A Trial Offer

Students participating in mock trial gain courtroom and public-speaking skills

By Lucero Benitez

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A petite, quiet, shy young woman, Naila Estrada stands just under 5 feet tall. At times, she speaks so softly, she is asked to repeat herself. But in a courtroom — during trial — the 19 year old speaks loudly and confidently. An aspiring attorney, the courtroom is where she asserts herself — her goal to one day represent undocumented families.

Estrada is on the mock trial team at Fresno State, a competitive organization that promotes the ideals of law and the judicial system through participation in intercollegiate competition. But perhaps her biggest competition is the one against her natural tendencies. She joined the team last year with minimal confidence, and she is still concerned whether others will take her seriously.

“I feel like people will probably think, ‘I can’t believe she’s a lawyer,’” Estrada says. “They’ll probably see me and think, ‘Is she really going to come up here?’ Then, once I start talking, they’ll be surprised.”

Her father a farmworker, her mother a housewife, Estrada grew up in Malaga, a town 14 miles south of Fresno with a population of just over 900.

For the second year in a row, Estrada spends more than 20 hours a week with mock trial, gaining the knowledge to one day stand before a court judge as an immigration attorney.

“An uncle I was really close to was deported when I was 15,” she says. “Since we’re Hispanic, we have those issues with immigration, and I want to help.”

It’s a career goal her father, Adolfo Estrada, supports, but has trouble understanding because of the language barrier and his lack of familiarity with mock trial.

“He can’t believe it, I don’t know why,” Estrada says. “He just can’t believe that I play a lawyer, but then when he sees that I get dressed up and I go to my tournaments, he kind of gets what I’m doing.”

In February, he got to experience mock trial first-hand. During the Harvey Wallace American Mock Trial Association regional competition at Fresno State, Estrada looked over into the audience and saw her father.

“She wants to be a lawyer, and I’m very proud. She looks so different up there,” he says, fighting to hold back tears. “I’m excited for her to one day accomplish her dream.”

It’s a dream Estrada says would be much harder to accomplish if not for mock trial. It has given her self-confidence and helped her improve her public-speaking skills. During the regional competition, she won the outstanding witness award.

“You’re actually practicing in front of your coaches, asking questions and they critique you,” Estrada says. “A book can’t critique you and give you feedback.”

Mock trial is open to all students from various majors and is funded by on-campus and community support. This year, there are 52 members on the team led by attorney coaches and adjunct faculty Christopher Irwin, Gordon Park and Brandi Snow.

Irwin first got involved in 2008 when he was a deputy district attorney in Fresno County and was asked to judge a competition. He soon became an attorney coach.

“You’re actually practicing in front of your coaches, asking questions
and they critique you. A book can’t critique you and give you feedback.”

Mock trial student

“I’ve been doing this long enough that some of our first students are now attorneys in town, and I get to see them in court on a regular basis,” Irwin says.

Irwin also notices the progress of current and former students as they gain experience. For him, it’s been fun watching Estrada improve.

“She was very timid and quiet when she first started, Irwin says, and seeing a gradual improvement over the last two years and seeing her find her own voice as an advocate has been particularly satisfying.”

— Lucero Benitez is a communications specialist for the College of Social Sciences at Fresno State.