Over at Legal Skills Prof Blog, Ruth Anne Robbins, Clinical Professor of Law and Director of Lawyering Programs at Rutgers School of Law -- Camden, has a nice guest post up about how moot court competitions can be improved to serve a higher pedagogical purpose.
On a broad level, I agree with her observations. At most competitions, the "record" (which isn't a record at all, but rather a majority and dissenting opinion from the lower court) is too small and glosses over the facts. The standard of review is almost always de novo, and the competition rules don't allow for any brief writing help from the coaches. The problem either sets itself in the Supreme Court of the United States -- a forum students are almost guaranteed to never reach -- or some fictional state named after the host school that is devoid of any statutory or common law. The parties have a knack for sharing names with real-life celebrities or television show characters, and the limited facts that the problem does provide are sometimes so outrageously ridiculous (like this year's National Entertainment Law Moot Court Competition, which had something to do with the secession of South California over the right to wear sheepskin-lined boots) that the exercise becomes completely detached from reality. In short, it can be like climbing into a flight simulator and finding an environment that looks like a SpongeBob SquarePants cartoon. When neither the student nor the judge can realistically relate the activity to the real world, a significant learning opportunity is lost.
That said, these vices are not necessarily true at all competitions. I've been to plenty that have boring (and I mean that in a good way), lengthy records that include various court filings and testimony. I've also seen many that employ differing standards of review among and within the issues (in fact, this year's beast of an ABA NAAC problem has a standard of review that I think will force students to tread skillfully and carefully). And regardless of how well or poorly the problem is drafted, to say that a faculty member can't give detailed, targeted feedback on a student's brief writing -- while often true before the brief is due -- ignores the fact that there's nothing preventing a professor from sitting down with the student or team after a brief has been filed to give focused and detailed feedback.
In short, I think she makes very valid points, and while her suggestions are a bit too broad to help a lot of the folks who run moot court competitions, it's nice to know there are people thinking about ways to make the exercise as realistic as possible.