VLS students thrive in virtual moot court competitions

By Kirsten Williams, Staff Writer

Vermont Law School (VLS) has a long and rich tradition of sending its very best brief writers and oral advocates to moot court competitions to represent the school on a national level.

Historically, student teams collaborate in-person to first research and draft their briefs, and then participate in practice arguments to prepare for competition. Previous VLS teams have traveled all around the country to compete; from Boston, to Atlanta, to New York City.

The 2020-2021 competition season, of course, looked a little different. The COVID-19 pandemic presented students (and coaches and judges) with the novel challenge of adapting to a remote environment—a task so challenging and daunting that the American Academy of Appellate Lawyers published a handbook of recommendations for “practicing in the new medium.”

VLS Interim President & Dean Beth McCormack, and 3Ls Matt Brooks, Gillian Cowley, and Julia MacDonald at the final round of oral argument at the National Moot Court Region 1 Competition in November, 2020. Photo courtesy of Dean McCormack.

Marissa Pizaña, JD/MELP’21 noted that competing during a global pandemic was a “stressful, yet gratifying and distracting” experience:

Moot Court has been my favorite experience of law school. My entire [Advanced Appellate Advocacy] moot competition was online—however, that experience gave me a leg-up in my moot court competitions this year. I was used to the glitches, the talking to myself in an empty physical room, and the constant juggle between staring into your camera and looking at the computer screen to see if the judges were about to talk. For both teams I was on this year, my teammates and I spent many hours on TEAMS while we researched, wrote, and edited our briefs. When mooting began, we were able to practice with faculty, staff, and even a retired Justice due to the flexibility of the online platform. During both competitions, I forced myself to stare directly into the camera—ensuring that I was being as personal as possible through the computer—which I always received positive feedback on. Competing during a global pandemic was a stressful, yet gratifying and distracting experience to get me through the year.

Lancee Whetman, JD’21 said that “the actual e-version of the competitions were by far less stressful than in-person competitions just because there was no travel involved and there was less in-person public speaking panic before delivering an argument:”

Working with a teammate and spending time on knee-deep in dense issues, writing a brief, and mooting with professors and faculty. This was all the same [as pre-pandemic]. However, using notes during actual arguments can become somewhat of a crutch in the online format, but when you have a hot bench or when a judge asks a question, you are back in the same position as if you were at the podium delivering your oral argument in person. You tend to see that you still have to be prepared to respond conversationally without a second thought of scrolling through your outline. The online format is different, but nevertheless, the in-person competition is an experience I was really looking forward to this year. Last year, it was such a privilege to meet students from other schools, take some travel time out of SoRo, and get that in-court appellate experience. Nonetheless, I think this year being online still allowed me to learn about some pressing legal issues pertaining both to the environment as well as to Native Americans. And if I had to choose, my favorite moot-court competition has been the National Native American Law Student Association’s. The judges are very well-versed in the area of law and their level of engagement is unparalleled to other competitions I have participated in, which makes the learning experience that much greater.

Despite all the challenges of being remote, Matt Brooks, JD’21 also reflected positively on the experience:

The National Moot Court Competition was one of my favorite experiences while in law school. The competition improved my legal research, writing, and oral advocacy skills. The competition also forced me to work closely with my teammates. I can confidently say that the competition made us all better at working as a unit. Our efforts paid off with our success in the regional round and subsequent trip to the national round. There was an immense sense of satisfaction to see our hard work pay dividends.

2020-2021 VLS Moot Court Teams

Emory Moot Court Competition

  • Competitors: Sara Gaylon, Suhasini Ghosh, and Marissa Pizaña
  • Coach: Professor Fregosi

National Native American Law Students Association (NNALSA) Moot Court Competition

  • Competitors: Lancee Whetman and Steven Bauer
  • Coach: Professor Hoffmann

National Moot Court Competition

  • Competitors: Matthew Brooks, Gillian Cowley, and Julia MacDonald
  • Coach: Dean McCormack

National Environmental Moot Court Competition

  • Competitors: Zachary Berger, Danielle Palermo, and Lancee Whetman
  • Coach: Ken Rumelt

National Latina/o Law Student Association (LALSA) Moot Court Competition

  • Competitors: Marissa Pizaña and Salvador Segura
  • Coach: Professor Fregosi

National Energy and Sustainability Moot Court Competition

  • Competitors: Michael Crouse, Peter Della Porta, and Christopher Scheffler
  • Coaches: Jeannie Oliver and Jenny Carter

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