Wilton attorney sums up mock trial career
WILTON — As a student at Albany Law School at Union University, Maurice Segall so enjoyed mock trial competition that he furthered his passion by building a mock trial program for high school students in this area.
In doing so, he got involved in the Connecticut State Mock Trial program that is run by Civics First Connecticut, a nonprofit that offers law-related education programs in schools across the state.
“In the early 90s, the statwide group wanted to [expand] in the region and find someone for Stamford. I jumped at the chance,” he said. That was 30 years ago. His final mock trial competition, for which he acted as coordinator, took place Dec. 13 in Stamford Superior Court. Ten teams from seven high schools participated.
Segall, who has lived in Wilton since 2001, works as a divorce mediator in his offices in Wilton and Stamford, and also works for the Pro Bono Partnership that provides free legal services to charitable organizations. His clients have included Wilton Library, Circle of Care, and Family & Children’s Agency, among others.
High schools that participate in the mock trial competition field one or more teams of students who receive a case and prepare to try it against another school. Students portray both lawyers and witnesses. Each team tries the case from both sides — defense and prosecution.
“The kids all get a set of facts and prepare the case as any lawyer would,” Segall said, referring to materials provided to competitors including the facts of the case and affidavits from witnesses.
“There are tie limits for openings and closings, directs and crosses. There are three witnesses. The kids decide, in conjunction with a teacher or [consulting] lawyer how to put their witnesses on.”
There is no jury. Instead, the students present their cases in front of a panel of three “judges,” some of whom are actual judges and some of whom are attorneys. One acts as presiding judge to rule on objections.
“The kids object a lot,” he said, with a laugh.
But they take it seriously. “The kids do a really fantastic job,” Segall said. “They prepare well, they dress the part. After the trial the judges score them and give students critiques on how they did.
“I’ve heard judges say ‘you were as prepared or more prepared than real lawyers we have seen.’”
This year the case revolved around a student athlete who died as a result of steroid abuse. His parent was suing the school district for negligence. Two actual judges — the Hon. Mary Sommer and former state Supreme Court Justice Joette Katz — were among the panelists who score the students on a scale of 4 to 10. Teams that win both sides of their case move on.
Competing this time were two teams from Wilton, three teams from Weston, and teams from Westhill in Stamford, Fairfield-Ludlowe, Sacred Heart, Staples and Laurelton Hall. Four teams will move on to further competition: Westhill, Fairfield, and two of the Weston teams.
As coordinator, Segall lines up the courthouse, asigns judges to each trial, oversees the process and collects the scores.
He said the program “offers tremendous value for kids and lawyers. It’s not meant to train them for a legal career.” Rather, he added, it helps them “develop self-confidence, critical thinking, and to think on their feet.” Some, he said, have gone on to be lawyers or teachers.
The program is just as popular with the professionals involved.
“For the lawyers, some coach the teams — some for years— and the lawyers who are judges like to interact with kids and give back to community.
“Attorneys do a tremendous amount of pro bono work and this is one way to get involved,” he said. One of everyone’s favorite parts is when the judges offer comments to the students on their performance. Segall said there was one “trial” that was running overtime and he told the students they had their choice of going to lunch or receiving the judges’ comments.
“They said, ‘we want the comments.’ They wanted to hear what the lawyers had to say,” he said.
Although he lives in town, Segall, as coordinator of the program, is not involved in Wilton High School’s participation. That is up to English teacher Chris McCaffrey, who is also an attorney.
He described Segall, whom he met when they both worked as associates at Cummings and Lockwood, as “a terrific guy.”
“He had just left when I joined on, yet people constantly spoke of him in only glowing terms,” he said.
Segall is turning the mock trial competition over to Daniel Cooper, an intellectual property lawyer from Stamford, but that doesn’t mean he’s done. He’s left open the possibility of volunteering as a future judge.
“I love doing this program,” he said. “It’s a true labor of love for last 30 years. I’m thrilled Wilton is in it.”