1L legal brief and oral argument competitions

A couple weeks ago, I asked on the LRWPROF-L mailing list for folks to describe their 1L brief and oral argument competitions and promised to summarize what I learned and share it back. I thought it might make a good blog post, so here it is. Though I have given this summary the attention I can spare right now, I have not collated responses particularly thoroughly or carefully. This was also by no means a comprehensive study, so the report is somewhat anecdotal . A more thorough, careful survey of the field on this question will require someone else to step up.

In this post, I refer to “legal thinking and communication” or “LTC” courses when I mean courses dedicated to legal analysis, research, and writing, recognizing the wide variety of names and variation in focus such courses represent. (This is in part in response to a discussion on LRWPROF-L about what we should call the field.)

First, my thanks to the folks who responded to my inquiry. Those who responded on the LRWPROF-L list were Sarah Ricks, Rutgers–Camden; Elizabeth Frost, Oregon; and Nancy Soonpaa, Texas Tech. Folks from ten other schools responded off list, so I offer my thanks to them as well.

Second, if you did not respond to my inquiry on LRWPROF-L, feel free to post a comment here describing your program (and noting especially how it works on the variables described below).

So, now for the summary: The thirteen responses represented thirteen significantly different ways of handling contests, and the variables that I could identify did not covary much. As a consequence, I think it is more helpful for me to describe the variables and the nature of their variation, rather than describing particular programs. The variables, treated in more detail below, are these:

  • Purpose(s) of the competition.
  • Scope at inception (by section, school-wide, etc.).
  • Student performances (oral, written, or both).
  • Entry methods.
  • Number of participants.
  • Judges/evaluators.
  • Levels of competition.
  • Timing of competition.
  • Timing of evaluation.
  • Rewards for winning.
  • Funding sources.
  • Administrator(s) of competition.
  • Advantages of competition.
  • Disadvantages of competition.

Based on the variable and the program descriptions I received, it seems one could generally select from among the options for a given variable without regard to selections for another variable. Exceptions to that rule are self-evident in the discussions below. At some points below, I’ve indicated the number of responding schools that take a particular approach by showing a number in brackets. So ‘[4]’ after a description of an option indicates that four schools who responded use that option.

Purpose(s) of competition. Not all respondents identified the objectives, rationales, and purposes of their programs. Of those who did, the most common responses are to provide a resume line-item for students to distinguish them [4], and to recognize differences in skill between oralists and writers that might not be evident from course grade alone [4]. Others seek to “acknowledge excellence in writing” and “encourage students to do their best work on the… brief” [at a school where the competition covered only the briefs].

Scope at inception. In the great majority of cases, all 1L students are presumed to be competitors, with the competition beginning in their 1L LTC sections. A small number of programs begin with competition across the entire 1L class [3]. In one case, the competition begins in the 1L “big sections,” a group of LTC sections corresponding to larger lecture classes. In a couple programs, the competition is only among students who affirmatively choose or apply to take part [2]. The scope sometimes differs for oral versus written advocacy, with oral happening at the LTC level and written at LTC and big-section level [1], for example, or vice versa [1].

Performances evaluated. Most programs [8] involve evaluation of oral arguments and written briefs, though in separate competition tracks. A few [5] have brief-only competitions, but none have oral-only competitions. In addition, one school also has an award for whole-year performance in LTC. In most cases, the performances evaluated are those the students are required to do for their LTC classes; in other words, students do not write or argue something additional in order to be in the competition. One school noted that it allows students nominated for awards in their LTC sections to make revisions, limited to mechanical and citation matters, before their briefs are evaluated at the big-section level.

Entry methods. In most programs with brief competitions, students’ spring persuasive LTC briefs are automatically entered into competition [11]. One school allows students to opt out of competition in advance. In only one brief competition must students apply to be considered (but still using the brief they submit in LTC).

In programs with oral argument competitions, some evaluate students strictly on the oral arguments they give in their LTC sections [4], while others have a separate 1L moot court competition for orals [3].

Finally, in the program that has a whole-year competition for overall performance in LTC, each LTC teacher in fall and spring nominates from the section a candidate, and those candidates nominated by both fall and spring teachers receive awards. (That school must swap instructors for LTC sections between fall and spring, or this approach would not work.)

Number of participants. In most programs, all 1Ls participate initially. There is a wide variety of ways of winnowing that large number down to finalists and award winners for briefs. At some schools, the LTC instructor gives a best brief award to one or two in the section [3], while at others, the LTC instructor nominates brief candidates to be evaluated above [3]. Above the LTC sections, evaluation and awards can happen at the big-section or school-wide levels, and sometimes both. And finally, at one school, students apply to be considered in a school-wide competition.

As for oral arguments, at one school, students perform their orals before judges other than their LTC instructor, with 25-30% of them getting “outstanding oralist” (resulting in an LTC grade boost). At other schools, there is a separate school-wide moot court competition which students must enter. At some schools, students advance from their LTC sections to other rounds of oral-argument competition [2], sometimes with multiple rounds, though students are not required to participate beyond what is required for their LTC grade.

Judges/evaluators. Schools use a wide variety of evaluators and judges for their programs, but most [10] begin with LTC instructors evaluating students in their own sections. Once competition moves to the big-section or school-wide level, instructors of other LTC sections often evaluate students’ briefs [5], usually after they have been deidentified.

Other schools use other types of judges, including practicing attorneys in the community [2], alumni [1], tenured/tenure track law-school faculty [1], appellate advocacy faculty [1], ‘a team of “celebrity judges”’ [1], a student moot court board [1], and a student litigation journal board [1].

Levels of competition. At about half the schools, students are nominated at the LTC section level but do not receive any award until being evaluated above [6]. But at several other schools [5], competition occurs only at the LTC section level, and that’s where awards are made. At one school, the students receive awards at the LTC section level and can receive further awards at higher levels. For oral arguments, students sometimes receive a “best oralist” award in their LTC sections, but more common is a separate 1L moot court or related competition [3].

Timing of competition. This variable considers whether students perform the work for these competitions during the regular academic term or outside of it. Almost all have students write briefs and perform oral arguments only during the academic term [11], with only one expecting students to engage in activities after term.

Timing of evaluation. Because many programs rely on LTC instructors to evaluate their own students or to evaluate a small number of other LTC instructors’ students, most [8] perform the competition evaluation during the regular term. Those that involve outside judges and more elaborate evaluation procedures sometimes extend evaluation over several weeks after the regular term [4].

Rewards for winning. The most common rewards for winning at any level are a letter of congratulations [4] (with the possibility to note the win on the student’s resume); and for big-section or school-wide winners, a cash prize, ranging between $100 and $300 [4]. Less common rewards include certificates [2], plaques [2], transcript notations [2], and law-school media recognition [1] for finalists and winners. A couple schools have a firm-sponsored or alumni-related event (dinner or reception) where winners of awards are recognized. For brief winners and finalists, one school provides membership on a journal without having to write on. Rewards often come in combinations, so a school might provide a cash prize, media recognition, and an invitation to a reception.

A couple oral argument competitions offer presumptive moot court membership for top winners. At one school students receive a grade boost to their LTC course grade for being an “outstanding oralist” in view of LTC professors from other sections. And at another, students receive extra credit in LTC for advancing upward in a multiple-round 1L moot competition.

Sources of funds/rewards. Most respondents did not mention sources of funding for their competitions. Those who did mentioned the legal writing program itself [2], a local firm getting sponsorship credit [2], and the alumni association [1].

Administrator(s) of competition. In most programs [8], the LTC director, LTC faculty, or staff are responsible for administering the competitions. In those schools where awards are strictly at the LTC-section level, the LTC faculty bear the responsibility for administration, each for their own sections. In a small number of cases, a student moot court board [2] or student journal staff [1] is responsible for administering a competition.

Advantages of competition. Aside from the objectives identified above, some schools noted other advantages of their competition programs. For example, according to one “[e]ven without any notable prize, students always seem very happy to be nominated in the first place. And the ones who advance are particularly happy to be able to say that they were finalists or the winner of the competition.” Another noted that the contest and awards reception gives “the program some recognition and visibility with the rest of the faculty and administration.”

Disadvantages of competition. Hardly any respondents mentioned downsides for their competitions. One noted it the time it takes to run a competition but concluded that it’s worth it.

1 thought on “1L legal brief and oral argument competitions”

  1. I received a comment from a prof on the LRWPROF list after posting this. That person wrote: “We don’t have a “best brief” competition, but we do have a 1L criminal law moot court with best oralist and best team awards for the oral argument rounds. It’s a competition students sign up for that takes place early in spring semester. It’s a closed-universe problem, and the top 16 teams from the brief-writing phase move on to oral rounds. The prizes are $500 for the winning team and $250 for the runner-up team. The prize money comes from an endowment established in memory of a former criminal law professor, but I don’t know who established it (I could find out). The best individual oralist just gets glory and bragging rights. The competition is run by a student board chosen from the top eight teams (previously from the top 4 teams), with a faculty advisor (currently me).

    “Let me know if there’s any other info I can provide.”

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