ORINDA -- What happens when you pair a leading Lamorinda lawyer with a top crop of academically-inclined teenagers?
At Miramonte High School in Orinda, you get trial titans who have swept the Contra Costa County Office of Education's Mock Trial High School championship 10 of the last 12 years.
After four weeks of courtroom competition, Miramonte had a decisive victory at the 2013 competition, winning the top spot over second place California (San Ramon) and third place Acalanes (Lafayette) high schools.
The mock trial competitions, sponsored by the Constitutional Rights Foundation, teach high school students about law and the legal system. Working with school teachers and volunteer attorneys, students learn the inner workings of the judicial system by taking a court case from start to finish. One of the magnets of the program -- attracting 35 students at Miramonte each year, according to team coach Luke Ellis -- is the opportunity to argue real cases with evidence, witnesses, depositions and a judge.
"They're standing in front of a packed courthouse and arguing in front of a real, adult judge," Ellis said, in an interview five days before he and the team will travel to Riverside for the state Mock Trial competition March 22-25.
Ellis is a partner in the plaintiffs' personal injury firm of Gillin, Jacobson, Ellis, Larsen and Lucey, and has been coaching the Miramonte team since 2000.
"I've always loved working with kids and it has been incredibly rewarding," he said. "Now, I have kids I've worked with that have graduated from law school."
Ellis didn't have a mock trial option when he was in high school.
"That's why, once I started, I never stopped coaching. It's fascinating and a tremendous way to teach critical thinking and problem solving."
Many of the students on the team also participate in a public speaking program at Miramonte, making a natural progression to the mock trial team. Others come from the drama, art and journalism departments. The program includes courtroom sketch artists and reporters in a companion component.
The team meets weekly during the fall, then biweekly after Jan. 1, when it's an all-out sprint to prepare evidence, interview witnesses and the biggie: understand heresy.
Ethan Miles, a 17-year-old junior on the championship team, said grasping the concepts and the exceptions around heresy were the hardest legal lessons to learn.
"The number of ways to get out-of-court truths entered in a case you're arguing took a long time to memorize," he said. "If someone shouts out an 'excited utterance' (a statement made without consulting their lawyer), it's allowed into evidence. And, when there isn't a solid exception and it's not offered as the truth, it can't be used in an argumentative fashion against you."
The explanation proves a point: "Innocent until proven guilty" might be a simple phrase, but protecting that foundational right, one that Americans take as a given, is hardly child's play.
"The judges treat us like adults," Miles said. "There's respect -- and expectation that we know the case and how to present evidence."
Ellis said he has learned more from these kids than from other areas of law -- especially about winning, losing and trying.
"These kids do a lot of things well, including this," he said, noting that many compete in sports, music and other activities.
Miles values the camaraderie of the team. As the lead defense lawyer during the regular season, he said his job is "to keep everyone in line and make sure they do their part well." Luckily, it's not as hard as understanding heresy.
"We had a freshman who was one of our best witnesses," he boasted. "It just shows that, no matter how old you are, if you work, you can be phenomenal."
They'll need to be phenomenal when they face stiff competition at the state level and argue this year's case, centered on texting while driving and leaving the scene of an accident.
"The evidence is designed to be very close," Ellis said. "If you win or lose an objection, it can change the way the trial goes."
Conducted like a basketball tournament, their seed will be "luck of the draw."
"Our defense team goes first. If we're seeded at the bottom of the 1-0 teams," Ellis said, "we'll have to play the best of the prosecutorial teams."
It could come down to three factors: creative, on-your-feet thinking; awesome problem solving; and presentational poise, Ellis and Miles agreed.