December 30, 2008

The UH Moot Court National Championship

I've always joked that when it comes to law school advocacy competitions, "National Championships" are like opinions -- everybody's got one. Why? Well, there are so many different competitions, and more pop up every year (a trend that has no apparent end in sight), that the opportunities to win a "national championship" are seemingly endless. Heck, South Texas College of Law claims a hundred of 'em.

But as I've said several times on this blog, not all national championships are created equal. Some, given their age, size, and prestige, are due special consideration. It's sorta like the "Heavyweight belt" in boxing (and even then, there are four, which means four potential "Heavyweight champions" at any given time). Like it or not, the Heavyweight champ gets more respect than, say, the Bantamweight title holder.

In mock trial, I'd identify three "big" championships -- the Texas Young Lawyers Association's National Trial Competition, the AAJ's (formerly ATLA) Student Trial Advocacy Competition, and NITA's Tournament of Champions.

In moot court, there have been two: The New York City Bar Association's National Moot Court Competition, and the ABA's National Appellate Advocacy Competition. I can't say whether "the big two" need to add another setting at the dinner table, but the University of Houston Law Center would certainly contend as much. Last year, it announced its plans to host an annual "Moot Court National Championship." Like the Tournament of Champions for mock trial, the MCNC seeks to pit what it deems the 16 top moot court programs in the country against each other in a would-be "Battle Royale" for appellate supremacy.

The inaugural competition will take place January 15-17, 2009. I'm anxious to see how it will be received. I think it's a tremendous idea, and I congratulate Professor Peter Hoffman at UH. In particular, the methodology Professor Hoffman used to select the top 16 teams has enormous potential. Thankfully, he declined to adopt Brian Koppen's flawed system. Instead, he separated 34 competitions into three tiers -- Tier 1 (correctly) consists of the NMC and NAAC. Tier 2 is made up of the Duberstein National Bankruptcy competition, the Pace National Environmental Law competition, and the Wagner National Labor & Employment Law competition. Tier 3 consists of the rest. Teams receive more points for success in higher-tiered comps and also get credit for brief and advocacy awards. I'm particularly impressed with the decision to grant automatic entrance to the winners of the NMC and NAAC (although last year's winners -- Chicago-Kent College of Law and Harvard Law School -- would have made the cut anyway).

That said, I do have a few criticisms (big surprise, right?):

1. The event hasn't been particularly well publicized, at least not that I've seen. Even on UH's website, where one would expect the competition to be heavily featured, details are hard to to find unless you know where to look.

2. The timing is difficult. Certainly, if you’re one of the 16 schools fortunate enough to get an invitation, you’ll want to send your best team. But mid-January hardly seems like the best time -- some students will be preparing for the National Rounds of the NMC and/or feverishly finishing their brief for the ABA NAAC. That aside, you've really got to spend all of winter break practicing, which is particularly difficult if students leave town to go home. If and when my school ever gets an invitation, I’m not sure I could make it work with my best team. Early fall seems like a far better time. Teams could write briefs over the summer, and the competition could take place in mid September, well before the fall competition season heats up.

3. There's no explanation as to why Professor Hoffman chose to include results of some competitions, but not others. I'm confident there were criteria, but I'd sure like to know what they were.

4. I’m a bit concerned with the accuracy of the point totals UH used. My old school (Texas Wesleyan) finished second at the 2007 Pepperdine Entertainment Law competition. Although that competition makes Houston’s third tier, and although Michigan State got 10 points for winning it, Wesleyan received no points at all for its finish. The five points it should have been given would have bumped its ranking to 21st. Considering that the top 20 got in (after 4 teams apparently bowed out), that’s alarming to me. I haven’t checked the accuracy of any other school's numbers, but other professors have told me they've noticed some problems as well.

5. The points system (while better than Koppen's) is still pretty stiff -- no points at all unless you win or make the finals? I think schools ought to get points for quarterfinal finishes and above. In my experience, the further you get into a competition, the less difference there is in quality of teams. Ninety percent of the time, I can’t tell much of a difference between the four semi-finalists. The results will often come down to the case's merits or some other completely subjective factor. The true sign of a strong program, at least in my mind, is one that consistently makes the break rounds.

6. The teams that actually compete in this competition may not have had any role to play in getting the invitation. This seems a bit odd to me. Most of the time, a school's best mooters are 3Ls, if for nothing else than their experience. If those students win the competitions that garner the invitation and then graduate, the team actually competing in the MCNC might be unrepresentative of its successful predecessor. The same is somewhat true about the NITA Tournament of Champions, but there, the invitations are based on a three-year period. Might that be a better indication of a strong “program,” as opposed to a strong “last year”?

Despite my criticisms (which are pretty minor, I think), I'm optimistic that the MCNC will be a success. Good luck to the 16 teams competing!


Daniel said...

I agree that the point system is a bit convoluted but it is hard for me to be too critical when UH didn't even make their own tournament. I think more schools should take this example and only allow their own teams to compete if they deserve it. There are several mock trial tournaments that allow their own teams to play, even though they don't deserve to play.

I am always skeptical of tournaments that give no basis for accepting some invitations and declining others. I understand that all tournaments can't be run on a point system because then the same schools would go to all of the tournaments. However, there should be some basis for accepting and declining invitations (for example - favoring schools in the same region over others, only allowing one school from each state, favoring past champions of the tournament, etc.). Even if the system is flawed, at least it won't give off the stink of politics and favoritism.

My major criticism of the UH tournament is the timing. To host a tournament during a time when most students are not in school is a very bad decision. Many law students do not attend school in their home state. With school and summer internships, the only chance some students have to visit their parents is during the Christmas break. To take away personal and family time for an extracurricular activity is wrong.

Anonymous said...

The winner of the so-called moot court tournament of champions: Detroit Mercy. See,
--Brian Koppen

Mark Zoole said...

We just cannot make it with our best kids at that time of year. I would think that Georgetown is in a similar situation. You cannot really call any given competition a national championship if its timing precludes the participation of one or more of the schools that would be acknowledged as among the legitimate contenders. What on Earth is wrong with letting the ABA NAAC decide the question each year? Zoole, WUStL

Robert T. Sherwin said...

Well, I absolutely agree on the timing. We'll get an invitation, but I'm really scratching my head at what students I'll use. But that's not to say I think it's a bad idea; Houston just needs to move it to the early fall.