most impressed by the witnesses. The witnesses endured tough cross examinations and skillfully maintained their character throughout trial.

As for attorneys, we learned how important it is to be reactive to the trial taking place. The attorneys did a great job responding to the judge’s rulings, the character witnesses, and the evidence presented at trial. Both teams did an excellent job attacking the opposing side’s case theory.

We also agreed with the results. ur team members took a vote prior to learning the result and the majority of us believed that Miami won. While both teams were extremely talented, Miami had the slight edge with their attorneys.

How many from this year’s team will return for 2018-19 season?

The program is very young right now; only three students are graduating, and approximately 20 students will return to compete next year. Most of the returners are currently underclassmen. The depth of talent in the program, combined with the experience the team gained this season, leaves us excited to start the new season and make another run at a national championship!

Any special memories from Minnesota?

One of the most satisfying moments was listening as they announced that our teammate, Justin Koo, was ranked as one of the best attorneys in our entire division.

We brought four additional students with us who were top competitors on our A and B team, as well as an additional coach. They all played an integral role for our overall success at nationals.

Miranda Thompson, Darshan Patel, Rohan Garg and Maiko Bracken came as student non-competitors and spent countless hours “scouting” other teams and taking notes on style. We brought Miranda, Darshan and Rohan because we anticipate them to be our top performers, as well as leadership, next year and wanted to give them the opportunity to see the competition at the National Championship.

Maiko is president of the UCSD Mock Trial Team and competed on our qualifying regionals team this year. Although she is graduating this year, she is going on to law school (and hopefully coaching) so we thought it was important for her to attend.

All the student non-competitors practiced as a “scrimmage squad” and volunteered an immense amount of time preparing our team to compete, as well as providing team feedback at nationals.

Devon Franza volunteered throughout this season and traveled with us to Minneapolis as an additional attorney coach. Devon is a second-year attorney at a boutique civil defense firm and provided a great deal of practical attorney coaching to the students.

Devon brings a unique perspective to our team because he has limited “mock trial” experience and gives feedback based on “real trial” experience. He primarily helped our students prepare their cross examinations, evidentiary objections and closing arguments for nationals.