First-Year Law Students Take to the Court--and Find a Champion

Story by Buzz McClain, Video by Paul King, Photos by Alexis Glenn

The first-year law students in Mason’s School of Law completed their version of basketball’s March Madness this spring in front of a packed courtroom and a panel of judges that would have most veteran attorneys trembling in their wingtips.

It was all moot, of course, in the correct definition of the word. The Mason Moot Court gives students hands-on experience in a real courtroom with real judges but without the consequences, such as financial damages or jail time for defendants.

Moot Court Competition

Suzzette Rodriguez Hurley, director of Legal Research, Writing, and Analysis at Mason's School of Law, addresses students in attendance for the final round of the First-Year Moot Court Competition. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

Each of the 180 first-year students was required to participate in a competition that reduced the number of would-be plaintiff attorneys and defense lawyers in each intensifying round, a la the NCAA basketball tournament. The “finals” took place April 13 in the U.S. District Court in Alexandria where Mason law student Azadeh Malek faced off against classmate Tim Cronin in a case that pitted a family dry cleaning business against a new competitor that advertised itself as being organic.

The berobed judges who sat at the bench were not your usual suspects: three U.S. District Court judges–Anthony Trenga, John F. Anderson, and Leonie Brinkema, who gave 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui life in a supermax prison in 2006–were joined by Rossie D. Alston Jr. from the Virginia Court of Appeals. These are the judges who get the big federal 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 minors–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?

The standing-room-only crowd of Mason law students listened intently as Malek, a night student (there are informal bragging rights between day and night students), laid out the case of Smith Family Dry Cleaning Co. v. Green Garments. The judges were not ruling on the fictional case; instead, the students would be judged on their grasp of the appropriate laws and precedents, and the winner would be the student with the most competent and professional presentation.

Moot Court Finalists

Law School students "defendant" Timothy Cronin and "plaintiff" Azadeh Malek receive applause from the classmates and courtroom observers after completing the final round of the Moot Court Competition. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

Apparently, according to Malek, Green Garments’ advertising emphasizes its “organic” practices, which generated neighborhood protests against the homespun Smith Family’s implied “nonorganic” process. Malek made the case that Green Garments isn’t actually organic or even very green and therefore  is  advertising fraudulently at great expense to the Smith Family business.

The judges were prickly in their questioning of Malek, and when it came time for Cronin to present his client’s defense, it seemed as if he’d have an easy time. Cronin had his first four major points memorized but–uh oh–he stumbled badly on the third point on before recovering his composure. Would the judges hold that against him? And when it came time for the judges to question Cronin, Trenga came after him right away, with pointed questions delivered with a bit of bristle.

Malek had two minutes to rebut Cronin and, with time running out, was stumped when Anderson asked what would be considered a sufficient bond if the court found in her favor. Malek was surprised by the question and with that hanging in the air, the judges left to deliberate in their chambers. As soon as the door closed the justices must have been confused–and amused–by what they heard in the room behind them: spontaneous applause and a standing ovation from the gallery for the attorneys.

Five minutes later, the judges returned and recognized Dean Polsby, who thanked the court for its participation in the Moot Court and Mason’s ambitious trial advocacy program, from the use of the federal courtroom to the time the judges devoted to the trial. The judges then each took a turn addressing the contestants, as well as the students in the gallery, many of whom were in a courtroom for the first time.

“You need to go to a courthouse to see good lawyering and bad lawyering,” Alston said, with Trenga echoing the sentiment and offering an open invitation. “Don’t be a stranger. We’re open for business five days a week, and you can learn an extraordinary amount by coming to a courtroom.”

Both contestants received praise from the four judges who complimented them on their composure and their grasp of the case and case law, comparing them favorably to far more experienced attorneys.

Now the time had come to announce a winner, and Trenga reminded the court that last year’s Moot Court ended in a tie. But this year, one winner would be recognized: Malek.

The announcement brought another round of applause from the gallery, which seemed just fine with the judges who came down from the bench to shake hands with the contestants and congratulate them on a job well done.

“And enjoy the packed courtroom,” Trenga said. “You’re not likely to see that again for a while.”


Reprinted with permission of George Mason University