Launch pad to a legal career
When Cornell College’s mock trial team came home from the 2016 national championships with the seventh-place trophy, it was a fitting capstone for the 10th anniversary of the program. Mock trial is the cornerstone of the Center for Law and Society, which has become one of the most comprehensive pre-law programs in the country.
The Center has blossomed into a multifaceted springboard to some of the nation’s top law schools. That’s a huge leap from where it started as an advising program more than a decade ago, and Cornell students are the big winners. It’s a story based on vision, hard work, Trustee involvement and support, and tenacity.
“When I joined the board several years ago, there was really no pre-law focus at Cornell, only advising,” says Trustee Sheryl Atkinson Stoll ’70, one of the key architects of the Center and an attorney in Columbus, Ohio. “I wanted to see a formal pre-law program that would help students interested in the law learn more about the realities of law school and legal practice. We tried to devise a program that would help students better assess whether a legal career was the right path for them, and the many options available with a law degree.”
Judge Aleta Grillos Trauger ’68 was a member of the Cornell Board of Trustees until 2006, right there with Stoll. “When I was on the Board, I was asked to be a mentor to some of the Cornell students who were interested in the law,” says Trauger, the first woman judge for the U. S. District Court, Middle District of Tennessee. “I felt we could do more to help them succeed.”
Together with Professor of Politics Craig Allin, they started laying plans for a major expansion of pre-law activities at Cornell.
“We got RJ Holmes-Leopold ’99 involved,” Trauger says. “The goal was to enrich the pre-law experience here.”
In 2005 Holmes-Leopold assumed the newly created position of director of career engagement programs at Cornell, and was invaluable to the growth of the pre-law program.
Creating the program
“Our first goal was to determine what we already had,” says Holmes-Leopold, Cornell’s senior director of alumni engagement and annual giving, who also is chair-elect of the Pre-Law Advisors National Council. “We looked at what other colleges were doing and what we already had on campus. We determined Cornell could do it relatively quickly.”
With leadership and vision provided by Stoll and Trauger, creativity and shoe leather from Holmes-Leopold, and academic oversight from Allin, plans for a pre-law program that was to become the Center for Law and Society began to take shape.
“We knew we needed more interaction between our students, practicing attorneys, and law schools,” Holmes-Leopold says. “We started contacting law schools to invite them to campus to talk with students.”
Stoll, Trauger, and other attorneys on the Board of Trustees served as mentors and helped put students in contact with lawyers in a variety of formats.
“One of our first priorities was to develop a mentorship program with Trustees who were lawyers, and eventually with other lawyers,” says Stoll. “Whenever there was a Board meeting, we would schedule a reception where the lawyers on the Board could meet with students interested in the law. It was good practice in networking.”
Those receptions became the blueprint for Lunch with a Lawyer, in which practicing attorneys come to campus to discuss careers in the law. The lunches have hosted members of the legal profession representing such diverse areas as family law, government agencies, labor unions, legal aid programs, civil rights commissions, the court system, and corporations.
The Center actively leveraged the flexibility of One Course At A Time to sponsor road trips to visit lawyers and law schools in places such as the Twin Cities, Denver, and Chicago. The Center also began offering assistance with the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT), one of the most important criteria for acceptance to law school, through a low-cost LSAT prep course held on campus.
“The LSAT prep course is the reason I got into Harvard,” says Eli Wade-Scott ’10. “Without the prep course, I could never have approached the LSAT score range they look at. Most law schools really, really care about that test.”
Wade-Scott’s sentiments are echoed by Kalissa Holdcraft ’13, who finished her law degree at the University of Iowa in May. “The prep course was fantastic, and at a ridiculously low price,” says Holdcraft, who now serves as a member of the Center for Law and Society advisory board and is a Cornell Young Trustee. “Meghan Yamanishi (a Cornell librarian and a lawyer) does a wonderful job teaching the course, and she’s structured it so that it doesn’t really conflict with our regular courses.”
Holdcraft says her experiences at the University of Iowa College of Law have underscored the value of the Center for Law and Society to Cornell students.
“When I’ve spoken to law students about their undergraduate experiences, it’s apparent Cornell does a superlative job by being very supportive and by helping prepare students for what law school is actually like. Cornell has the most personalized program that I’ve heard of,” she says.
The Center for Law and Society helps people figure out if law school is right for them. When I came to Cornell, I knew I wanted to major in politics, but I didn’t know if I wanted to go to law school. With help from the Center, I applied to five or six law schools, including some Top 10 schools. I was accepted by all of them, and I received two full-ride offers from Top 30 schools.”
Wade-Scott, who graduated from Harvard Law School and now practices in Chicago, says a Cornell College education prepared him for success.
“Students who are interested in the law need a background in the other parts of our world and in questions like what drives the law, where law is needed, how it helps, how it hurts,” he says. “To participate fully in this profession, a lawyer needs a diverse, well-rounded education. Cornell delivers that every year in a fast-paced environment that mimics law school.”
The final piece: Mock Trial
Mock trial is another outstanding preparation for law school, and Cornell Mock Trial has become one of the best in the country, going to the national championships in seven of the 10 years the team has existed. During that time, the team has finished in the Top 10 nationally twice, despite being the smallest school (until this year) to participate. Cornell’s program was ranked 35th in the nation before this year’s seventh-place finish.
Like the other Center for Law and Society programs, mock trial was the result of thoughtful discussions carefully considered, leavened with a bit of fortune.
“In 2005 Jim Brown, who was assistant to the president, asked me how we would spend $20,000 to beef up the pre-law program. I thought we should use it to create an in-house activity for the students, mock trial or moot court,” Allin says. Kismet provided the answer.
“An alumnus, Marcus Pohlmann ’72, happened to be the president of the American Mock Trial Association at the time,” says Holmes-Leopold. “He came back for Homecoming, and convinced us that mock trial was our better option. We’ve never looked back.”
Cornell’s first mock trial coach was Monticello, Iowa, attorney Kristofer Lyons, who had been at the University of Iowa. Lyons coached the team for three years, until the demands of his law practice became too great.
“Kris Lyons was incredibly effective in his three years here,” Allin says. “He took us from no program to our first nationals.”
When asked for a recommendation for a replacement, Lyons suggested a Cedar Rapids attorney named Abbe Stensland, against whom he had competed in college mock trial.
“When Kris called I was ready to go,” says Stensland, who has been at the mock trial helm for seven years. “Mock trial in college changed my career. I am very passionate about it.”
“When Abbe came on board, mock trial just took off,” says Stoll. “We’ve had some terrific teams of mockers and they started doing very well nationally. I firmly believe Abbe is the best mock trial coach in the country. We’ve finished in the top 10 twice, but her goal isn’t to finish in the top 10. It’s to finish first.”
According to Stensland, who practices commercial litigation and appeals, bankruptcy, and creditor’s rights law full-time in Cedar Rapids, mock trial is superb preparation for the courtroom.
“It helps with extemporaneous speaking, critical analysis, the ability to think on your feet, and teaches you to address issues as they arise in the ebb and flow of argument,” she says.
Wade-Scott agrees. “In many ways, mock trial gave me the confidence to go to law school and know I could succeed there. As an attorney constantly involved in litigation, I speak to judges using the same skills that I built in mock trial: clear, concise arguments, reading your judge, and being comfortable on your feet in high-pressure situations. It’s an incredible blessing to go into your first court appearance with some foundation of how you will present yourself as a lawyer. It gave me a huge leg up.”
In some ways Cornell’s mock trial team has become Cornell’s equivalent of a Division I football team. It is both a point of pride and a serious recruiting tool for students.
The Mock Trial allure
“Mock trial has been the single most important program for the Center for Law and Society,” says Allin. “In terms of recruiting, giving students opportunities, and raising the college’s national profile, it’s been the biggest and best thing the Center has done.”
“I came to Cornell for mock trial, baseball, and One Course At A Time,” says Kenny Capesius ’16, a politics major and member of the 2016 team that finished seventh in the nation. “I’ve known since high school that I wanted to be a lawyer. Everything since I came to Cornell has reaffirmed my decision.”
The mock trial season begins in October and runs through January, at which time the competition leading to the national tournament begins. There are between 600 and 700 collegiate mock trial teams in the nation. They include teams from many large public and private institutions such as Harvard, Princeton, Fordham, Boston College, Stanford, and the University of Iowa. Cornell teams have competed successfully against these and many more.
“It’s a huge time commitment,” Stensland says. “Between October and January, the teams will travel six or eight weekends to compete as far away as California, Florida, and Connecticut. That’s in addition to the many hours we spend practicing and critiquing our work. In addition, Cornell College now hosts mock trial clinics on campus for Iowa high school students, taught by our mock trial team.”
“There are some outstanding high school mock trial programs in Iowa and Minnesota,” Stensland says. “We’re starting to get college applications from students who went through those clinics.”
Mock trial has created such a buzz on campus that alumni who didn’t participate during their time here are getting involved.
“I didn’t do mock trial while I was at Cornell,” says Holdcraft, who served as an assistant coach of the team during her time at the University of Iowa law school. “I was very involved in student government and, at the time, the two conflicted on the schedule. I became a coach because I have a lot of friends who have done mock trial. A former assistant coach was leaving and suggested that Abbe contact me.
“There’s something really special about mock trial at Cornell. Cornell students in general are hard working and passionate, but the mock trial team is on a whole different level.”
With the establishment of the mock trial team came additional expenses—costs that didn’t fit within the Cornell budget at the time.
“Great ideas always cost money,” Stoll says. “In the beginning the Pre-Law Program was sustained by financial support from lawyers on the Board of Trustees. At one point we qualified for the national tournament, but the budget was exhausted. We solicited money from the Board to pay for the team to go to the tournament.”
In addition to Stoll and Trauger, among the Trustees who contributed to the program over the years were Richard Williams ’63, Tom Durham ’77, Craig Shives ’67, Ginger Soper Smith ’73, and John McGrane ’73. Beth Knickerbocker ’89 contributed $100,000 to support the center with an endowment gift honoring Craig Allin, while Stoll and her husband, William, contributed $200,000 for the construction of a courtroom in the Thomas Commons where the mock trial team practices. The Earle and Maxine Atkinson Courtroom was named in honor of Stoll’s parents. The members of the team are aware of and appreciate the support.
“At first glance it might seem as if being from a small Midwest school would put us at a disadvantage, due to the fact that we have a small student body to select students from and lack of access to resources,” says Nora McKenzie ’16, a member of the team. “However, because of the generous donations we receive from the Cornell College Board of Trustees and other Cornell alumni, our small numbers don’t matter. We are able to have the best people on the team, regardless of their social status or financial need.”
The Center for Law and Society also offers opportunities for Cornellians to do one of the things they do best: network with each other. From the beginning, when Trustees who practiced law spent time talking to students at receptions, alumni have done their share to pay it forward.
Kenny Capesius is off to Washington, D.C., to work at the law firm of new Trustee Scott Simmer ’73.
“Scott contacted RJ Holmes-Leopold about an intern, and RJ introduced us. I spent the summer of 2015 as an intern there as part of the Cornell Fellows Program,” Capesius says. “It was an amazing experience. I helped find and research cases, gathered other information, and wrote case summaries for the lawyers. Scott and I stayed in touch after I left, and he contacted me to offer me a full-time position as a paralegal. I’m taking the LSAT in June, and then I’ll head to Washington. I am very excited for the opportunity!”
Capesius has made a two-year commitment to Simmer’s firm, after which time he’ll head off to law school.
Expanding the number of internships is a focus for Abbe Stensland, who took over the Center for Law and Society from Holmes-Leopold in 2015.
“Last year I had an intern, Sarah Johnson ’16, work with me in Cedar Rapids,” Stensland says. “Next year our firm plans to bring on three Cornellians.”
Strong law school placements
Recent graduates who have consulted with the Center have majored in politics, economics and business, biology, women’s studies, English, philosophy, ethnic studies, history, sociology, and kinesiology. Cornell has an extremely strong record of placing students in law school, with a five-year average of 89 percent acceptance, above the national average of 83 percent.
For the many people who have invested time, energy, money, and passion in the Center over the past 10 years, it’s been a labor of love.
“There are so many people who helped make the Center such a success, and I especially want to acknowledge the contributions RJ Holmes-Leopold has made,” Stoll says. “If I have one regret, it’s that our colleague and my right arm, Ginger Soper Smith, passed away last year. She replaced me as chair of the Center’s advisory board after I joined the Board of Trustees Executive Committee. She was a big part of what we’ve accomplished, and I know she’d be overjoyed about this year’s mock trial success and the plans we have for the Center.
“I am so proud of everything the Center has accomplished,” says Stoll. “It’s especially meaningful for people like Aleta and me, women for whom a career in the law didn’t register as an option when we were here in the 1960s. We both started out as teachers, and eventually got around to law school. It wasn’t until the 1970s that women really started entering law schools. If the Center for Law and Society had existed when we were at Cornell, I think there may have have been more of us going into law a lot sooner.”
In 10 years time Cornell has gone from a program of pre-law advising, to leveraging One Course At A Time by providing unique experiences across the country for interested students, to being recognized as a national force in the rapidly expanding mock trial culture.
“Mock trial is exploding in high schools,” Craig Allin says. “The students who are participating are the best and the brightest, exactly the type of students we want to come to Cornell.”