Noor Obaji ’10: Her Day In Court, A Dream Realized and Shared

By Max Maddock
“I always had a sense that I was meant to be an attorney. It was like a calling I had at a young age,” said Noor Obaji ’10. “It was kind of an idea that my parents put in my head when I was younger. They said, ‘Oh, you’re really good at arguing,’ which is a nice way of saying that I was argumentative and opinionated.”
Thirteen years after graduating from Hutchison, Obaji is fulfilling her dream. Since she passed the bar exam and became licensed in 2018, she’s been practicing law at Lewis Thomason, PC, a general civil liability defense firm in downtown Memphis. One of the firm’s specialties is healthcare liability defense, defending doctors who are sued by patients alleging medical negligence. She’s also spent the last two years helping to coach Hutchison’s mock trial team.

Just last year Obaji had her first taste of a jury trial in court when she served as second chair on a case with one of the firm’s partners. It was a federal trial in Mississippi. Even though she might average three or four trips to court a month to argue motions, oppose motions, or hear rulings, this was her first time assisting in a trial in the courtroom.

“That was my driving force in wanting to be a lawyer—getting before a judge, getting before a jury, presenting my case, presenting the facts, and I was finally able to do that.”

She admits the experience was everything she thought it would be and more. “You can read textbooks about trials, you can read examples of cases with similar facts and the ultimate outcome, but you never know until you’re actually doing it,” she said. “It’s made me think about the way we approach cases in a different way, in a better way perhaps, because I’m more aware of why we do things the way we do.”

The Psychology of Law

As an undergraduate at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Obaji studied psychology and political science. Although psychology isn’t a typical subject for a pre-law student, she thought it would come in handy. “I’ve always been interested in psychology and how the mind works. I knew it would be particularly helpful when trying to pick a jury for a jury trial. Political science was a more traditional background to have for someone going to law school.”

Indeed, in her first trial, one of her roles was to gauge the reactions of the jury. She admits, being in court is both nerve-racking and thrilling. “I don’t think there will ever be a day when I’m in court and not nervous,” she admitted. “Even if I’m very confident in what I’m going to say, I get butterflies.” 

Whether she’s in court for a trial or to argue or oppose a motion, she said that nine times out of ten, she has to speak in front of other attorneys, clients, litigants, and a judge. “You have to be comfortable speaking to other people and not let that intimidate you. That’s easier said than done.” 

The thrilling parts are getting to pick a jury, presenting the case, raising objections, and all of the other pieces that come with a trial. When she’s not in court, she’s in the office researching and writing.

“I’m just itching for my next trial, but it takes a long time to get a case ready, and a lot of times cases settle or go away because of a procedural technicality or a factual issue. It is frustrating when you’re ready to try a case and it settles the week before, the month before, or even the day before, but that’s experience that I would not have had otherwise. Every case is unique, and you learn different things that are good to have in your arsenal.”

Nevertheless, she said it’s hard to pick a specific challenge when thinking about her work. “Every day is challenging. There’s never a clear-cut answer in the law, and that’s something that I struggle with, because I like to have definitive answers, but sometimes there just aren’t,” she said. “You have the law, and it says what it says, but sometimes your facts are different than what the law presumes. Then you have to be creative in articulating why your position is distinguishable from what the letter of the law is. Those kinds of challenges arise every day.”

I think the number one thing you can do … is maintain your professionalism and maintain the confidence in what you’re saying and your position.

In addition to the work she does in healthcare liability defense, Obaji takes on other work as it comes along, whether it’s writing wills, going to court regarding a ticket, or even helping with immigration cases. Her parents emigrated from the Middle East, so she speaks Arabic fluently and sometimes helps the firm’s immigration attorney communicate with clients from the Middle East.

One of the things Obaji has been committed to since law school is being part of the Association of Women Attorneys (AWA). The purpose of the AWA is to support female attorneys both professionally and personally, offer education and mentorship, and be of service to the community. During law school she was the president of the student chapter, and now as an attorney, she’s the vice president of the professional chapter in Memphis.

“There are several organizations around the community for lawyers, and this was one that I gravitated toward the most because I felt like the mission of the organization was special to me,” she said. “Especially coming from Hutchison and being surrounded by women. It was kind of comforting.

“I think in my generation of lawyers, women have not had as much of a struggle as older generations have had. Hearing stories from some of the women who work in my office, it’s a different world now than what it was even 10 or 20 years ago. I believe it’s going to continue to get better.”

For the past two years, Obaji has been sharing her passion for law as an advisor to Hutchison’s mock trial team. One student, Isabelle Mansour ’23, came to Obaji and told her that she thought one of the other teams competing was not taking her seriously.

“I told her that things like that happen in real life and that it is something you’re going to have to deal with whatever you decide to do. Unfortunately, in this profession, especially as a woman, the other side is going to try to rattle you a little bit and see what they can get away with. You’re always going to get the one person who doubts you or thinks they’re better than you.

“I think the number one thing you can do in that situation is maintain your professionalism and maintain the confidence in what you’re saying and your position. Isabelle did that.”

The Rebirth of a Hutchison Mock Trial Team 

In the summer of 2021, Isabelle Mansour ’23 and Loralei Forgette ’23, who were rising juniors at the time, attended the Summer Trial and Advocacy Institute sponsored by The University of Memphis Law School.

The four-week-long program taught the basics of trial law, and by the end, Mansour was named the highest-ranking witness for trial presentations and earned the highest trial team score. Forgette received the highest individual ranking for the advocacy presentations and the highest advocacy team score. That fall, Mansour decided she wanted to continue practicing what she had learned. Katy Nair, upper school assistant head, mentioned the idea of a mock trial team, something Hutchison had in the past, but didn’t currently have. Mansour said, “Well, why don’t I just start one?” After gauging interest, the team was born.

“When I agreed to coach the mock trial team,” Nair said. “I knew I needed an attorney coach. Noor Obaji ’10 came to mind immediately as a perfect coach for these students. Noor is early in her career and has a level of humility and vulnerability that I knew the girls would appreciate. She’s smart, competitive, and approachable, and I knew she’d be committed to helping our girls improve and grow as litigators in this competition.”

Mock trial competition, L to R: Katy Nair, Lilly Fahey ’25, Lillian Kent ’25, Sarah Beth Cunningham ’26, Virginia Unglesby ’25, Jordan Deupree ’24, Isabelle Mansour ’23, Mary Abbott Elliott ’23, Emma Goughnour ’26, Noor Obaji ’10, Loralei Forgette ’23, and Shawn McCarver

Meanwhile, Obaji remembered that after she passed the bar exam, she told her mom, “Okay, now that I’m official, I really want to give back to Hutchison.” She had attended Hutchison since pre-kindergarten and believed that it gave her a lot. “I don’t think that I would be in the position that I’m in today if it wasn’t for the education I received and the connections I made at Hutchison.” She just wasn’t sure how to give back. As fate would have it, Nair reached out about helping with the mock trial team. “It was a no-brainer,” Obaji said. “It was like I said it, Mrs. Nair heard it, and she contacted me.” 

Mansour kickstarted things by doing outside research and watching mock trial competitions. She then started to build a foundation by teaching the other girls who had joined the team what she had learned during the summer program.

Obaji, who had competed in mock trial during law school, and Professor Demetria Frank, from The University of Memphis Law School, held workshops to teach the girls specific trial skills, including persuasive public speaking, cross and direct questioning, and examining evidence. “My role was to help the students with strategy, and crafting their arguments, their questions, and their responses to an objection,” Obaji said. “They knew the facts like the back of their hand, so I didn’t really have to help them with the facts. I was there to help from a legal standpoint, applying the law to what they were saying and ensuring that it was sound in the law.”

“The first year was kind of rough,” Mansour admitted. “We did well, but we didn’t have any experience in the courtroom against other teams.”

Fast forward to the fall of 2022. Mansour and her team were dedicated to improving in the next mock trial competition in the spring of 2023, and Obaji was onboard as well. Nair enlisted additional help from Shawn McCarver, who serves as a law clerk for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee, and whose daughter, Olivia McCarver ’23, was on the mock trial team. Additionally, John Reynolds, who teaches upper school debate, joined as an advisor.

During the 2021–2022 year, Olivia McCarver portrayed a witness. Because she’s involved in theater, she enjoyed that assignment because it felt like acting. This past year, she took on the role of plaintiff attorney, which she admitted was more challenging because she had to form convincing arguments for her side of the case.

“Ms. Obaji and my dad helped explain how the law works on both sides of the case, whether it’s the plaintiff and the defense in a civil case or the prosecutor and the defense in a criminal case,” McCarver said. “She helped explain the logic behind different laws, how they apply to different situations, and how to be on the lookout for specific details that could help your case. My dad provided insight into federal proceedings and how the law would be interpreted by a judge.

“When Ms. Obaji talked about different aspects of the court proceedings, she was emotionally invested in it and passionate about it,” McCarver continued. “She always made sure to give helpful critiques about what needed to be fixed, but she also let us know the things that we did right.”

“The girls came to rely on Noor’s expertise and encouragement,” Nair said. “She found a good balance between guidance and giving the girls the autonomy to solve problems themselves. Personally, it was fulfilling to work with her. She’s a former student, and I could see her growth.”

In the spring 2023 mock trial competition, Hutchison’s team fared much better. In one trial, team member Emma Goughnour ’26 was named best witness and Mary Abbott Elliott ’23 was named best attorney for the prosecution. In another trial, Jordan Deupree ’24 was named best witness and Mansour was named best attorney. By the end, Mansour took the top attorney title for the entire district competition.

“It was amazing. It was a culmination of everything I had worked toward and put hours and hours into,” Mansour said. “It felt good to have that kind of affirmation.”

Mock trial teammates: back row, L to R: Jordan Deupree ’24, Mary Abbott Elliott ’23, Sarah Bartusch ’23, Anne Tyler Bartusch ’26, Emma Goughnour ’26, and Sarah Beth Cunningham ’26; front row: Loralei Forgette ’23, Isabelle Mansour ’23, Virginia Unglesby ’25, Olivia McCarver ’23, and Lilly Fahey ’25

Mansour says it was not a one-person job and gives due credit to her fellow teammates, and to their advisors, Nair, Obaji, McCarver, and Reynolds, for all of their help. She hopes that the students remaining at Hutchison will continue with the mock trial team. This fall, Mansour will head to Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service to study international political economy and is interested in law school after her undergraduate studies.

Olivia McCarver will attend Rhodes College and major in political science. She intends to participate in mock trial while there and plans to go on to law school. “Those girls made me so proud this year, and the year before, but this year they were exceptional,” Obaji said. “They made me feel a sense of pride to be an attorney in the community, to be a member of the Memphis community, and especially to be a member of the Hutchison community. It is so cool to see the growth they had over a year. That was probably my favorite part of all of this.”

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