Law firm brings national competition to Kalamazoo

Mock trials introduce high school students to life in the courtroom.
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Team Kentucky, represented by Montgomery County High School, emerged as the winner of the recent National High School Mock Trial Competition, but Kalamazoo also came out as a winner in a different way.

For the first time in competition history, Kalamazoo hosted the national high school event, courtesy of Warner Norcross + Judd’s sponsorship. 

The law firm welcomed more than 800 high school students from 44 states and one country both virtually and in-person in early May to Kalamazoo to compete in the mock trial competition. The event included four preliminary rounds, two educational sessions, a championship round and an awards gala.

The students advanced to the national competition after winning their respective regional and state competitions.

James Liggins Jr. Courtesy Warner Norcross + Judd

James Liggins Jr. Courtesy Warner Norcross + Judd

Students from Kalamazoo Central High School and Huron High School in Ann Arbor competed in the national competition. Huron won the Michigan Mock Trial State Competition and Kalamazoo Central placed second, also advancing to the national competition.

Warner Senior Counsel James Liggins Jr., event chair, a former high school mock trial competitor and Kalamazoo Central alum, worked in partnership with his firm and the Michigan Center for Civic Education to bring the competition to Kalamazoo and also make the contest unique to Michigan by including the local legal subject matter and fact patterns.

The four-day competition was focused on liability in the death of a Michigan pedestrian who was killed by a driverless autonomous vehicle.

“We wanted something that honored the state of Michigan, that really demonstrates or at least highlights things that Michigan is unique and especially known for,” Liggins said. “We thought that the automobile industry was really a good case to focus on given Michigan’s history with respect to being one of the leaders in the automobile world for years and we thought, ‘All right, well let’s come up with something that is unique with respect to an automobile.’ What we realized as we were searching for a fact pattern is that Michigan is one of the more advanced states when it comes to the regulations of autonomous vehicles.”

After winning their various regional and state mock trial competitions that were focused on various topics, Liggins said the students had four weeks to prepare for the national championship, which included learning about Michigan laws and reviewing fact patterns, witness statements and exhibits.

The competition included teams of students who prepared opening statements, conducted direct and cross-examination of witnesses, argued objections, entered exhibits and delivered closing arguments.

During the competition, each team, plaintiff and defendant, had three witnesses and three attorneys per side and they conducted the trial in front of judges, which included current presiding judges and attorneys.

The judges scored the teams based on their understanding of case law and trial procedures, ability to argue effectively and to move the case forward, timeliness of objections and courtroom demeanor. Judges chose which teams advanced to the next round of the competition.

Liggins said the mock trial competition is not meant to “create young attorneys” but rather the goal is to give students the “tool set that will follow them throughout their lives and that’ll help them be successful in whatever career field they choose.” He acknowledged, however, that it was his participation in his high school’s mock trial that inspired him to become an attorney rather than a doctor, which he initially wanted to be. 

“The really wonderful thing about this program is it really provides an access point to students who may not traditionally have access to the profession like me, where I never had any type of family member that was a professional in law,” he said.

“When I was in high school, I had a teacher who took notice of me and asked me if I would be interested in trying out for this team. I asked her all about it and I tried out and was accepted onto the team, and then this whole new world of possibility was opened up to me.”

His team was coached and sponsored by Miller Canfield, another Michigan-based law firm that allowed his high school team to practice in its building.

“I was just this wide-eyed young kid from a lower-income family and was introduced to this bright big huge building with all these professionals out and about and, ‘Wow! This is something that I can do,’” he said. “Quite honestly, I developed a really good relationship with some of those attorney coaches. Those relationships followed me through the rest of my life, and they continue to follow me up to today. I really got mentored by some of those attorneys through the rest of high school and then through college at the University of Michigan. And when I decided to go to law school, I was then mentored by some of those same judges and attorneys throughout the city.”

After graduating from law school, Liggins was able to go back to Miller Canfield and work as an attorney. He eventually became a partner at the firm before joining Warner Norcross + Judd, where he currently focuses his practice on construction litigation, property disputes and real estate concerns, as well as business contractual disputes, criminal defense and emergency manager matters.

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