Moot Court Mavens: Ranked 3rd in the Nation

Moot Court Mavens: Ranked 3rd in the Nation

PICTURED 2002-2023 Moot Court Board

Ella Duckworth, a 2L at the University of Miami School of Law, stood before 11th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Adalberto Jordan, J.D. ’87, and insisted the judge oversimplified a choice faced by Duckworth’s client. “Yes, your honor, she does have a choice, but her choice is death,” she said.

Duckworth set her sights next on U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Florida Judge Laurel Isicoff, J.D. ’86, who asserted that Duckworth’s client did have options.

“No, your Honor,” Duckworth said. “Lack of reasonable alternatives should not be mistaken for a choice.”

When U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida Judge Roy Altman cited precedents established in previous cases with similar circumstances, Duckworth told the judge he had missed one significant difference.

“Those cases aren’t dealing with a global pandemic,” she said. “There’s a whole new jurisprudence right now about how to handle cases that deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, and this court has not set any precedent.”

That debate played out not in a federal courtroom but on UM’s Coral Gables campus during the final round of the 2023 John T. Gaubatz Moot Court Competition in October. The annual event, where law students argue a fictitious case before a panel of three sitting judges, is used to select members of the Charles C. Papy, Jr. Moot Court Board, a student organization that has been active for more than 70 years and grown to become one of the most successful in the nation.

Unlike most moot court programs nationwide, Miami Law’s program features more than 200 alumni, sitting judges, and practicing attorneys who help train the students and judge their competitions. Miami Law’s program also features the most robust international moot court program in the country, traveling worldwide to compete in multiple languages. Altogether, Miami Law’s moot court members have won 100 Best Oralist awards, 56 Best Brief awards, and 28 overall competitions over the past 20 years.

All that work culminated in Miami Law achieving its highest national ranking in 2023 when it reached No. 3. And, more importantly to their teachers and trainers, the students have received the written and oral advocacy training that allows them to start their careers more prepared than some practicing attorneys.

“We get lawyers in court every day who are fully barred and are getting paid in U.S. dollars by their clients who cannot compare to the level of poise and advocacy that you saw here today,” Altman said before the announcement that Duckworth and her partner, 2L student Samantha Viner, were named the winners of the 2023 Gaubatz competition. “That’s really a testament to the strength of the community that you’ve built and, of course, to the hard work that you put in.”

Origins of the Program

Miami Law started its moot court program in 1953. The team was small initially, just a handful of students who competed in one state tournament a year.

Then, in 1999, Patricia Redmond, J.D. ’79, returned to Miami Law to start teaching. She checked in on the moot court team and got the bug. “I thought I could help this team to advance,” said Redmond, now a bankruptcy and restructuring shareholder at Stearns Weaver Miller and director of the law school’s Eleanor R. Cristol and Judge A. Jay Cristol Bankruptcy Pro Bono Assistance Clinic.

Redmond dove in. She created a prep schedule for the students and started grilling them through practice rounds. She recruited bankruptcy lawyers and judges she’d worked with in South Florida to serve as practice round judges. She even convinced judges to let the students hold their practice rounds inside their courtrooms, which helped the students become comfortable in that intimidating space.

“When you walk into a courtroom and you stand at the podium, a lot of the students feel that it’s really real,” she said.

Redmond was so impressed by the students that she divided them into separate teams and started taking one team to a new competition: the Duberstein Bankruptcy Moot Court Competition, an annual event in New York City. After a year of Redmond’s coaching, the team advanced to the semifinals for the first time and won the Best Brief award. The following year, they won the entire competition.

As the years passed, Redmond asked graduating students to return and help train the team. They did, and the roster of oral argument trainers, brief editors, and practice round judges grew.

“It started to be a community,” said Redmond, who still coaches the Duberstein team. “The lawyers, the judges, were invested in it. We were like a family.”

Moot Court Goes International

After becoming dean of Miami Law in 2009, Patricia White pushed to bolster the school’s international law program.

Miami was already unofficially known as the capital of Latin America, and White wanted to beef up the school’s international law curriculum to take advantage of that. So, she approached Paula Arias, a Colombian attorney who had just finished a one-year visiting professorship at Miami Law, with an offer to stay on board to coach a new international moot court team.

A handful of law schools around the country occasionally send their students overseas to compete in moot court competitions. Still, Arias’ mandate was to create a structured program to send students overseas to multiple competitions each year covering all aspects of international law.

Arias was uniquely qualified for the position, given her experience across multiple areas of international law, her fluency in two languages, and her familiarity with Portuguese. But she said the city of Miami has its benefit: the size of its international law community. “It’s easier for me to get a Brazilian attorney in Miami than if I’m in any other city,” she said.

Since becoming the International Moot Court director in 2010, Arias has crisscrossed the globe with her students, attending up to 10 yearly competitions. They’ve competed in London, the Netherlands, Budapest, Hamburg, and Madrid. Arias uses each trip as a learning experience beyond the moot court competition. For example, she tells her students they’ll spend most of their time hunkered down in hotel conference rooms rather than sightseeing.

“They think, ‘This is fun,’ and I have to say, ‘No, we’re working,’” she said.

The teams manage to squeeze in a little time away from their briefs. Arias took them on a tour of the United Nations complex when they traveled to Vienna, Austria. They visited maritime museums between rounds when they traveled to Brisbane, Australia, for a maritime law competition. But the students earn those trips because they have continued excelling. Over the past 10 years, the team has won five competitions (some of which have over 400 schools competing), and students have won 57 Best Oralist awards and 31 Best Brief awards.

Arias deflects any credit and instead praises her students and White. “She saw in me something that she thought she could pull out,” Arias said. “It is about teamwork among students, coaches, alumni, and supporters, and loving international law practice.”

Alumni Return en Masse

The Papy moot program was already on the rise, but White recruited two more people who took it to the next level.

Susan Fleischner Kornspan, J.D. ’90, joined the moot court board as a student after looking for ways to put the lessons she was learning in class into practice. After growing up being told facetiously by her mother that she should become an actress, she loved the theatrics of the courtroom and moot court competitions. “It was everything that spoke to me,” she laughed.

Kornspan started her career in Washington, D.C., but when she moved back to South Florida, she wanted to become more involved with her alma mater. At the urging of White and Assistant Dean Georgina Angones, she sat in on a meeting of the moot court board in 2012 and was immediately drawn back in by the students’ hunger. The students complained that the administration wasn’t supportive enough of them. Kornspan empathized but responded by saying it was the students who had to force the administration to pay attention. “If you build it, they will come,” she told them.

First, Kornspan decided to turn the annual Gaubatz selection competition into a full-blown event that now features more than 150 members of the Miami legal community judging, watching, meeting, and mentoring the students. “I was very strategic in making sure we had as many potential employers in the courtrooms as possible,” she said. “The lawyers and judges like it, too, because they get to see the students in action. It’s a great interview.”

Kornspan then sent moot court board members to recruit more participants at student organization meetings and legal communication and research skills classes. And like Redmond had done before with the Duberstein team, Kornspan started recruiting colleagues and alumni to advise, judge, and coach all the other moot court teams. So many agreed that she was overwhelmed to see how many high-profile attorneys and judges came to help. They even had two teams argue before U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito in competitions over the years.

Kornspan still coaches the Hunton Andrews Kurth Moot Court National Championship team and serves as the Papy Moot Court Alumni Advisory Board chair. But she and many others also credit the program’s dramatic rise to another newcomer: Farah Barquero.

The double ’Cane, who received a master’s degree in public administration, was offered to oversee the moot court board and law review programs in 2009. Barquero stabilized the program, formalized the alumni coach process, and expanded the program to participate in more than a dozen moot court programs yearly. Under her watch, the program even started hosting its regional competition: the Cristol, Kahn, Paskay Circuit Bankruptcy Competition, which is now the regional leadup to the national Duberstein competition.

Moot court members, past and present, credit Barquero for being the guiding hand behind the program. “I joke with the students all the time, ‘We didn’t have a Farah Barquero back in the day. You’re very, very lucky and very blessed,’” Kornspan said.

All About the Teaching

The awards and the national rankings have helped put Miami Law’s moot court team on the map, but students and trainers say the enduring writing and oral argument lessons matter most.

Barquero said the team struggled to write briefs when she started, so they focused on the students’ writing. That effort got a big boost in 2015 when Annette Torres, J.D. ’93, a professor of legal writing at Miami Law, came on board as the faculty adviser and started brief writing workshops and a formalized brief schedule that borrowed heavily from real-world law practices. The former shareholder at Stearns Weaver gave the students practical teaching balanced with real-world examples.

“It’s about taking them to the next level,” Torres said. “We talk about higher-level skills and aspirations, points they should be considering as they craft a compelling narrative, developing their theory of the case, and articulating themes that will grab the court’s attention.”

Freddi Mack, J.D. ’14, is a senior assistant city attorney for the City of Miami Beach who primarily handles civil litigation matters at the administrative, trial, and appellate levels. Working in-house for a municipality means juggling cases ranging from land use and zoning disputes to personal injury claims to constitutional challenges. She draws a direct line between her ability to manage such a varied caseload and the brief writing lessons she learned doing moot court at Miami Law. In her regular classes, the moment she started understanding a particular case, it was time to move on to the next. Focusing on one case in moot court and having her work product repeatedly scrutinized by different coaches and practice round judges is what allowed her to hone her advocacy skills.

“Taking the time to build up those fundamentals in a moot court setting was, I think, the best possible way to prepare me for when I don’t have the luxury of time, and I need to just churn out a brief or a motion really fast,’” said Mack, one of the coaches of the Duberstein team.

The same applied to oral arguments, where students have been drilled not only on the substance of their argument but on their style. Redmond taught students to learn the names of the judges they would argue with beforehand so they could address them each by name. Students were trained so hard that they could make their arguments without notes, a rarity in moot court competitions. “When we did that, the comments from the judges were crazy,” Redmond said.

Luis Reyes, J.D. ’18, learned during his time in moot court that it’s not enough to win the legal argument but to remember “the humanity” of each case. A case could have “ugly” facts or a judge may be worried about expanding a law or a precedent. In those cases, he was taught to “frame the requested result in the narrowest, most reasonable way possible.”

“That’s really where the competitions, I think, are won or lost,” said Reyes, a judicial law clerk for Senior U.S. District Judge Paul C. Huck, who coaches two moot court teams.

Future of the Program

Despite all the success and progress over its 70 years, coaches and students still see room for improvement in the moot court program.

Reyes wants to see more students do moot court and law review since doing both helped him learn everything he needed about time management. Kornspan would like to involve more Miami Law professors to enhance the students’ experience. Torres wants to expand the advanced appellate advocacy courses offered by Miami Law, primarily offered to 2L moot court members. She believes all students (and 3L moot court members) could learn from the classes, so she’s been discussing an expansion of those offerings with the administration. “I want Miami Law to have greater offerings for our students to continue cultivating those advocacy skills,” she said.

Bailey Beauchamp, J.D. ’23, president of the moot court board when it earned the No. 3 ranking, would like to see students continue to come together. When she became president, the COVID-19 pandemic was winding down, and she recruited volunteers to help clean out the moot court office, which had become a mess. Now, students spend more time there, helping to rebuild the on-campus community they once had. “We don’t have to be here and do this,” she would tell recruits. “We get to do this.”

William Brandyburg, a 3L and current president of the moot court board, wants to institute a system where 3Ls on the team are assigned to 2Ls to ensure the veterans are mentoring the newcomers. But beyond that, Brandyburg ran for president on a platform of continuity, not change, because of how well the system is already operating. “My campaign point would’ve been made that our process works very well,” he said.

Barquero is also pleased with the program’s current state but wants one more thing: “To be No. 1.”

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