As a spring semester 1L you diligently went out for every extra-curricular offered: law review, mock trial, moot court, anything that would boost your resume. But with exams and looking for a summer job, you might have chased down these opportunities without exactly understanding what they were or what it would be like to actually be accepted. So for those of you looking towards a year of moot court but feeling unsure of what you’ve gotten yourself into, here’s what you can expect.
What IS moot court?
Moot court refers to working on mock appellate cases. Students on moot court will participate in competitions, either within their own school or in regional, national, or international competitions, where they write an appellate brief and give an oral argument on a fake case. These cases are typically set in the U.S. Supreme Court, but can be set in any appellate court.
How is it different from mock trial?
In moot court, the trial has already happened, and someone was unhappy with the outcome, so the decision is being appealed. If you’re in the U.S. Supreme Court, it’s being appealed for at least the second time, depending on whether it came through a state or federal circuit. Most often, you are dealing with an issue of constitutionality- whether a law is constitutional, or whether someone’s individual rights were violated.
An appellate brief will talk about how this particular legal issue has played out in the courts in the past, what the reasoning behind the law is, and why your case should be decided a certain way. You’ll be asking the court to do something- strike down a law, find that the lower court made a mistake and a new trial is needed, etc.
An oral argument is your chance to present your arguments to the court and answer their questions. You’ll have a panel of judges who can interrupt you at any time with a question- it could be to clarify what you mean, to ask how a certain case’s holding impacts your argument, or to present a hypothetical to see how your reasoning would apply to different facts.
How much time will it take up?
That depends on your school’s program. At some schools, you have a required class as part of moot court, to educate you in appellate writing, arguments, and procedure. If you are participating in a competition against other law schools, you’ll get your case about two months before the competition date. You’ll have roughly one month to write your brief and then one month to practice oral arguments before it’s time to travel to the competition. Teams tend to practice oral arguments anywhere from 2-6 times per week, so it depends on your program’s expectations (and on how much you want to win).
What is it like to prepare for a competition?
You’ll be working on a team of two or three students. Some teams have a brief writer and two students who give the oral arguments, and on other teams, team members write the brief together and give the oral arguments as well. During the brief writing process, most competitions permit very little if any outside help, so it’s down to your team to write an amazing brief. But once you start oral argument practices, you get to receive much more constructive input. You will usually have a coach who runs your practices and gives you feedback after every practice round, and attorneys who will come to one or two practices to act as “guest judges.” Something interesting about moot court is that while you write a brief for one party, you actually have to prepare oral arguments for both sides, because at the competition you’ll argue one side in some rounds and the other side in other rounds. This is hard work, but it also teaches you to approach cases totally differently than if you just represented one side, and that’s a skill that will benefit you in practice.
What are the competitions like?
Once you arrive, you may or may not be told what your brief score is. Briefs are scored before teams ever arrive at the competition. You’ll compete in preliminary rounds of oral argument, usually between 2 and 4 rounds on average, against other schools. Winning each round will depend on a combination of your oral argument score and your brief score. Briefs most often count for 30% of your score, and oral arguments 70%. After the preliminary rounds, teams will move on to quarterfinal, semifinal, and final rounds until there is a winner. Those later rounds often have panels comprised of real judges, sometimes even Supreme Court Justices show up. Most competitions will have an awards banquet, and awards are given out for the best briefs and the students who had the highest oral argument scores in addition to the winning team.
What’s the benefit?
There are several. The most basic is that it’s a great resume booster. Some OCI interviewers will waive a ranking or GPA requirement if you are on moot court. But it’s also an incredible learning experience. In an appeal, you really learn to understand an area of law, how it has changed over the years, and the reasoning behind it. You also get a chance to hone your writing skills. You learn how to be persuasive, how to think on your feet, how to be prepared to answer any question on a legal matter, and how to think like the other side, a skill which will be very useful when you’re in practice and trying to anticipate what opposing counsel might be planning to argue. Perhaps most importantly, you’ll get out of the microcosm of your law school and test your skills against students from other schools, and get a lot of feedback on your strengths and weaknesses. Every brief scorer and every judge in an oral argument round will give you criticism on what you did well and where you need to improve. This is a huge learning opportunity before you get out into practice. And remember, some of those judges might be people whose opinions practicing lawyers wish they could get- if you have a panel of judges from a federal court of appeals and get to hear their feedback on your work, you’ve just gotten a priceless education.
Oh, and also, it’s a lot of fun if you win and get to bring home a trophy.
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And check out these helpful posts:
- How to Get Stuff Done in Law School
- Surviving Law School Moot Court (podcast)
- The 2L Slip: Balancing On-Campus Interviews and Extra Curricular Activities
- How Many Weeks are Left Until Final Exams?
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