Spartans conquer moot court

Michigan State University College of Law was on a roll. Its moot court teams had put up some impressive showings, and the school was ranked in the top five in the nation. Major competitions still loomed, but the crown was within sight . . . 

Then came the dreaded, nasty, soul-crushing pandemic. And just like the NBA, the NHL and the NCAA’s March Madness, moot court got shuttered. 

But soon, some competitions were revived — virtually. (Take that, NBA bubble.) 

And Michigan State came up with a storybook ending.

The Lansing, Mich., school captured enough points to finish first in the nation, according to the yearly ranking by University of Houston Law Center’s Blakely Advocacy Institute.

Here’s the cool part: Michigan State didn’t even finish in the top 20 last year.

“To succeed against odds like those we faced this year is incredible,” Jennifer Copland, director of Michigan State’s moot court program, told the school’s news website.

Moot court is a rite for many law students. They are given the facts of a simulated case, and they draft a brief and argue it in court. Most students compete against their fellow classmates, while some move on to compete in teams against other schools. The same small group of law schools typically dominate the Blakely Advocacy Institute rankings. 

Jim Lawrence, executive director of Blakely Advocacy Institute, said Michigan State’s win does not come with an asterisk because of COVID-19.

“MSU was having a great year,” he said. “Several competitions did cancel, or go online, but there isn't any way to know how outcomes might have changed had there been no pandemic.”

While it’s rare for a team to rocket to the top after not making the top 20 the year before, Michigan State has a history of competing well, Lawrence said. 

“If you look at the strength of their program over the past several years, you can see they are positioned, in any given year, to rise to the top,” he said.

Copland said the school was in a strong position to win the title regardless of COVID-19, given how well the students were performing.  

“We had some particularly strong teams left to compete, so I honestly believe we could have had the No. 1 ranking even without the changes brought about by the pandemic and quarantines,” she said.  

She noted a team of three women, for instance, who knocked it out of the park. Jordan Giles, Hannah Buzolits and Allison Kruschke — all from the Class of 2020 — went undefeated at the regional ABA Law Student Division National Appellate Advocacy Competition in March and were fired up to go to the ABA national competition. That, however, was canceled. 

It was not all for naught, though. The ABA judged written briefs, and the one submitted by the three students won National Best Brief. 

While most contests were canceled, a couple focusing on patents were held virtually, Copland said. And that helped Michigan State move to the top too. 

“The patent moot court team made the finals of regional rounds and were quarterfinalists at nationals,” she said. “We were, of course, scrambling during that period, but the team had outstanding coaches and alumni who quickly switched to a virtual format.”

It’s not unusual for schools to jump around in the rankings, she said, given how a few bad breaks can doom a season. That’s what happened in 2019. However, the school finished No. 9 in 2017 and 17th in 2018.

A number of schools that didn’t make last year’s top 20 were on the list this year, including American University Washington College of Law and Seton Hall University School of Law in Newark, N.J. 

The competition can be heady, no question. Baylor University School of Law is an example. It finished first last year. This year? The Waco, Texas, school came in strongly at fourth.

South Texas College of Law Houston finished second this year, after coming in fifth last year. The year before that, it topped the list.

One reason for that school’s success was its longtime moot court director, T. Gerald Treece, a legend in the advocacy field who passed away in July. 

As the pandemic continues to limit the size of gatherings, moot court isn’t likely to see any live, in-person action this school year. 

“This fall, I think all competitions are virtual,” Copland said. “A few canceled. For the spring, a few have already announced they will be virtual. Most are holding out hope that students can travel. It’s probably too early to tell, but my gut says the spring competitions will all be through Zoom as well.”

Lawrence agreed: “I expect the majority of competitions will be online this year. Most of the fall competitions have already made the decision to go online, and several of the spring ones have as well.”

The ABA National Appellate Advocacy Competition — held in the spring — has already decided to follow an online format this year, he said.

It’s kind of a drag because the live versions can be quite tense and powerful. The settings can be dramatic too. 

The Thomas R. Kline Institute of Trial Advocacy at Drexel University in Philadelphia, for instance, “combines the grandeur of a historic courthouse with contemporary courtroom technology in the very heart of a big-city legal community,” the school notes. 

Online moot court competition, in Lawrence’s opinion, can’t fully duplicate the live setting. 

“I would always prefer ‘live.’ because it allows participants and judges to experience the three-dimensionality of the arguments,” he said. “Computer screens create a two-dimensional experience.”

However, online competitions are still “high value,” he said, and will likely become a part of the moot court fabric moving forward regardless of the pandemic. 

“It’s a cost effective medium and increases opportunities for participation,” he said. 

Many advocacy educators met over the summer — online, of course — to hammer out guidelines for this new way of courtroom dueling.

“Basically, no one knew what they were doing.” said Robert Galloway, director of the advocacy program at South Texas College of Law Houston and president of the National Association of Legal Advocacy Educators.

So they met to consider what challenges may lie ahead and how best to construct online competitions to avoid complications. For instance, in these competitions, the judges do not know which schools the students are from. There was concern that schools may accidentally give it away when operating virtually.

In the guidelines, this was noted: “Unique rooms, such as the school’s ceremonial moot court room, may be identifiable to volunteers who judge in multiple competitions. Having specific rules regarding the use of such rooms, backgrounds, etc., will help eliminate issues of school identification.”

Each school can create whatever system it deems fit, but these guidelines can help, Galloway said.

The effort also helped lead to the creation of the National Association of Legal Advocacy Educators, which he now heads.

With online competition likely more prevalent moving forward, he said it’s prudent to make certain the new normal has consistency.

Virtual can work, but it does have limits. For instance, it’s harder for students to read non-verbal cues, which could limit the competitors’ ability to make connections with the judges.

Students, naturally, were bummed when live events were canceled. However, after being isolated for months, they welcome the new format, Galloway said.

“They’re ready to do anything that requires interaction.” 

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