By now, most of you have either participated in the First Impressions Mock Trial Program or at least have heard of it. It is a civics education program brought to fifth graders to teach them about the three branches of government, focusing on the judicial branch, and culminating with a mock trial in the courtroom where the students play the judge, attorneys, jurors, witnesses, courtroom clerk, and bailiff.
The facts for the mock trial come from the famous Three Little Pigs story. In the scripted trial, Defendant Wolf is on trial for the murder of the two Pig brothers and attempted murder of the surviving third Pig brother. The program is fashioned after the Los Angeles First Impressions Program, but has now morphed into our own program complete with witness credibility exercises, juror questionnaires, exercises on proper objections and the distinctions between criminal and civil law, and scripts for all participants, developed by Boalt Hall graduate Matthew Belote. We teach the students about the important Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Amendments and everyone’s role in the courtroom with the “Who’s Who in the Courtroom” exercise.
Traditionally we have targeted schools with very diverse student bodies to introduce this audience to legal and related careers. As of late, however, we are receiving a lot of direct requests from schools asking for the program, and we are trying to fill as many of the requests as possible on a first-come, first- served basis.
Goals of the program are to introduce students to the justice system with a positive “first impression.” The hope is to increase students’ knowledge and understanding of the legal profession and court system and encourage careers in areas which the students frequently have no role models. Another goal of the program is to engender trust and respect for the justice system and to illustrate non-violent dispute resolution.
When we first started this program in San Joaquin County in 2000, a judge would typically go out to a fifth-grade classroom with one deputy district attorney and one public defender or private criminal defense attorney. We would make four classroom visits over our lunch hour, from 12:15-1:15, with the program finale in the courtroom for a field trip and mock trial. We also included a courthouse tour and “Career Day” so the students would get the most bang for their buck.
We frequently have court reporting students from Humphreys University join us and transcribe our mock trials while they obtain valuable experience themselves. The students absolutely love the court reporters who explain their careers.
Now we try to have at least four attorneys join a judge, although sometimes a judge isn’t on a team and a lead attorney takes charge. We have expanded our program to included paralegal volunteers, law clerks, and law students. Retired judges and attorneys are also welcome to join us.
It is an incredibly fun learning experience for the students as we make learning civics fun. Some students tell us that they want to become an attorney or judge or courtroom clerk or bailiff after participating in their mock trial. They all love their beautiful First Impressions Certificates they receive at the conclusion of their trial, prepared by Judicial Secretaries of the Superior Court. And, of course, students are thrilled with their “Goodie Bags” of snacks, purchased through the generous donation of the California Judges Foundation.
Up until two years ago, Judge Kronlund coordinated the program, scheduling the class sessions and recruiting and organizing volunteer attorneys. But the program kept growing, adding more schools, most with three classes of 30 fifth-graders per class. The San Joaquin County Bar Association has since taken over the administrative role juggling schedules, booking programs, begging for volunteers, and filling most of the requests throughout the County to bring our program to our schools. But due to an insufficient number of volunteers, some requests could not be filled.
During the 2018-2019 school year we brought the First Impressions Program to nine different schools in four school districts. We served 23 classes of fifth-graders amounting to 633 students this year alone! Ten judges and 48 attorneys participated this year. If you are not a volunteer yet, please talk with one of us who is involved and you will see that you receive so much more in return for your investment of time. Universally, volunteers feel their participation is a worthwhile and valuable contribution.
It is truly a shame to not bring the First Impressions Program to eager and excited learners due to lack of volunteers. The students’ enthusiasm is contagious, and personally, I find it so rewarding and energizing to be a part of a First Impressions Team. This is especially true when I am really busy with “real work”; it forces me to live in the moment, take a time-out, and experience the true excitement of learning with the children.
Please volunteer to participate on at least one First Impressions Team for this next school year, and bring along a colleague, interns, law student or member of your support staff. Volunteers do not have any preparation other than showing up and helping with the predetermined lesson plan. The time commitment is four lunch hours and, if you can make it, about two hours at the courthouse to observe the mock trial, typically on a Monday morning.
Our desire is that students come away from the experience thinking, “I can do that. I can be a lawyer, or judge, or courtroom clerk, or bailiff, or court reporter.” By participating, you serve a valuable community service as a role-model for these young minds. Please consider volunteering by contacting Linda Mussat at (209) 948-0125 or firstname.lastname@example.org.