MSU Law School Moot Court Ranked #1 in the Nation
Michigan State University College of Law has the top-ranked law school moot court program in the United States, according to 2019-2020 data compiled by the University of Houston Law Center’s Blakely Advocacy Institute (UHLC).
Moot court is a competitive exercise requiring law students to prepare appellate briefs and argue both sides of complicated legal issues before an appellate court – usually a simulated Supreme Court. Students typically travel to locations across the country to compete against teams from other law schools, but the travel restrictions necessitated by COVID-19 disrupted the second half of the season, forcing competitors to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances.
MSU Law participated in thirteen competitions in the 2019-20 season. Students reached the quarterfinals or better at ten of the thirteen competitions; advanced to the final round five times; argued in front of judges from at least six different federal circuit courts; and were awarded the “best brief” award at four different competitions.
While such a stellar season for MSU Law’s student-competitors would be cause for celebration in any year, the recognition is particularly meaningful for members of the class of 2020. The MSU Law community has been eager to recognize the individual efforts and spectacular teamwork that led to this #1 ranking.
“This year’s successes reflect the outstanding abilities and hard work of our students,” said Melanie B. Jacobs, interim dean of MSU College of Law. “The ranking is a testament to each team member’s countless hours of preparation and to the great support from their faculty and alumni coaches. I’m very proud of all our competitors and so impressed with their resilience and drive to succeed under remarkably challenging circumstances.”
A One-of-a-Kind Season
MSU Law’s record-breaking season began in August 2019 and continued through the beginning of March 2020, with students traveling all over the country and racking up wins in competitions that tested mastery of widely varied topics: worker’s compensation law, the First Amendment, constitutional law, appellate advocacy, immigration law, trademark law, and indigenous law.
Students advanced from regionals to nationals, earned Best Brief awards, and continued the arduous process of honing their skills in pursuit of more wins. Midway through the winter 2020 semester, MSU’s moot court program had climbed to #3 in the rankings and was set for its strongest finish ever.
And then, suddenly, it looked like it was all over.
Three days after a triumphant return from the regional rounds of American Bar Association’s National Appellate Advocacy Competition, the undefeated team received word that MSU was cancelling in-person classes and moving to remote instruction due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Within the next two weeks, eight MSU Law moot court teams and their 23 student-competitors learned that their travel plans were suspended: the competitions for which they had tirelessly prepared were cancelled.
But some competition organizers reversed course: after cancelling, the nationals for the trademark and patent law competitions pivoted to a virtual format, and MSU Law students successfully adapted to this new reality, earning strong finishes in both competitions.
And the ABA moot court students who had mourned their last chance at a national championship? Although the national rounds were cancelled, the ABA announced in April that MSU’s brief had won the 2019-2020 National Appellate Advocacy Best Brief Award. The students were, indeed, champions.
Despite a state quarantine, cancellations, and uncertainties arising from a nation in panic, MSU Law’s moot court ranking continued to climb. By the time the season was over, and all the competition points had been tallied, MSU Law’s program was ranked #1 in the country.
“To succeed against odds like those we faced this year is incredible,” said Professor Jennifer Copland, director of the Law College Competitions Program. “Taking the top spot in the Houston national rankings with points earned at such diverse competitions as constitutional law, immigration law, indigenous law, and intellectual property – it really shows the breadth and depth of our program and the dedication of our students.”
Advancing a Community Legacy
Although MSU College of Law’s strong moot court tradition dates to its origins as the Detroit College of Law, the program has significantly transformed over the past decade. Moot court at MSU Law began as a student-led program in which twelve third-year students competed as members of the Moot Court Board, and several additional students competed on diversity and specialized teams. After intensive study and recommendations by a Competitions Committee in 2016, the program was given an academic focus and all competition teams were brought under one umbrella. All teams now have advisors or coaches who provide substantive instruction and feedback on student performance.
Competitions program director Copland attributes MSU’s success not only to the dedication and drive of the students, but also to the foundation provided by thecResearch, Writing & Advocacy (RWA) Department. First-year law students receive appellate training in their second semester of law school, which includes both brief writing and appellate advocacy. The RWA co-directors, Deanne Lawrence and Daphne O’Regan, note that the eight legal writing professors average over 16 years of experience, are “dedicated to student success, and take great pride in our rigorous first-year program. The RWA faculty are happy they can provide an excellent foundation for the success of our second- and third-year students in the moot court program, as well as their eventual success in practice.”
A standout season is truly a community success. While Copland coached or advised six of the teams earning ranking points, she points out that developing moot court talent is really a collective effort, requiring hundreds of hours of volunteer time. The IP teams had coaching by Professors Jeffrey and Jennifer Carter-Johnson and alumnus Michael Templeton. The NALSA team was assisted by Neoshia Roehmer, a staff attorney at MSU’s Indigenous Law & Policy Center, Professor Kate Fort, and alumnus Linus Banghart-Lin. The Zehmer team was coached in Orlando by alumna Kate Wakeman, the Billings team was coached in North Carolina by Professor Phil Pucillo, and the Immigration team was assisted by Professor David Thronson and coached by ACLU attorney Juan Caballero. In addition, the teams had assistance from more than a dozen professors and at least as many outside attorneys and alumni who acted as judges in practice.
Copland adds that she will miss the graduating students, many of whom never had their last chance to compete. “But then there’s that next class,” she said. “The first-year students this year look exceptionally promising. So, not only is there always a next beginning with a new group to mold, but there is also a continuity aspect that is exciting to witness, year after year. Top spot again in 2021? Who knows. But our students will be contenders and I’m excited to see what the future holds.”
Kelly Kussmaul via MSU Law