When I toured BU (in 2009!) my tour guide took us by the Stone Moot Courtroom. All first year students, she explained, have to do moot court, where you write a brief on a fake set of facts and then argue in front of professors, lawyers, and judges while they pepper you with questions. I didn’t even know what a brief was. However, I understood enough to conclude that the idea of standing at a podium in a suit trying to answer legal questions on the spot did not seem particularly appealing.
I have since changed my mind (except on wearing suits, wearing a suit is always a pain). It turns out that moot court is much less scary when you understand a bit more what it actually is. So: if you sue someone and you don’t settle, you go to trial. At trial, lawyers give opening and closing statements, witnesses testify, everyone presents evidence – this is the Law & Order type stuff. BU has a killer mock trial team that competes against other schools. But moot court is different from mock trial. Let’s say you lose your trial, and you appeal. At that appeal, there are witnesses, no evidence, none of that. Instead, lawyers just get up and argue, usually for 15-30 minutes at a time, and judges interrupt them with questions. That’s moot court.
If public speaking’s not your thing – well, you have lots of practice time, you only have to do it for 15 minutes out of your entire law school career, it’s pass/fail, and there’s wine and cheese afterwards. If public speaking is your thing, lucky you, because BU also has a killer moot court program. Your second year, you can compete in two intra-school competitions, and then if you do those, your third year you can apply to join a national moot court team. Public speaking is at least not-not my thing (I have been called “very audible” by some). So, this year I, along with my (super wonderful) classmates Kristen Dooley and Marco Romeo competed for BU at the Sutherland Moot Court Competition in D.C., at Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law. We had a wonderful time. And (spoiler alert) we won!
We got to D.C. Friday midday, had lunch, unpacked at the hotel, changed, and did some last-minute prep – including Kristen and I spending a good 20 minutes trying to figure out how to make the lobby computer with Windows 8 work so we could print our notes. Jen McCloskey, associate director of BU’s Appellate Advocacy program, travelled with us, which meant she got the thankless tasks of reminding us to pause and think before answering questions, helping us spin arguments we really hated making, and remembering which courtroom we were in. Catholic gave us goodie bags (moot court party favors!) with lint rollers, mints, cookies, candy, and water. After that preliminary round, we had dinner (at a ping pong dim sum place, and no, I don’t get it either), then crashed back at the hotel so we could get up bright and early the next morning for preliminary round two.
Both of the teams we faced in our preliminary rounds were excellent. One of the opposing team members had such a mellifluous voice I wanted to find him an agent to get him doing audiobooks. After prelim 2, we had lunch (provided by Catholic, and including powdered sugar cookies. Here’s a tip: if you are wearing a black suit, do not eat a powdered sugar cookie.) We spent all afternoon slowly moving our way through rounds, a little surprised every time we found out we were moving on. Then, we found out we were going to argue in the final. I was the first speaker after the bailiff announced, “Please rise, the court is now in session.”
I got it through, “May it please the court, my name is Elizabeth McIntyre,” listed the issues I’d be discussing, and reserved time for rebuttal. But then, right when I took a breath to begin the meat of my argument one of our judges interrupted me with a, “Counsel, let’s move to the weakest part of your argument.” She then preceded to point out what was, unfortunately, absolutely the weakest part of my argument. I spent half a second inwardly cursing that I was going to have to start there, another half a second cursing the lack of helpful caselaw, and then launched into, “No, Your Honor…” One of the tricks to moot court, I have learned/decided, is to not be intimidated. Don’t be an idiot by trying to convince judges of argument they are just not at all buying, but don’t cave the first time a judge challenges you. Push back. Make your case.
This case was about a qualified first amendment right of access to the termination review hearing of a state employee. I very much doubt I will ever again care about that issue. The skills moot court has taught me, however, are eminently transferrable. Those skills could still use quite a bit of refinement – I still have two volumes, loud and louder, which don’t always work well for smaller courtrooms; I am sometimes too combative or talk too fast; I don’t pause long enough before answering questions or often enough during argument, etc. But, I’ve learned how to spend the time developing the best argument I possibly can, and then having the confidence to stick to it. That, I think, is called being a lawyer.