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Why competitions are worth your time

Negotiation Competition
Texas Tech University School of Law's Taylor Calvert (right) took on Fordham University School of Law's Maria Lathouris and Sydney Rosenblum in the 2019 ABA Negotiation Competition finals on Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019.

Sometimes it’s difficult just keeping up with your classes. Competitions sound fun, but are they worth the effort?

I reached out to students who participated in interscholastic competitions at the University of Oklahoma College of Law and Texas Tech University School of Law, and they all agree: Yes, they’re worth the effort.

You’ve seen the list of benefits. Competing improves your research and writing skills, increases your confidence in public speaking, improves your ability to think quickly, and provides valuable practice structuring legal arguments.

Now read how these attorneys are actually using their competition skills in the practice of law.

I had done it before

I became a lawyer because I wanted to be in the courtroom arguing cases. So when I arrived at law school, I immediately looked for opportunities to hone the skills I would need to be that sort of lawyer. I was able to measure myself against my peers, and I was able to begin to build the confidence that can come only from the experience of standing at the podium and arguing a case.

I’m not sure I would have pursued a career as an appellate lawyer if my moot court experience hadn’t given me the confidence that I could be successful in that pursuit. There simply is no substitute for standing at the podium and arguing a case.

When I argued my first case as a real lawyer, I was comfortable because I had done it before. If you want to be a courtroom lawyer, you should seek out every opportunity to be in a courtroom learning the skills you’ll need.

Law school competitions are the single best way to acquire courtroom skills as a law student.

Patrick R. Wyrick, U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma, Oklahoma City

A forum to stand out

I was interested in competitions from the beginning. When I saw a group of upperclassmates give a moot court demonstration the spring of my first year, it was a thing of beauty.

During my third year, I was on a successful interscholastic team—more successful at competition than the team that had given that demonstration— but my teammates and I wouldn’t have been as good if we hadn’t seen that team, been inspired by them, and practiced with them.

In a school full of outstanding students, moot court gave me a forum to stand out. I spent time with students and professors I probably wouldn’t have known if not for moot court.

Competitions and competition teams are what keep me interested and visiting the school as an alum. Some of my best memories—including the people I met and worked with and the weird and funny things I experienced— came from participating on competition teams.

The importance of public speaking practice can’t be overstated. I started my career at the public defender’s office, where I was speaking in court regularly. In the first few months I was a lawyer, I was doing trials as first chair. Even when I was still an intern, I was arguing for more reasonable sentences at blind pleas.

For everyone who may have to do any kind of hearing, trial, or deposition, public speaking and written and oral argument should be drilled regularly. And here’s a fairly concrete benefit: My new job is in appellate advocacy. The fact that I competed on an appellate advocacy team helped me get this job, and I hope, will help me do the job well.

Alex Richard, Oklahoma Indigent Defense System, Norman, Okla.

Up-close view of real litigators

I competed in ABA competitions because I enjoy the thrill of competition and because I wanted to prove—to my peers and to future employers— that I was an effective advocate who’d work very hard to succeed. My competition schedule forced me to manage my time more effectively and to take on new information more efficiently.

It also introduced me to other students from across the country, some of whom I still contact today. Before graduating, I’d argued before a dozen federal judges and many more practicing litigators. So when I started practicing, appearing before judges didn’t intimidate me because I’d experienced what it takes to prepare an argument. This provided a big step forward in my career.

Few law school experiences allow students to work next to practicing attorneys. ABA competition teams are coached and judged by practicing lawyers, so you get an up-close view of how real litigators approach problems.

By the time I graduated, I’d worked through many issues with real lawyers— always comparing my thinking to theirs and learning from their perspective. When I joined private practice, I had a method for attacking legal issues that went way beyond what I’d learned in the classroom.

C.J. Baker, Heard Law Firm, Houston, Tex.

Big benefits in practice

Moot court has benefitted my practice more than any other law school experience. It provides the closest proxy for actual practice and places you through crucial exercises, including devising your own arguments and strategies beyond the crutch of the classroom, working with others who may have different ideas on the best path forward, editing your own writing thoroughly, managing your schedule in the face of seemingly impossible deadlines, and delivering tailored arguments to practitioners.

Though moot court demands discipline, it also cultivates a craving for the creative side of practicing law—a trait that helps offset the more taxing aspects of our trade. Having a few years’ head start on sharpening these skills has paid off in spades. It allowed me to feel more confident and capable as I began my legal practice.

Ryan K. Wilson, The Lanier Law Firm, Oklahoma City, Okla.

Learn a day in the life

Moot court more closely approximates the practice of law than most law school classes ever could. For the most part, the academic study of law doesn’t teach you how to practice law, as pretty much any lawyer will tell you.

Moot court exposes you to what a day in the practice of law is really like. You research a legal question that hasn’t been settled by the courts, you write a brief attempting to persuade a decision-maker that your interpretation of the law is correct, and you present an oral argument as you might when arguing a motion or an appeal.

I always did better academically when I competed in extracurricular activities. I attribute this increased academic achievement to a greater investment in my education. Moot court made legal subjects relevant and interesting.

A competitive activity may not be the solution for everyone, but for some students, it’s exactly that extra motivation they need.

Conor Cleary, Office of the Solicitor, U.S. Department of the Interior, Tulsa, Okla.

It shifts your perspective

I quickly realized that base knowledge of the law is important, but real success in advocacy comes when you’re able to apply your knowledge. The best way to do that in law school is through such skills competitions as negotiation and mediation. In the competition setting, you apply your knowledge to a factual scenario that’s representative of a real-life situation in a way that allows you to practice being an actual lawyer.

Competition teams provide a setting for you to begin shifting your perspective from that of a law student who memorizes legal concepts to that of a practitioner who solves legal problems. This was the primary benefit for me—it made me start looking at myself as a lawyer rather than a law student. One of the main benefits I experienced through competitions was making connections in the legal community.

One that I made during my competition participation actually led to the job I got right after law school, which I still have today.

Also, during the competitions, you get to compare different styles in negotiating, advocating, and public speaking. It helps to see what’s effective—or not— and determine what styles to adopt in your own practice.

The benefit of this environment is that you get to create your own path for advocacy in a way that allows you to take risks and explore opportunities you may not be able to take in the real world due to time constraints, money, or the risks involved with a real client.

Melissa McDuffey, Crowe & Dunlevy, Oklahoma City, Okla.

Piqued your interest?

You have a variety of interscholastic competitions to consider. They include national appellate advocacy, client counseling, arbitration, negotiation, trial advocacy, and representation in mediation. Check out the ABA’s website for more information.

If you’re undecided, ask someone who’s competed for their advice. The long-term advantages are real.

Connie S. Smothermon Connie S. Smothermon is director of competitions, assistant director and assistant professor of legal research and writing, and director of externships at University of Oklahoma College of Law.