Fueled by a passion for humanity, endorphins from his daily workouts and an obscene amount of Diet Coke, David Vogelstein has been called an “outrageous cowboy for good,” “counsel,” “coach,” and by most students, just plain “Vogie.” His mission: to make the world a better place, one student at a time. By day he is a criminal justice attorney based in Marin County, and for 150 evenings a year, he can be found in a brightly lit classroom on the Tamalpais High School campus coaching the 30-person Mock Trial team. A brief Mock Trial primer for those who are unfamiliar: it’s a team competition with 20 members playing different courtroom roles. The same case is “tried” by all schools, and each team earns a number of points based on the performance of all team members. The team with the most points wins. In the Mock Trial world, Vogelstein is legendary; his Tam High team has won county competitions for more than 20 years.
1. What’s your secret strategy?
I teach self-revelation. Get these kids to know themselves and teach them to articulate their viewpoint and help others — simple to say, hard to do.
2. How do you teach self-revelation?
I have to be self-revelatory and talk about my absolute failures — not the superficial sh*t, the really deep dark stuff that we all live with. I want them to have an OMG moment and say, “Revealing who I am didn’t kill me; it made me stronger.”
3. Do you have go-to props?
There is a great picture on the internet; I bring it in early on. It is of a Third Reich crowd saluting Hitler in the ’30s, except for one guy who is in the center with his arms folded. This is what I’m am trying to teach the kids; be that one guy with the guts to say “no.”
4. Has anything changed in 20 years?
These days the kids are inundated with internet information; experiential stuff is lacking. They go to a baseball game and are looking at their phones. I try to have them invest in the notion of being in the moment, in the court, in the classroom — show up personally.
5. What is the importance of education in your life?
My wife and kids are teachers. Education was so important to my Holocaust-survivor immigrant parents that they moved into a tenement apartment on 92nd and Madison so my siblings and I could go to the excellent public school PS6 in New York City.
6. Who’s your biggest influence?
No question, my parents, going back to how as childhood sweethearts from extremely wealthy families they escaped to opposite ends of the U.S. while fleeing Hitler and later reunited. They started over in New York, and my dad was sent to the front lines of World War II. He came back a very liberal and compassionate man and taught us the purpose of life is to help others.
7. How did you become a lawyer?
It’s a natural fit for me. You have to be in the moment. It’s like playing basketball on the streets of New York City. It doesn’t matter if you are fat, thin, gay, straight, white or black, when you have the ball, you either pass or take the shot. That is exactly what it’s like being in court. It’s simple: focus and be a human being.
8. Biggest challenges for your team?
The pressure is enormous for a team that has won for two straight decades. The current crop does not want to be the ones who lose. So, my job is to relieve the pressure. Winning is a by-product of having fun.
9. Tricks to getting through to the kids?
I have the advantage of not living with them; I don’t have all that baggage and can communicate with them much easier. Sometimes with parents, it’s not about that moment, but all the moments that lead up to that moment.
10. How do you deal with so-called affluenza?
I am a big foe of the TMM disease — too much money; it is a disability if not handled properly. It doesn’t have to be, but it can be. What can happen with TMM is fear. Fear of exposing your kid to the real world, so you are overly protective and want to do everything for them. You want them to have everything, and what you are doing is cutting them off at the knees and making them weak. When you are doing everything for your kids you are not letting them fail and develop their own strengths and egos, and that’s what life is.
11. What’s your biggest fear?
Someday I walk into my courtroom and go against one of my former students and lose badly. It hasn’t happened yet but it’s getting close — and they are really, really good litigators.