Monday, March 18, 2019
Tessa’s moot court posts over the last few weeks have been timely for me, as I am leaving tomorrow with a team from the University of Houston to coach them in the Hispanic National Bar Association in Albuquerque. I’m a fan of moot court. Not only is it correlated with bar exam success, but it rewards students for becoming an expert on a topic. The presentation skills honed translate to areas beyond appellate advocacy, and students have to be able to argue both sides of an issue, creating intellectual flexibility. Some of our readers may be in a position to give back to their law school by coaching a moot court team, so I wanted to spend some time on moot court coaching.
Before joining UH’s faculty, I directed Pepperdine’s Moot Court program and learned the value of excellent coaching. My predecessor, the amazing Nancy McGinnis, developed a team of top-notch alumni coaches who invested significant time helping students prepare for oral arguments. As I learned how to run a program and develop student advocates, I saw how some coaches have consistent success with their teams. Beyond awards and trophies, though those were plentiful, there were deep relationships built and significant growth in the students.
While I could spend an entire blog post giving recognition to amazing coaches and students, the two that I learned the most from are Pepperdine alums Wendy McGuire Coats and Jeff Belton. These two have generations of law students who hold them up as extraordinary coaches and professional mentors. They do most of the things I am suggesting below, and then some. After observing dozens of competitions, teams, and coaches, and coaching some of my own, here are the top moot court coaching tips I have gleaned:
- Establish accountability for students
The best coaches set expectations for the students early. Solid moot court programs have strong team expectations, but the coach reinforces these and makes sure that students understand the work that they will have to put in to be ready for the competition. An introductory meeting is a great start. Plan a schedule of practices leading up to the competition and what students should do on their own. Encourage the team to read all of the briefs if they are available. Have them identify the most compelling arguments. They should make lists of the hardest 15-20 questions for each issue on each side. Knowing that you, the coach, expect this output from them is key.
- Give them a realistic view of national competitions
This is particularly important for students who have never competed nationally before. The level of competition that they will see at a national competition is dramatically different than intraschool competitions they might have experienced. What type of questions are they likely to get? How should they deal with inevitable challenges? There will be few teams at a national competition that are not well-prepared. Not every excellent team will win, but an unprepared team will definitely not. I try to hit this point home, because typically law students involved with moot court are busy with other law school activities. They need to understand how important their preparation time is.
- Be a coach, trainer, cheerleader, and tour guide all at once at the competition
Finally, once the competition arrives, the coach fills many rolls at once. As coach, I take notes during the competition of questions asked, feedback from the judges, and any areas that may need tweaking between rounds. The rounds fly by for the advocates, so it’s helpful to have something to recap. I’m also ready to advocate for my team with the competition administration, if necessary. I also think of myself as sort of an athletic trainer, and I try to bring a bag full of potentially useful items – a sewing kit, snacks, highlighters, usb drive, and all of the competition documents. You never know what might come in handy. Many students find these competitions stressful, so I see my role as cheerleader, as well. I know how much hard work has gone into their argument, and I want them to see the value of their experience regardless of the results. Their job is just to stand up and do their best. Lastly, I don’t want the advocates to have to worry about anything other than their arguments, so I figure out all of the logistics, find cool places to eat, and try to make the times that they are not arguing fun. Moot court develops skills, but it also builds relationships, and that’s a big part of what I love about it.
Coaching moot court has to be one of the most fun and rewarding ways to be engaged with a law school. Like most things, if you put a lot in, you will get a lot out. If you are interested in more reading on this subject, I highly recommend The Moot Court Advisors Handbook by James Dmitri, Melissa Greipp, and Susie Salmon.