A team of six Michigan Law students argued their way to the Round of 64 (from an initial field of 365) at the 29th Willem C. Vis International Commercial Arbitration Moot in April, the first time a U-M team has made it that far. It was one of only six U.S. teams to compete in that round.

“There are teams that go, year in, year out, and don’t make it to the elimination rounds,” said the team’s coach, Travis Gonyou, an associate at Binder and Schwartz LLP in New York, stressing that the team has been competing in the Vis moot only since 2018. “To have an American team that has not been competing for as many years make this jump is huge. The teams that they were up against in the elimination rounds—the 64 that actually moved on—these are the pillars of international scholarship. And the Michigan Law Vis team was right in there with them.”

The prestigious competition—held in Vienna, Austria, and the largest arbitration moot in the world—involves a problem of international commercial law. This year’s problem focused on a contract dispute between two parties over the sale of sustainable palm oil for the production of biofuel. 

Four researchers, Matt Azzopardi, Jessica Carter, Hannah Juge, and Steven Tennison—all 1L students—started their research on the problem in October and finished in January, when the briefs were due. At that point, 2Ls Tyler Loveall and Cheyenne Kleinberg, the team’s oralists, started practicing with Gonyou. Loveall went on to receive an honorable mention for best individual oralist.

“We both participated last year, so that was definitely very helpful,” said Kleinberg, who added that they used some of their previous training materials to provide the researchers with an introduction to international arbitration. “It’s not really something that’s talked about in depth in 1L classes, but I think those core litigation skills are the same,” said Kleinberg.

Loveall added that it was a challenge for the 1Ls, who hadn’t had a contracts class yet, to make complex contract arguments. But their work was so complete that Loveall and Kleinberg were well prepared for the oral arguments. 

“At no point did either of us hear an argument that was new, that we hadn’t already thought of six months ago,” said Loveall. “In terms of actual research and substantive arguments, I think the team as a whole laid the groundwork.”

One challenge that they could not control was the timing of their oral arguments in the Round of 64: 2 a.m. Eastern time. Pre-COVID, the team would have traveled to Vienna to participate in person, but the event was initially all-remote. The competition relaxed some of those rules, allowing teams that were geographically close to travel to Vienna. Those who were remote needed to compete on Vienna time. The six American teams all lost in the same round.

Gonyou, who earned his bachelor’s degree at U-M and participated in the Vis Moot while a law student at Northwestern, says the competition is one of the best opportunities for students interested in international law or arbitration because it’s focused on learning about the law as well as connecting with peers and practitioners across the globe. “I’m thrilled for them,” he said of the team. “I’m not surprised they had this accomplishment.”  

Kleinberg was also thrilled as she watched the results come in online and texted Loveall. “I was in the Reading Room, because I was studying for finals, and then I went out onto the Quad for a walk,” she said. “I watched them announce the Round of 64 and shrieked, scaring some undergrads.“ 

Loveall, who was in class, wasn’t able to watch the live posting of the results. He also learned from Kleinberg that he’d received an honorable mention, which he termed “surreal.”

Both are looking forward to participating next year, hopefully in person. The continuity of their participation is important to maintaining the team’s success. “I think Tyler and I both had such a leg up because we had done this last year,” said Kleinberg. “Someone said to me, ‘The first time, you’re learning. The second time, you’re doing it. And the third time, you’re teaching it.’” 

Loveall agrees that continuity is key to success. “It’s about being part of a team that works together throughout the semester, not only leading up to the competitions but year over year that makes the process so rewarding.”  

Image above: U-M’s team at the Vis Moot included, back row, from left to right, 1Ls Matt Azzopardi, Hannah Juge, Jessica Carter, and Steven Tennison as well as, in the front row, 2Ls Tyler Loveall and Cheyenne Kleinberg.