Sit down with defense attorney David Vogelstein for a few minutes or watch him do his thing in Marin County Superior Court and it’s obvious that he’s far from a stiff, robot-like attorney.
So it’s no surprise that when he's asked about how the he coaches was able to win its 17th straight Marin County championship last Saturday, Vogelstein cites its humanity.
“With these kids, I really emphasized being a human being in the courtroom and stressing that human connection to the jury,” he said. “That’s what the difference was. Substantively, they were great, but what really set them apart was that niceness and the smile in the courtroom that showed that they were enjoying what they were doing.”
In nail-biting fashion, Tam defeated perennial rival Terra Linda on Saturday by just 2.5 points out of a possible 1,200 points. Senior Claudia Shapiro said the 27-member was equal parts thrilled and relieved to claim the crown again, extending Tam’s uncanny streak of victories.
“This is a huge legacy and there’s a lot of pressure to uphold that legacy, especially as seniors,” she said. “Now we can say, ‘It’s not going to be our senior class’ (that breaks the streak).”
This year's case was People v. Ryan Buschell, in which a college student is accused of murdering friend and classmate Becca Abeles.
Team members play every key role in the courtroom, from prosecution and defense attorneys to witnesses, pretrial motion attorneys, clerks and bailiffs.
Shapiro started on the team two years ago as a witness. She moved up to opening defense attorney as a junior and lead defense attorney this year. Tam’s legacy, she said, is fostered by each year’s ascendance, with every senior class taking on a leadership role.
“This was our chance to show and help the younger kids through it,” she said.
With Saturday's win, Tam moves on to the state championship in Sacramento March 23-25. If they’re able to win that – a feat Tam has accomplished three times over its remarkable 17-year run – the Hawks will go to the national finals in Albuquerque, N.M. in early May.
Vogelstein, who has coached the team for all but two of its 17 straight county titles, said that longevity was on display last weekend, when a number of Tam mock trial alums showed up in the courtroom to watch and cheer their brethren on, with dozens more rooting them on via social media sites like Facebook.
The team, their families and alums who now compete on mock trial teams at prestigious schools like Stanford University all gathered for a party Saturday night, and Vogelstein said the team's following grows as it advances.
“When we go to nationals, we always have the largest contingent of followers, and it’s all alumni,” he said. “That boosts these kids – they see these icons of the program and they feel great.”
“I’m so proud of these kids,” he added. “We are constantly getting better and we are looking for ways to get better not as lawyers but as human beings – that’s what sets us apart. It’s not about brilliance. If this were rocket science, I couldn’t do it for a living.”