Although the crime is fictitious and the attorneys, witnesses, jurors, and judges are acting, the courtroom drama at the annual National Trial Competition is very real to the law students navigating what will soon become an integral part of their careers.

The students, who play either the role of prosecuting attorney or defense attorney, have learned trial technique and strategy from their law school classes and have developed their skills through practice and training from professors and attorney coaches. This year’s National Trial Competition had more than 315 participating teams from 160-plus law schools competing in 14 regional tournaments across the country, with the top two teams from each region advancing to the national finals in Texas from March 11-15. Chicago-Kent College of Law took home first prize as the 2015 National Champion Team, while Baylor Law School placed as a quarterfinalist.

The national tournament, hosted by the Texas Young Lawyers Association and the American College of Trial Lawyers, seeks to prepare future attorneys to successfully complete a trial from beginning to end—an especially important endeavor considering the declining rates of jury trials and resulting decrease in numbers of attorneys with this essential experience.

“The National Trial Competition was established to encourage and strengthen law students’ advocacy skills through quality competition and valuable interaction with members of the bench and bar,” said Zeke Fortenberry, tournament chairman and a TYLA director. “The program is designed to expose law students to the nature of trial practice and to serve as a supplement to their education.”

This year, the National Trial Competition returned to Houston, the city where it began 40 years ago after being co-founded by TYLA and ACTL in 1975. Preliminary rounds, which had more than 200 volunteers taking on various roles, took place at the Harris County Civil Courthouse. Final rounds were held at the federal courthouse in Houston.

“The students are nervous because this mock trial tournament is unlike any other—we have random volunteers playing witnesses that competitors meet just 15 minutes before the round begins, so you never know what the witness will say on the stand,” said Fortenberry. “Also, the judges are fellows of the American College of Trial Lawyers as well as local attorneys, so the students are excited to try a case in front of the distinguished attorneys.”