The high school students who won this year's state mock trial championship already know what their biggest problem could be when they go to nationals next month: They're too Minnesota Nice.

They've watched footage of the best teams in the country, and it's right there on video: The attorneys who dominate are the ones who gesture theatrically and flounce around the courtroom like characters on "Law and Order."

That kind of behavior just doesn't fly in Minnesota, said Susan Clark, a history teacher and longtime mock trial coach at Lakeville North High School. "We'll argue something to the death, but we'll do it politely," she said.

So the students are working on being more aggressive before they head to Atlanta, where the team will represent the state at nationals for the second time in two years.

Mock trial naturally attracts students who thrive on drama and competition. At Lakeville North, Clark has built one of the largest programs in the state partly by recruiting athletes "with a little bit of a cocky side," sometimes scooping them up when they get cut from the hockey team. But oddly enough, though the contest often draws kids who are interested in legal careers, "very few go into law," she said.

That's because they learn their lesson in mock trial, several students said. As senior Corinne Solheid put it, "It's a whole whole lotta lotta work."

Mock trial starts in the fall, when the Minnesota State Bar Association releases a set of facts in a case that students take to trial. This year, the defendant was a camp counselor accused of setting off fireworks that may have started a forest fire, which killed two resort owners.

Sometimes the cases bear a resemblance to actual events, but they're engineered to give each side the same number of witnesses and an equal shot at winning, Clark said. Often, they're chosen to highlight controversial or ambiguous aspects of the law.

Trials take place in real courtrooms and last about 90 minutes, with volunteers -- real-life lawyers and judges -- presiding at the bench and tallying the score as they go.

Each team, which needs at least seven students, must be ready to argue either side of the case on short notice. Some play witnesses, others become attorneys and some students do both, depending on whether the team is defending or prosecuting.

Senior Luis Guitart, for example, gave the top team's opening statement as a defense attorney. But for the prosecution, he cried on the stand as a witness, and in past years he's portrayed a drug dealer and a sportscaster.

Lakeville North, which had 34 students in mock trial this year, practices four times a week during the regular season. At first, they go over the case and pick roles, asking themselves questions such as, "Who would be our best police officer?" Later, the school's four teams face off against one another and occasionally drive hours to scrimmage rival schools.

The students often split into groups, with the witnesses developing compelling characters while the lawyers memorize rules of evidence and pick apart the case with attorney coaches.

Attorneys typically have the more demanding jobs, Clark said: In addition to speaking eloquently, they have to think on their feet, make objections and beat down arguments from opposing teams.

But a good witness -- like Liz Korby, who played a camp director this year -- can earn a team valuable points, said Randy Sparling, a mock trial judge who saw Lakeville North in action several times this year. "She did one of those Minnesota/'Fargo' accents, and it was so hard -- she nailed it so well -- it was just hard not to laugh and to just keep my composure."

And students have to work together to do well. "It's often like pairs figure skating. The attorney is playing the role of the guy, who is doing the lifts and throws and making the witness look good," Sparling said. "Cross-examination, on the other hand, also involves blades, but it's a knife fight. It's how well you are able to control a hostile witness and get the points in that you want, but in a way that's respectful, professional."

Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016