A method of teaching law and legal skills that requires students to analyze and argue both sides of a hypothetical legal issue using procedures modeled after those employed in state and federal appellate courts.
In the mid-1700s moot courts in the United States had a tradition of debate and oratory revered in undergraduate institutions such as Yale College. Moot court exercises have changed in the United States since that time. Law instructors present hypothetical cases and students argue them before professors or other lawyers, who serve as judges. Hypothetical cases often address matters of current political and constitutional import.
Moot court requirements vary from law school to law school, with most schools mandating that students participate at least once in a moot court argument before receiving their law degree. Many law schools offer a series of moot court opportunities for students of differing skill levels and legal interests. The activity is competitive by nature, and students vie for honors within their school and in regional and national moot court competitions featuring teams of students from several law schools.
Moot court helps students learn to analyze legal issues; its larger purpose is to teach students the practical side of practicing law. Typically, law students are given a detailed hypothetical fact scenario that raises one or more legal issues. Often these fact patterns are based on real cases on appeal to a state's highest court or the U.S. Supreme Court. Students choose or are assigned the position on the issue to be argued. They then conduct legal research, finding statutes, regulations, and case law that both support their position and detract from it. An important part of the moot court process is to teach students to overcome legal authority (statutes, regulations, and cases) that cuts against their position.
Students then draft appellate briefs, which are formal legal papers combining a recital of the facts of the case with analysis and argument of the legal issues raised. As with real appellate courts, moot courts generally dictate many specific requirements for a brief, including the size of the paper, the width of the margins, and the maximum number of pages. Citations to legal authority must also be listed in a uniform style.
Once the briefs are written, students prepare for the second phase of moot court advocacy: oral argument. Oral argument demands preparation, organization, and the ability to think quickly and respond convincingly when questioned. The student appears before a panel of judges (typically law professors, actual judges, or other students) and presents her or his position on the legal issue. Each student has a time limit, normally five to ten minutes, to convince the panel. As with real appellate courts, judges on the panel are free to interrupt the student advocate frequently and at any time to ask questions about the facts of the case, legal authority for or against the student's position, or the student's thoughts and opinions about the case's out-come. Students learn to anticipate difficult questions about their legal position and respond intelligently and persuasively. Following oral argument, the moot court panel often will review the student's performance.
Moot court is modeled after the appellate procedure employed in state and federal courts. Moot court is sometimes confused with mock trials, a similar learning method by which students conduct a jury trial based on a hypothetical fact pattern. Where moot court emphasizes legal research, analysis, writing, and oratory, mock trials emphasize jury persuasion techniques and a thorough familiarity with the rules of evidence.
Top moot court advocates from law schools throughout the country compete each year at a variety of national moot court competitions, many having a focus on a specific area of the law. The National Moot Court Competition is held annually in New York City and focuses on issues of constitutional law. The Philip C. Jessup international law Moot Court Competition, held each spring in Washington, D.C., is sponsored by the American Society of International Law and the International Law Students Association. The Chief Judge Conrad B. Duberstein National bankruptcy Moot Court is an annual competition focusing on bankruptcy issues.
Bucholtz, Barbara K., Martin A. Frey, and Melissa L. Tatum. 2002. The Little Black Book: A Do-It-Yourself Guide for Law Student Competitions. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press.
Davis, Tracy Hamrick. 1995. "The Holderness Moot Court Bench." North Carolina Law Review 73 (January).
Mellhorn, Donald F., Jr. 1995. "A Moot Court Exercise: Debating Judicial Review Prior to Marbury v. Madison." Constitutional Comment 12 (winter).
Teply, Larry L. 2003. Law School Competitions in a Nutshell. St. Paul, Minn.: Thomson/West.