Partners in crime
It’s only fitting that Furman, a household name in the world of college mock trial, would forge a partnership with the organization responsible for one of the largest high school mock trial tournaments in the world. Empire New York: The World Championship tournament is staged in the fall each year by Empire Mock Trial based in New York City, and Furman has sponsored it since 2010.
Empire Mock Trial was founded in 2007 by Justin Matarrese and his father, Gregory P. Matarrese. Since its inaugural year, the competition has expanded to include 40 of the world’s most talented teams. The organization’s alumni network, affectionately called the “Empire Family,” includes more than 2000 students who hail from six countries and 31 states.
In many ways, the two institutions are like-minded. Empire is committed to hosting the most accomplished high school teams worldwide, accepting only those that have demonstrated consistent success at the state and/or national level. Likewise, Furman regularly competes against teams from the nation’s best universities, including those in the Ivy League, Chicago, and Washington University, prestigious liberal arts colleges such as Rhodes and Davidson, and public Ivys like Miami of Ohio, Cal-Berkeley, and UCLA. Furman has fielded a team at each national championship tournament since 1997—18 straight bids. And Furman has placed at least one team among the top ten in its division 15 times out of those 18.
While Furman mock trial has made a name for itself over the decades, program director Dr. Glen Halva-Neubauer wants to see greater things. Fundamental to building the mock trial brand at Furman, the partnership with Empire is part of broader plan to attract a bigger crop of outstanding mock trial recruits. Says Halva-Neubauer, “Through Empire, we are getting students that we may not have gotten before, and we are pulling in applicants from places we may not have otherwise.”
The support of the elite tournament has paid off. At least five Empire alumni have enrolled at Furman, and four students who competed in Empire New York in October previously attended Halva-Neubauer’s summer mock trial camp which began in 2001.
The partnership with Empire gives Furman the opportunity to cast a wider recruiting net in terms of geographic, academic, and racial diversity. “When a person tells me they’re going to apply at Furman, Chicago, and Northwestern—those aren’t typical overlaps,” says Halva-Neubauer. Five years ago, it was a rare thing that Furman was mentioned in the same conversation as prestigious, well-known institutions. “Now,” says Halva-Neubauer, “we are not only on their radar screen, but kids who are looking at those schools are approaching me at the World Championship and telling me they’ve already had a Furman campus visit.”
The level of preparation required to compete at Empire is similar to college-level competition, which makes the pool of prospectives well-suited for the demands of Furman mock trial. High school students that make it to Empire are provided a complex criminal or civil case file, originally created by the American Mock Trial Association for use at the university level. They are tasked with assimilating dense legal statutes, case law, and federal rules of evidence. They are required to develop a legal theory, choose and call witnesses to support their theories, craft clear direct and cross examinations, and pen persuasive opening and closing arguments. Hours of preparation culminate in four trials for which students suit up and go head-to-head with their “adversaries” (their peers) and the judge.
The compatibility of the two programs is also reflected in their practically identical goals. Mock trial at Furman is an engaged learning experience that hones speaking skills, builds confidence, cultivates quick thinking, and, above all, fosters team-building, all while treating each other and opponents with respect and civility. The same is true for Empire Mock Trial, whose goal is not only to develop critical thinking, communication, and collaboration skills in their high school participants, but to also “create more respectful, culturally aware citizens.”
The mutually beneficial association is summed up by Empire Mock Trial co-founder Justin Matarrese, who says, “Furman’s support of Empire is a win-win. It exposes our students to one of the world’s top liberal arts colleges while giving Furman access to oratorically and analytically gifted students that could further enhance their student body. We are so grateful to Dr. Halva-Neubauer and the university for its support.”
For Halva-Neubauer, the excitement about the future of Furman mock trial is palpable. “I think we are on the cusp of building an even better program than we’ve ever had because we are going to attract these kids who are the best in the country and put them together here . . . I think people will be surprised that we’re not just good, but we’re a powerhouse with one amazing team after another,” says Halva-Neubauer.