Chicago-Kent Student Takes “Top Gun” Title Against Best Trial Advocacy Competitors in the Country
It’s the trial competition to end all trial competitions—a one-on-one virtual courtroom battle to determine the best of the best student advocates in the country.
Chicago-Kent College of Law student Zoe Appler ’22 was the most inexperienced competitor in the Top Gun National Mock Trial Competition in 2021 by a full year. Her school had never had a winner.
And yet her coach chose her, a second-year student who would go up against hardened veterans, all of whom had already graduated. Judge David Erickson, who heads Chicago-Kent’s trial advocacy program, says he went with his instincts.
“She is in my opinion one of the top five talented students I have had in 38 years of teaching and practice,” Erickson says. “She works not until she’s got it, but until it’s perfect.”
Still, Appler worried.
“I found out that Top Gun existed the first year I did mock trial, and when I heard about it…,” Appler stops talking to let out a laugh. “I could not imagine preparing a case, even for one side, in 24 hours. The thought of that gave me so much anxiety and stress.”
Appler is referring to a 300-page document she found embedded in an early morning email on Thursday, June 3: a fictional case that the kind folks at Baylor Law School, the competition host, had concocted. She would be required to put together arguments for both the plaintiff and the defense in a single day.
And then, over the following three days, she’d argue them against the best competitors in the country: the 16 schools that had scored highest in the renowned National Trial Competition (NTC) in April.
It wasn’t just the caliber of schools: Harvard Law School and Georgetown University Law Center, to name a couple. It was the people: someone from the team that had knocked hers out of the NTC was going. Her former mentor, the one who had taught her everything about trial advocacy during her fledgling undergraduate years—her old team captain—was competing as well.
And she’d be going it alone. Almost.
She could pick one teammate as backup, to help her prepare written arguments and encourage her from the sidelines while she gave those arguments her voice.
She picked Valerie Letko ’21, the perfect-fit recent graduate who had been her sister in rhetorical battle for the entire year. They’d reached ninth place in the NTC, just a ballot shy of making the quarterfinals. And they’d reached the semifinals during the All Star Bracket Challenge.
“She’s the only person I could picture going through this with,” Appler says.
In 10 hours the two tore through the 300 pages and drafted an opening statement, evidentiary motions, direct and cross examinations for four witnesses—and of course the critical closing argument.
It was a fictional personal injury case in federal court. The employee of a department store had taken a smoke break by the loading dock. It was a cold, dark January evening, and as the employee headed back inside, she fell from the loading dock’s platform and damaged her knee badly enough to need a replacement.
There had been no lighting and no handrail on the staircase. Chunks of concrete were missing from the steps.
The facts, Appler notes, were clearly in the plaintiff employee’s favor. And she had to start the competition arguing for the defense in the first round.
The way the document was written, Baylor officials were clearly wanting those defending the department store to cast blame on the landlord or on the employee herself.
But Appler decided to take a different route.
“We didn’t do either,” she laughs.
Instead of trying to cast blame on others, Appler argued the store had simply followed the law. Statutes said you didn’t need a handrail by a loading dock—how were you going to unload anything? Safety inspectors had been by, had inspected the dock, and had found no problems. So what was the issue?
The argument left Appler’s first opponent, the advocate from Georgetown Law Center— whose team had eliminated hers during the NTC—practically speechless.
“Accidents don’t automatically mean negligence,” Appler argued in a folksy Texas-style closing. It seemed to work on judges from the regulation-averse state where the competition was taking place. “We kept out tons and tons of evidence because it was irrelevant. We gutted tons of her material because she had nothing to ask.”
Appler took other precautions. Usually her courtroom style was, if not casual, then “likeable. Approachable,” Appler says.
“I could tell right off the bat that, in Texas, the judges were more formal. So I went for a more formal version of myself. I even wore pearls, which is not something I do in Chicago,” Appler laughs. “And it worked.”
She won against Georgetown by a 3–0 vote, then won a second round against University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law with a 2–1 vote.
But in the third round, against the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, she recognized her competitor.
“She was kind of my mentor in a lot of ways,” Appler says, thinking back to her mock court days at American University in Washington, D.C. Her old team captain. “She was definitely one of the first people that ever taught me anything about this activity.”
Appler tried the same defense. And lost 2–1.
But it was close; judges actually assigned Appler more points overall. And in the next competition, against Wake Forest University School of Law, she won 3–0. The tally of ballots was enough to get her into the semifinal.
The following day, she went up against Harvard and won 3–0. The opposing coach emailed her to thank her, and to say they were rooting for her.
And then came the final—where, again, she had to face off against her old captain.
“It was kind of a sports movie final showdown,” Appler says.
One observing professor would later call it a “slugfest.” Appler had to argue for the plaintiff this time; Baylor’s associate dean played her first witness, the injured employee.
But Appler saw mistakes; her opponent’s first witness lied on the stand.
“I knew I could impeach her on cross, which I did, and that gives you big points with judges,” Appler says. “Her second witness was also very hostile and looked very biased, and I controlled his testimony to get exactly what I wanted.”
Also, she noticed her opponent was making a crucial mistake: a lack of that Texas formality.
“She was a little more West Coast, a little more California,” Appler says.
Appler put her all into her closing: “Members of the jury, the evidence shows you today that the defendant chose carelessness, chose laziness, and chose ignorance over their employees. Profits over their people. And the plaintiff suffered the consequences of their carelessness.”
When it was over, the presiding judge remarked that they didn’t want to have to announce the decision, it had been that close.
But the tally was unanimous: Appler had won.
“It still hasn’t really hit me, to be honest,” Appler says.
She’s getting an inkling of what happened. The coach from the University of California, Los Angeles—which hosts an undergraduate version of Top Gun called Trial by Combat—asked Appler to be a judge in its competition’s final round at the end of June. She accepted, noting the winner of that contest gets a giant sword, “and what’s cooler than that?”
Appler didn’t win a sword, but did take home $10,000 for her Top Gun title.
“This is an incredible accomplishment. Zoe met the best and defeated them, once again showing how tremendous our students are,” says Chicago-Kent Dean Anita K. Krug.
Appler grew up in Buffalo, New York, and received a bachelor’s degree in political science from American University, where she was a member of the mock trial team for three years. She is now a summer associate with Swanson Martin & Bell in Chicago.
After she graduated from Chicago-Kent in May 2021, Letko became an assistant solicitor with the 14th Circuit solicitor’s office in Beaufort, South Carolina.