It combined advanced academics with intense competition, and in the end, a room full of spectators applauded the contestants who had survived weeks of fierce elimination rounds.
Call it “March Madness” for first-year law students.
The tournament, which began in March and ended in April, was Mason’s School of Law First-Year Moot Court Competition, an elaborate exercise intended to give law students a realistic setting to practice their written and oral advocacy skills. The court wasn’t a basketball court in a loud arena; it was an imposing, leather and oak courtroom at the Albert V. Bryan U.S. Courthouse, home of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, famous for high-profile federal cases and its “rocket docket” of swiftly processed cases.
And the judges? Those casting votes in the final tilt were the real deal: three prestigious federal judges and one ringer from the Virginia Court of Appeals.
All 180 first-year law students enrolled in the LRWA II Trial-Level Writing Course were compelled to compete. Over the course of several weeks, students were eliminated in early rounds by volunteer judges and attorneys. Eventually, and painfully, it came down to two, Timothy Cronin and Azadeh Malek. They would argue the merits of a case involving a mom-and-pop dry cleaning company being put out of business by ostensible fraudulent advertising posted by a new “organic” competitor.
The case was fictitious, but the students were required to know the law and how to argue the case. They would do it in front of a robed panel that included federal judges Anthony Trenga, John F. Anderson, and Leonie Brinkema (who gave September 11, 2001, conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui a life sentence in a supermax prison in 2006), and Rossie D. Alston Jr. from the Virginia Court of Appeals. These are the judges who get the national headline-generating cases, from drug kingpin busts to Microsoft litigation, and they’ve heard it all from $400-an-hour lawyers.
How would the students—not even rookies in the minor leagues—fare in the face of such an imposing veteran bench, with School of Law dean Daniel D. Polsby and assistant dean Richard Kelsey observing from the jury box?
Part of the Legal Landscape
“I can no longer say to people I’m horrible at public speaking,” says Malek, a rather surprising statement from an oral advocacy finalist. “I hated it before. It’s not something I thought I’d be able to do. I can’t even sit in a class and answer something I know the answer to. But this kind of made me face that, and now I’m enjoying it. I hope to get rid of the last remaining anxieties because I realized I enjoyed it. I didn’t think I would.”
As the representative for the plaintiff, Malek spoke first to the panel of judges. Behind her was a standing-room-only courtroom packed with Mason law students all dressed in their professional best who had come to see their classmates in the finale.
“That was surreal,” Malek says of the competition. “When [the judges] walked out in their robes, I realized they’re going to ask real questions this time. I had prepared myself and I knew they were federal judges, but it still was intimidating.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the courtroom, Cronin sat at the defendant’s table thinking, “Thank God, I don’t have to go first.” He says, “As the defendant, I had the advantage of letting my competitor test the waters first.”
The appearance of the esteemed panel of judges and the use of the federal courthouse is a big perk for Mason law students and an indication of how the school fits into the local legal landscape. The Moot Court competition has been conducted since the founding of the law school in 1979 and is well-established in the local law community.
“We have a very good relationship with various judges in and out of the area,” says Suzzette Rodriguez Hurley, director of legal research, writing, and analysis at the School of Law, whose students competed in the contest. “Some [of the judges] are friends of the law school because they teach as adjuncts, know some of our faculty, or have clerks who are alumni. Judges Trenga and Anderson have current law clerks who are law school alumni; which really fosters good relationships with the judges.”
The judges also know what a valuable exercise the first-year moot court is for students to practice presenting oral arguments and become proficient at it, Hurley says. “It’s also a great experience for the students to actually be in a federal courthouse while they’re still students. [The court] is very generous with its time and talent, and we appreciate that.”
Beyond that, Hurley points out to her students that “this is the best place to start practicing law in the country. Not every place can you drive 15 minutes from campus and be in a federal district courthouse with judges of the caliber that we were able to be with. It’s a great aspect of attending Mason as a law school.”
It’s Game Day in the courtroom. Each advocate is given 15 minutes to present his or her side of the dry cleaning case, with Malek teeing off first. She’s laying out a convincing argument, citing dense case law without apparent help of notes, but she doesn’t get far before the questions start coming from the bench, and the judges sound prickly.
When her time is up, Cronin takes the podium and delivers a four-point refutation, but—whoops—he stumbles on point three, a momentary memory lapse that could cost him. Again the questions come from the bench, and they are no less pointed than the ones directed at Malek. Cronin handles the answers with assurance, and soon he returns to his seat so Malek can rebut.
Now the judges adjourn to deliberate and as soon as the door closes behind them something happens that even a long-time bailiff admitted was a first for him: spontaneous applause and a standing ovation from the gallery for the contestants.
The judges return and are about to render a “verdict,” but in this case, there will be no damages or jail time, just the presentation of a plaque for the victor. Each judge spends a few minutes complimenting Malek and Cronin and inviting all the law students in attendance to visit their courtrooms often.
“Don’t be a stranger,” Trenga tells the law students. “We’re open for business five days a week, and you can learn an extraordinary amount by coming to a courtroom.”
And with that, the judges declare Azadeh Malek the winner.
UPDATE: Both Cronin and Malek were appointed to the Jessup International Law Moot Court Team, a five-member unit that competes in the world’s largest moot law court competition.