Law Competition Teams Rank First in the Country

With the help of Director Rob Sherwin, the School of Law advocacy teams have continued their tradition of winning.

Texas Tech won the National Arbitration Championship by defeating  14 other teams, including last year’s national champs, on their home turf in  Orange County, Calif.

Texas Tech won the National Arbitration Championship by defeating 14 other teams, including last year’s national champs, on their home turf in Orange County, Calif.

It was like a college football coach getting a chance to interview for a job at Notre Dame.

Two years ago, Rob Sherwin interviewed for his dream job of becoming the advocacy director at his alma mater, Texas Tech School of Law. He was interviewing at the request of the dean, Walter Huffman. If he got the job, he would be stepping into a role that had been held by a highly respected and successful Lubbock attorney who had been the advocacy coach for the last three decades. No pressure.

“Don Hunt coached and directed the advocacy teams for more than 30 years,” Sherwin said. “He was my moot court coach when I was a student here, and our new courtroom is named for him. Hunt had a winning legacy in moot court competitions. The shoes to fill were very large.”

“When Don Hunt tells you ‘I want you to interview for my job,’ and you have the opportunity to continue such an incredible legacy, you can't say no.” Sherwin landed the job, and he has continued the tradition of winning. Texas Tech’s law advocacy program was recently given the top ranking in the country in a national survey by the University of Houston.

Learning Lawyering

Advocacy programs are all the competitions focused on practical lawyering skills.

“The idea is that you simulate being a lawyer in various types of courtroom situations and thereby cultivate lawyering skills. In a mock trial competition, students learn what it is like to try a case in front of a jury. In a moot court competition, the students learn how to make appellate arguments to a panel of judges. What makes it fun is that you compete in teams against classmates or other law students from other schools,” Sherwin said.

There are around 90 national competitions in a given year in all disciplines, about 70 of them in moot court, but Texas Tech does not compete in all of them. Many of the competitions are in particular subject matter areas, like entertainment law, international law, bankruptcy law and others. Some are sponsored by minority bar associations, such as the Black Law Student Association or National Latino Law Student Association. But in moot court and mock trial, there are really just a handful of major national championships to be won.

Texas Tech law  students won the First Annual National Latino/a Law Student Association National  Moot Court Competition in Albuquerque.

Texas Tech law students won the First Annual National Latino/a Law Student Association National Moot Court Competition in Albuquerque.

Heavy-weight Champs

Sherwin explained that just like in boxing, there are many titles – three different organizations that say “this is the heavy-weight champion” – so there may be three different champs walking around, just with different belts.

Until recently, when the University of Houston added its ranking system and contest, there were two major contests in moot court: the National Moot Court Competition run by the New York City Bar Association and the National Appellate Advocacy Competition sponsored by the American Bar Association (ABA), both of which have regional and national components.

“Houston’s new Moot Court National Championship examines every team’s success over the course of a year and invites the top 16 teams to compete in Houston in late January,” Sherwin said. “Texas Tech’s team is basically the No. 1 seed in their Sweet 16.”

In mock trial there also are two major contests put on by the American Association of Justice (formerly known as the American Trial Lawyers Association): the National Trial Competition sponsored by the Texas Young Lawyers Association and the National Student Trial Advocacy Competition.

In addition, there are a number of other national competitions that Texas Tech chooses to compete in because of the size or type of competition. For example, Texas Tech competes at the national level in the ABA's Arbitration and Negotiations competitions.

“We believe that arbitration and negotiations skills are also very important for young lawyers,” Sherwin said.

The moot court team took  second in the Illinois Appellate Lawyers National Moot Court  Competition in Chicago.

The moot court team took second in the Illinois Appellate Lawyers National Moot Court Competition in Chicago.

Courting Success

The 2009-2010 year has been another successful year for Texas Tech law competitors. National championships include the ABA Arbitration Competition and the National Latino/a Law Student Association Moot Court Competition.

Regional championships include the National Moot Court Competition, ABA National Appellate Advocacy Competition (dual regional championship teams), National Trial Competition, ABA Arbitration Competition and the ABA Negotiation Competition.

Kate Cross, a second-year law student from Amarillo, said that one of the main reasons she came to Texas Tech was because of its advocacy programs.

“The advocacy programs at the school of law help prepare students to become attorneys by teaching them the skills required for both oral and written advocacy,” Cross said. “The school has a reputation as being the best, and I am grateful to be a part of this program.”

Sherwin and Cross both believe that each advocacy competition teaches specific skills: moot court teaches students how to think on their feet and to speak articulately; mock trial teaches students procedure in the courtroom and how to build a case. But more importantly, they said, these competitions teach students how to be an attorney.

Competitive Edge

This year Texas Tech fielded 27 national teams in various disciplines: 15 in moot court, seven in mock trial/arbitration, four in negotiation and one in client counseling, with 66 different students taking part in those teams.

“That amounts to just more than 10 percent of our total student body, or nearly 16 percent of our second- and third-year students,” Sherwin said. “We only allow upper-level students to compete on our national teams.”

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"Most other law schools don’t give underclassmen the experience of competing, which may be one reason our students do so well when they do advance to their second and third years," Sherwin said.

Know Your Advocacy Programs

  • Moot Court is a simulated argument before an appellate or appeals court. This court hears issues after a case has gone to trial. The court hears appeals on points of law or legalities of certain actions or issues of law. The appeal doesn’t mean the trial gets a “do-over,” but that something happened during the trial that shouldn’t have, which affected the outcome of the trial.
  • Mock Trial is a simulated trial. This re-creation includes opening statements, witnesses, cross examination, objections and the often-impassioned closing arguments with two “attorneys” prepared on each side. Whichever pair is not trying the case becomes witnesses. The mock trial problem can be either criminal or civil.
  • Arbitration is considered similar to mock trial, but less formal; a private forum in which to settle disputes, as opposed to a public court. The rules of evidence are looser and less stringent. Rather than a jury, the audience is an arbitrator. The arbitrator or arbitrators are the ones who decide the outcome. This is not mediation.
  • Negotiation is similar to mediation, without the mediator. Negotiation competition includes two teams of two people. Each team is given a set of confidential facts by its own hypothetical client. The situation may be, for example, some sort of dispute about property rights. Or the real-life situation NBC faced with Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien, which was settled completely by negotiation. It is the process of negotiating the best deal or outcome of a situation with information not known by both sides.
  • Client Counseling emphasizes interviewing skills. The teams are not going head-to-head, but each meets with the “client,” who is given a set of facts, some of which he can give up and some that can only be given up if specifically asked for that information. The team must draw out of the client the important information with specific questions. Teams are judged on how well that task is performed as well as the type of questions asked, in a 30- to 45-minute interview. The judges rate one team’s skill against the other.