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Sarah Chervinsky ’11 is Top Gun in Trial Advocacy

The second annual National Top Gun Mock Trial Competition began on June 1 when eighteen of the nation’s best law school advocates arrived in Waco, Texas, to compete for the elusive title of Top Gun—and the $10,000 cash prize that goes along with it. Ninety-six hours and six trials later, on Sunday afternoon, June 5, Yale Law School’s Sarah Chervinsky ’11 emerged as the winner.

The Top Gun tournament, hosted by Baylor Law School, seeks to identify the nation’s single best advocate who has either just graduated from law school or is entering the third year of law school. It is unlike any other trial advocacy competition in the country. A single student represents each school, instead of the usual two, and participants do not receive any details of the case they will argue until a mere 24 hours before the competition begins.

“We’re not interested in how well someone can execute a practiced script; we’re interested in seeing the true trial skills that advocates have brought with them and how well advocates can adapt and put together a case under severe time constraints,” said Baylor law professor Jim Wren.

“This competition reflects the realities of trial practice,” said Baylor Law Dean Brad Toben. “No second place. Winner takes all.”

This year’s fictional case, Barrett v. Amicable Life Insurance, involved a life insurance policy dispute. The policyholder had died in a fall from Lover’s Leap, and the insurance company claimed it should not pay the widow, Mrs. Barrett, because, it said, she had murdered her husband. Mrs. Barrett claimed that the fall was an accident, or that her husband was murdered by a business partner.

The finals featured testimony from actual Texas Rangers, who portrayed investigating officers; a professor of psychology, who portrayed an expert witness; and stellar Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III, who portrayed a non-party witness. Throughout the tournament, students were required to visit the actual scene where the incident supposedly occurred, take live depositions of real witnesses, and adapt to new evidence and witnesses as they were added to the case materials each night. Each advocate had to represent both sides of the case throughout the competition.

Chervinsky with Baylor law professors (L-R) James Wren, Gerald Powell, and Jeremy Counseller

Chervinsky has been participating in mock trial competitions since her freshman year of high school, and she is the founder and student director of Yale’s National Trial Advocacy Team, now in its third year of existence.

“The reason I came to law school was to become a trial lawyer,” she said. “Advocacy is a craft, and for the past twelve years, I’ve been working towards excellence in that craft. This is my first and only national title—I’ve been chasing it since I was fourteen years old.”

Each advocate was allowed to bring one coach with them to the Top Gun tournament to assist them outside of trials. Chervinsky was coached by fellow Yale Law School alumnus Andrew Thomas ’09, who could not make the trip to Texas but provided invaluable assistance throughout the competition via phone and e-mail.

Chervinsky will start work full-time as a staff attorney at the Orleans Public Defenders in New Orleans this fall.

"Sarah is very impressive and has a great future ahead of her," said Professor Wren.