For many law school students, participating in moot court or a transactional law competition is a seminal experience in their legal education. Hundreds of Michigan Law students honed their skills during the 2020–21 academic year in various competitions that, like many activities amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, were held virtually.
Michigan Law's 96th Annual Henry M. Campbell Moot Court Competition, in which second- and third-year students compete for one of the Law School's highest honors, held its final round in April, with 2L Victoria Clark emerging as the winner alongside finalist 3L Diane Kee. This year's question focused on whether prosecutors are obligated to disclose exculpatory evidence prior to a defendant pleading guilty, and whether the prior conviction exception outlined in Almendarez-Torres v. United States should be overruled. The arguments were presided over by the Hon. Stephanos Bibas of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, the Hon. Roger Gregory, '78, of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, and the Hon. Jane Stranch of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. The competition featured exactly 100 competitors, and was overseen by the eight students on the Campbell board.
For the first time, the competition included a mentorship program, which matched participants with alumni who imparted their knowledge about appellate advocacy and oral argument before the preliminary round. "Sometimes there are silver linings to unforeseen events like a global pandemic, and this year it was much easier for our alumni to participate," noted the Hon. Joan Larsen of the U.S Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, who also serves as faculty advisor for the Campbell Competition. "We had 265 volunteers from our alumni community and from the faculty to serve as mentors and as judges during the preliminary rounds, which was a tremendous outpouring of support."
Following months of preparation and making her way through multiple rounds in the virtual setting, Clark acknowledged that the online format came with some challenges. "Sometimes my internet would glitch during arguments or I would forget to unmute before I started talking, but none of us wanted to miss out on this tradition so we decided we were going to make it work and roll with the punches," said Clark, who argued on behalf of the respondent. "I think everyone came with a really great attitude—I found it to be such a valuable experience, and am grateful I got to be a part of it."
For Kee, the Campbell Competition felt like a "must-do" experience before graduating, but it came with some unexpected elements. "I didn't anticipate that arguing in front of the federal judges would actually be less intimidating than arguing in front of the professors in the semi-final round! And all of the final round preparation Victoria and I did made me feel a lot more ready than I thought I would be. There are also strange little things that you don't think about when preparing for a virtual moot. It's harder to read body language when you're in a virtual setting, so I put a sticker next to my camera to make sure I made good eye contact and slowed down my speech during the arguments," said Kee.
By contrast, the online format was not wholly unfamiliar for Michigan Law students participating in international moots such as the Philip C. Jessup International Law Moot Court Competition and the Willem C. Vis International Commercial Arbitration Moot. "We're competing against teams from all over the world; even last year we were using conference software to scrimmage with teams in Egypt and Italy. In some ways doing everything online wasn't the hugest change," said 2L Seve Kale, who chose to attend Michigan Law for its international law opportunities and participated in Vis for the second year in a row.
Kale also argued that some of the newer virtual elements should be kept. "One of the benefits of going online was that our team was able to participate in international practice moots that we otherwise would not have been able to. It gave us experience and exposure, which was a positive element," said Kale.
The Jaffe Transactional Law Invitational, hosted by Wayne State University, is normally held in Southfield, Michigan, but was moved to a virtual format in 2021 for the second year in a row. A team of Michigan Law 3L students—Mac Bank, Nolan Gruemmer and Jack Swanson—brought home the best drafting award for their side of the transaction. Fifteen schools from across the country participated in the competition, which provides students with the opportunity to develop drafting, negotiating, and counseling skills.
Like many adjustments that the pandemic has necessitated, online moots carry a range of pros and cons. While in-person collaboration and communal celebration were lacking, Michigan Law students demonstrated their determination and ability to pivot during difficult times. As Campbell Board Chair Conor Bradley, a 3L, said after some technical difficulties during the final round, “That is the world we currently live in. This year is a success in my eyes.”