Saturday, March 21, 2020
I hope everyone is staying safe as we navigate our new COVID-19 reality. In response to the virus, some law schools are canceling oral arguments and moot courts, while others are considering moving arguments online.
At Pepperdine Caruso School of Law, we just successfully held the preliminary rounds of our annual first-year moot court competition via Zoom. We are one the first schools to take such a large tournament--with multiple levels of rounds and cash prizes--online. As I helped move us to an online format in one crazy week, so many people inside and outside of Pepperdine gave me incredible support. In an effort to pay that support forward, I am sharing our process here. I hope our lessons can help other schools and moot court competitions make this transition. Our experience was very positive. The students are grateful we gave them a formal oral argument opportunity, and many sent thank you emails and even fun Zoom screen shots to us.
In practice, many of us have appeared via video or phone for short hearings, and even for appellate oral arguments. See https://www.ca9.uscourts.gov/content/view.php?pk_id=0000000995 (video and audio recordings of the Ninth Circuit argument in Sierra Club v. Trump, 929 F.3d 670 (9th Cir. 2019), where Judge Wardlaw appeared via Zoom). Currently, courts all over the country are holding their oral arguments online. See, e.g., https://www.courts.ca.gov/2dca.htm (California Court of Appeal website noting: “Counsel will appear remotely via video conference, by telephone conference, or by other electronic means as available and arranged by the Clerk's Office”).
We knew we wanted to give our students the traditional moot court experience in these new circumstances, and we chose to conduct arguments using Zoom. We made one major change from the past, as we decided to let students opt out of the arguments to help students who had to leave our dorms quickly or who were otherwise struggling. Happily, about half of our first-year students still chose to participate.
We usually have two teams of two advocates each, or four students, argue in each room of our preliminary argument rounds. With about 90 students arguing this year, we placed 4 students and 2 judges in each of our 23 Zoom "courtrooms."
To run courtrooms at more or less the same time, we needed 23 Zoom host judges who could create Zoom meetings open to anyone with the links. These judges also kept time, though we had the students run timers on their phones too. We suggested on-screen timers shared to the whole courtroom, but the students were concerned the timers would take too much screen space, even with Zoom’s side-by-side view.
Once we identified trusted members of our community to be the Zoom host judges, we created and shared a step-by-step guide for making an open Zoom link. We asked hosts to name their meetings "Courtroom One 4:15," and so on. We then collected the hosts' Zoom links and added them to our Google Sheet listing all the students, courtrooms, and argument times. We shared the sheet with the courtroom assignments and links to all of our first-year competitors.
We had great support from our faculty, who joined some Moot Court Team members and Law Review students, as well as a few alums, to be our roughly 40 judges. Some judges helped with multiple rounds, and many judges told us this was almost as fun as in-person arguments.
We ran three preliminary rounds, to spread out the ability for our Moot Court Board and me to “Zoom in” to meetings and help as needed. We used ten courtrooms each during two evening rounds, and we needed to pop in to only two courtrooms to help. The next morning, our three courtrooms ran without a hitch. Having trusted judges as hosts really helped, and we recommend this approach.
We made our score sheet into a Google Form for the judges. It was fun to watch the scores roll in after the rounds. Moreover, our competition co-chairs had a spreadsheet right away with the score sheet data. These chairs could quickly identify our top four teams for the semi-final round, unlike when they type in scores from paper forms.
We will have four teams in our semi-final round Monday night, and then the top two will go to our final round Wednesday night. We will share the Zoom link for our final round courtroom with our whole school, and we will have sitting judges serving on our final round bench. We made the judges a separate deliberation room Zoom meeting, to be doubly sure their voting discussion will be confidential.
In our law school virtual classrooms today, we can still give our students a traditional first-year highlight by moving oral arguments online. Many of our courts are doing the same thing, and after holding these successful digital arguments at Pepperdine, I can promise you will be glad you saved moot court by moving online too.