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.

For me, it was really cool because when my family came to the United States, we landed in New York City. Being able to argue in an immigration competition in New York City and win and know that I want to practice immigration law was really meaningful to me – to know that I can do it.

Polina Hristova, ’20
NYU’s National Immigration Law Competition

Recognizing Our Winners

Twenty MSU Law students participated on teams for which points were awarded in the Houston rankings:

E. Earle Zehmer National Moot Court Competition
Tariq Abu-Akeel, Alise Hildreth, Jimmy Joling

Billings, Exum & Frye National Moot Court Competition and American Bar Association National Appellate Advocacy Competition
Hannah Buzolits, Jordan Giles, Allison Kruschke

Burton D. Wechsler National First Amendment Competition
Polina Hristova, Yasmeen Klein

Appellate Lawyers Association National Moot Court Competition
Mark Babcock, Carolyn Horton, Ashley Poindexter

NYU’s National Immigration Law Competition
Bamdad Attaran, Victoria Espinoza, Polina Hristova

National Native American Law Students Association Moot Court Competition
Kacey Chopito, Kaitlin Gant

Saul Lefkowitz Moot Court Competition
Mark Babcock, Joshua Hoebeke, Minelli Manoukian, Trevor Mason

Giles Sutherland Rich Moot Court Competition
Michael Bossner, Ashton Gallagher

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.

I don’t think it really had sunk in yet that my moot court career was over and that was our last competition, partially because everything happened so quickly. Moot Court taught me a lot about myself and it was kind of the driving factor for me to go to law school and to have hopes to be a litigator after law school.

Hannah Buzolits, ’20
Billings, Exum & Frye National Moot Court Competition and ABA National Appellate Advocacy Competition

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.

After quickly sending a picture over to my teammates, we all got on a call together. In a time of uncertainty over classes, graduation, and everything else crazy going on in the world, all of us laughing and cheering on the phone over our wins and hard work made everything else small for just a few moments.

Minelli Manoukian, ’20
Saul Lefkowitz Moot Court Competition

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.”

Having the chance to argue before such an esteemed panel of final round judges was incredible. Moot court, for me, was the highlight of law school.

Kaitlin Gant, ’20
National Native American Law Students Association Moot Court Competition Team

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 the Research, 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.”

What Are the UHLC Rankings? For more than a decade, UHLC has maintained a moot court ranking system that awards points for success in national competitions, including top team finishes, best briefs, and top speakers. Points vary by the size and quality of the competition. The rankings are intended to provide an objective measure of program strength assessed through student success over the course of an academic year.

Other top finishers for the 2019-20 season include:
South Texas College of Law: #2
University of California-Hastings School of Law: #3
Baylor University Law School: #4
St. Mary’s University School of Law: #5
University of Georgia School of Law: #6
NYU Law School: #7 Loyola University Chicago School of Law: #8
William and Mary University Law School: #9
Ohio State University Moritz College of Law: #10

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.”