Tuesday, February 23, 2021
As the calendar turns to February, the stress of moot court teams preparing for their competitions is palpable in law schools around the country. Students spend countless hours in practices to ensure they are ready on the day of the competition. Often, they spend countless additional hours wallowing in self-doubt over their preparation. Did I do enough to get ready? Have I structured my argument in the most persuasive manor possible? Is practicing more better for me, or should I relax and try to get some rest before the big day?
To those nervous advocates, I offer a simple mantra. Overprepare. Don’t over-rehearse.
By overprepare, I mean that advocates should always strive to be ready for the competition as early as possible. Moot court practice is often psychologically painful. Early practices are invariably embarrassing, as a guest judge is almost certain to ask a question the advocates never considered, catching them flat-footed as they grasp for an answer. But this experience need not feel embarrassing. In fact, it’s the whole point. Practice should expose advocates to as many views of the case as possible, allowing them to feel comfortable that, on the day of the argument, there’s nothing truly unexpected that any questioner can throw at them. The early stumbles are necessary signs of growth. And the earlier they occur, the more likely advocates will be able to adjust their presentation and prepare themselves to answer the difficult questions. Those stressful moments expose the gaps in logic that must be resolved before making an effective argument. Advocates should overprepare by starting early, soliciting challenging views whenever possible, and testing out a litany of analytical approaches while staying in character to see what feels most natural, candid, and convincing.
But advocates should not over-rehearse. There is a fine line between learning how to explain the nuances of the problem and the logical gaps of one’s position and memorizing a stilted script to present to a new group of judges. Advocates must avoid the temptation to generate precisely-phrased responses to each possible question. Often, this leads advocates to fall back on a script during argument. That script builds a wall between the advocate and their audience. It forces the advocate to offer stock, generalized answers to judges’ questions, rather than internalizing the questions, processing their nuances, and offering genuine, original responses that fully addresses the judges’ concerns.
One method to overprepare without over-rehearsing is to catalogue some of the most difficult questions faced in practices, jot them down in a deck of note cards, then mix the deck and practice responding to the questions in random order—no matter where they fall in a planned outline of the issues. This will force advocates to provide original responses to the questions in order to weave their presentation back into the original argument structure. Rather than generating canned responses, the advocate will deepen their neural network around the problem, recognizing the relationships between issues and concepts and learning to tack between them smoothly. That mental pliability is a learned skill, not an innate talent. It takes a great deal of preparation, but it can be mastered by anyone willing to put in the necessary effort. And it cannot be reduced to a scripted series of rehearsed answers.
Advocates often work harder in moot court preparation than they have in almost any other aspect of law school. But concerns about perfection can lead them to work in counter-productive ways. A perfectly-scripted answer is not the goal. Instead, advocates must aim to deepen their understanding of each issue so they can comfortably respond in unique ways to each uniquely nuanced question they face. Overpreparation with that goal in mind, while avoiding over-rehearsing, will lead to an argument performance that will make any nagging moot court coach proud.