March 1, 2012

Ideas for bettering moot court programs/competitions

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.


Anonymous said...

"climbing into a flight simulator and finding an environment that looks like a SpongeBob SquarePants cartoon."

but wouldn't this be cool? got to make moot court cool. why else do the students suit up? one could argue they learn enough in law school without having to turn their brains to a 10 for its extracurriculars

Anonymous said...

Much as I agree that we need to do much more in our curriculum to produce well-rounded graduates (the thrust of the Carnegie Report, as I understand it), I don’t think the moot court model is necessarily the place to do it.

Moot court competitions allow students to test their analytical and communicative skills. They reward those students who possess the best of those skills coupled with strong work ethics. The typical moot court problem/case file doesn’t give the students a complete experience, but it does force the students to struggle mightily with “next” case scenarios that test their research and writing skills, their analytical skills and their communicative skills.

Having just returned from another outstanding ABA NAAC regional competition, I can attest to the rigors of the experience for the students and to the great rewards all receive for having participated. Yes, law practice involves many things that moot court doesn’t address (client relationships, dealing with opposing attorneys, investigating a case, figuring out what is really going on in a dispute, etc.), but it also requires a discipline and a work ethic that must be maintained under the stress of a constant flow of work. At their best, moot court competitions expose the students to that experience. Let’s not mess with it by trying to make it more than it is, and thereby risk making it a less meaningful experience.

-Ed Telfeyan
Director, Moot Court Program
McGeorge School of Law