McGill mooters tops

DANIEL McCABE | McGill law students are running the risk of becoming very unpopular with their peers across the country. Almost every time they enter a major mooting competition these days, they walk away with first prize.

"I don't think this has happened to any Canadian law faculty before," says Dean of Law Stephen Toope. "It's a spectacular performance."

This semester, the faculty's mooting teams have put together a remarkable string of victories at national mooting competitions:

Karen Ingleton, Lydia Riva, Nirari Sheeno and Alex Varela won the Gale Cup, a criminal law moot that focuses on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Varela was named the contest's best oralist.

Melissa Abramowitz, Leanne Bourassa, Param-Preet Singh and Dima Yared placed first in the Wilson moot, a competition that examines questions concerning disadvantaged groups and equality rights.

Ken Clark, Robert Donato, Stephanie Lussier and Farha Selim earned the top prize at the Laskin Moot Competition, a bilingual moot concentrating on administrative law. Selim and Donato were named the second and third best pleaders, while Selim and Clark earned second prize for best pleading team and best factum.

Andrée Boisselle, Nadia Lakhdari, Mark Lessard and Pierre-Hugue Verdier scored first at the Rousseau, a French international law moot. Verdier and Lakhdari were named the contest's second and third best pleaders.

Angela Campbell, Frédérique Ruah, Damion Stodola and Dominic Thérien tied with the Université de Montréal for first place at the T.É. Mignault competition on Quebec civil law.

Elodie Fleury, Kathryn Khamsi, Melanie Koszegi and Mark Luz won second place at the Jessup international law moot.

The work of some of these teams isn't done yet. As a result of their performances, the Gale, Rousseau and Jessup squads will represent Canada at follow-up international competitions involving teams from around the world.

So what the heck is this mooting business that McGill law students are so good at?

It's something like a mock trial where students plead cases in an atmosphere meant to mirror what real-life attorneys face in a court of appeal or before the Supreme Court.

"In North American legal education, it's one of the key elements in what's called 'skills training,'" explains Toope. "It's an opportunity to test your oral advocacy skills. That's directly relevant to anyone planning on going into litigation -- it's pretty much what you do when you stand up and plead a case before a real judge.

"But even if [a student] doesn't intend to go into litigation, it's still important training," adds Toope. "It helps develop confidence and sharpens your ability to argue your point. Any lawyer has to be able to deal with public speaking -- whether you're commenting on your client's behalf on TV or taking part in negotiations for a client."

But that's just one aspect to mooting, states Toope. "It's also quite a striking intellectual exercise." Students have to prepare factums for the competitions which summarize their legal positions. The factums are modelled after their equivalents in real-life court cases and they count for a large percentage of the mooters' marks.

In preparing a factum, says Toope, "you have to digest all the relevant source material and strategize about how to make the most convincing and compelling case you can." Sometimes a factum is written for the appellant's side, sometimes for the respondent. Often, half of a mooting team is ready to fight for the defence, while the other gears up to argue against it.

How close to the real thing is mooting? "I've argued some cases in New York appellate court and, in terms of the content of the arguments, it's exactly the same. For the students taking part, it feels very real," comments law professor Ron Sklar, who coached the Gale team.

There is one difference with real court cases, though.

"You're not trying to win on the merits of the case so much as trying to present yourself as the best advocate for your position as you can," says Sklar. Students are ultimately judged on how well they perform as almost-lawyers, not so much on the specifics of the case itself.

"In real court cases, there are some situations where the law is so clear that even a lousy advocate can win the day."

All law students have an opportunity to take part in mooting during their first year of law school without being graded on how well they do. In their second year, they have to participate in compulsory mooting as part of their program. In upper years, mooting becomes voluntary again. Students compete with one another to earn a spot on one of the McGill teams that will compete in the national and provincial moots.

Students taking part in major mooting competitions generally learn the issue they'll be contesting in the fall. They spend the autumn honing their factums and developing their oral skills.

Preparation is critical, says Sklar. "The judges can hammer at you. You have to know the strengths and weaknesses of your case inside and out." And the judges staring you down can be awfully intimidating. The Wilson team had to plead their case before, among others, Supreme Court justice Ian Binnie.

"My role is to keep everybody on their toes," says Sklar of a coach's duty. "I'm there to make sure that they don't do things like draft their factums with only a week to go. And I'm there to point things out. For instance, one of the mooters spoke much too fast. You can't do that when you're arguing before a court. If you go too fast, you don't develop your arguments properly."

Other coaches included law professors Réné Provost (Rousseau) and Shauna Van Praagh (Wilson). Not all coaches are professors. "We also ask recent graduates who took part in the moots themselves when they were studying here," says Toope. "M.J. Fernandes coached the Jessup team. He was very successful at the Jessup as a student."

Coaches aren't alone in helping the mooting teams out. The entire faculty gets involved in one way or another, offering critiques of factum drafts or of team performances in mooting practices.

Students who take part in mooting competitions earn course credits for their efforts. Given their domination of the country's top moots this year, a lot of law students can expect some awfully good grades, right?

"Actually, the students are marked on a pass/fail basis for their participation [in the moots], says Toope. "But they do get to have the trophies."