On a recent Saturday afternoon, the LSU Law American Bar Association Arbitration Competition team wrapped up their final round of arguments and decided to take a team photo on the front steps of the Law Center while they awaited the judges’ decision.
While the smiles of Kaylin Jolivette, Payton Lachney, Chris Versak, and Hannah Dardar are hidden behind face masks, the photo reveals something about the LSU Law students that the judges couldn’t see during the moot court competition: They were all wearing pajama bottoms.
Welcome to moot court and mock trial competitions in the era of COVID-19.
Due to the pandemic, all of LSU Law’s internal and external competitions are being conducted virtually this year, but that isn’t stopping nearly 100 students from competing in more than 30 contests this academic year.
“I was nervous about moot court being held over Zoom going into it because much of what you do in a courtroom is physical,” says Professor Jeffrey Brooks, director of LSU Law’s Advocacy Programs and Field Placement Program. “However, we were able to keep everything the same as much as possible, and I think it is working really well.”
Although LSU Law moot court and mock trial teams can’t prepare for this year’s trial competitions with in-person courtroom briefs and team practices, they’re adjusting by meeting as many as five times a week on Zoom to get ready to compete virtually. Many LSU Law faculty and alumni are also stepping up to serve as judges during online practices and competitions.
“LSU Law does a great job of preparing us to be in the courtroom, especially under these conditions with the pandemic,” says 3L Jessica Brewer, who along with teammate Seth Madden won the Fall 2020 Ira S. Flory Mock Trial Competition on Sept. 28, which was held via Zoom and was live-streamed on the LSU Law Center Advocacy Programs’ Facebook page.
The challenges presented by competing virtually are not unlike those familiar to anyone who has been conducting business meetings on Zoom: Mute button mishaps, miscommunications, and screen delays. In other words, minor things for the most part. The larger challenge, says 3L and LSU Law Board of Advocates President Jordan Zeringue, is “losing the sense of adrenaline one feels stepping into a courtroom and walking up to the podium to present arguments.
“You also don’t reap the benefits of what things like continued eye contact with judges can do for how your argument is received,” he adds.
On the other hand, the benefits of competing virtually extend beyond the ability to pair a suit jacket with pajama bottoms.
“Giving a moot court argument from your home facilitates a much more comfortable environment,” Zeringue says. “Similarly, presenting an argument from your home on Zoom allows you to have more control over the overall presentation of the argument. For example, you use your hands in a distracting manner, it is much easier for you to hide your hand movements on Zoom.”
Brooks notes another advantage of virtual competitions for all LSU Law teams: Students will be able to enter more national competitions this academic year than ever before since there are no travel fees.
Brewer and Madden competed in The National Moot Court Competition virtually on Nov. 14-15, placing as regional quarterfinalists in the Region 7 round. Brewer, who is also a member of the LSU Board of Advocates, says the pressure that comes with competing is the same regardless of whether it’s held in-person or virtually.
“We were just as nervous as we would normally be,” says Brewer. “The expectations are the same, and we still want to be the best advocates we can be.”
In other recent competitions, Nathan Mulvihill and Ryleigh Wolverton placed as regional finalists and one of the top four teams at the American Bar Association Negotiation Competition regionals on Nov. 13-14. Shortly after taking their team photo in front of the Law Center on Nov. 14, the LSU Law American Bar Association Arbitration Competition team found out they placed as the sixth highest-ranked team in the competition.
“Our teams and coaches are adapting to the new normal beautifully. I am really astonished at how smoothly everything is going and how receptive everyone is to it,” he says. “I still think it gives them the same lawyering skill and experience before they go out into the real world.”