Students and their coaches from all over the world flooded into Vienna last week for a major international competition. The students endured a rigorous tryout process, trained for months and went through national competitions to get here. But this competition isn’t about who is the best athlete – it’s about who can make the best argument.
The Willem C. Vis International Commercial Arbitration Moot is one of the most prestigious moot court competitions of the year and hosts more than 2,000 law students from 300 schools spanning 65 countries, including Canada.
Mooting, for those who haven’t attended law school, is a simulated court hearing where participants argue a legal problem against an opposing team and in front of a judge. Think of it as the Olympics for law students.
Professor Anthony Daimsis is a mooting coach at the University of Ottawa law faculty, and has been coaching for 13 years.
“It’s the best way for students to learn about the law,” Prof. Daimsis said of mooting. “We are moving toward a world where practical skills are ever more important. You get the theory in class, but you don’t always get to apply it.”
The University of Ottawa punches far above its weight in moot court competitions, and has won the Vis Moot a record three times, including last year.
“From a Canadian perspective, this little school from Ottawa is considered the best international commercial law team in the world,” he said. “It’s like a small country going to the Olympics and sweeping.”
In the week-long competition in Vienna this year, Ottawa made it to the playoffs but ultimately lost to a Russian team. However, U of O did not walk away empty-handed. Students Anna Katyk and Valérie Pelchat won honourable mentions for oral submissions.
Mooting is the closest most law students get to being in a real courtroom and can be an important key to an articling position after law school. Students must try out to make mooting teams, an additional stress on top of the other pressures of law school.
“I spent every day for weeks preparing,” said Ms. Katyk of the mooting team tryout. And that’s just the tryout. Once students make the team, they spend months going over a fictional legal problem they will then argue before a judge or a panel of arbitrators. In the case of Vis, the problem was 50 pages long.
“I was so excited to read the problem when it came out,” said Ms. Katyk. “I almost pulled over to the side of the 401 [to look at it].”
Participating in international competitions shows law students from smaller law schools all over the world that they are just as capable as students from more prestigious law schools.
“The greatest lesson is they realize they don’t have to be intimidated by other lawyers,” said Prof. Daimsis. “As long as they put in the work, they are just as smart as anyone else.”
Next up for the University of Ottawa mooters is the Philip C. Jessup International Law Moot Court, under way this week in Washington.
Emily McMurtry was a member of last year’s winning team at Vis and this year is competing at Jessup along with Maggie MacDonald, Aaron King, Patrick Therrien and Jolene Hansell. They have been preparing since September.
“The team spends countless hours preparing,” Ms. McMurtry said on the phone from Washington. “We work on speaking tics, being mindful of where the hands are. It’s surprising how many times you practise and find there is still room to grow. It’s an ongoing process.”
Ms. McMurtry began mooting during her undergraduate degree and attended law school at the University of Ottawa because of its mooting renown. She attributes the university’s international success in the field largely to Prof. Daimsis.
“Daimsis gives his team everything he’s got,” Ms. McMurtry said. “He can read a student and see what helps them grow. He’s a master at seeing a student’s potential.
“I didn’t have big dreams before I met him,” she continued. “I just saw myself being an Ottawa lawyer. Now I can see myself going around the world.”
Back in Ottawa, Prof. Daimsis is continuing to push his students and prepare them for the real world many instinctively fear.
“I’m adding a level where I run my team like a law firm,” he said. “I’ll track their hours to make sure they are working efficiently. It will help them become better lawyers.”
Prof. Daimsis says that while the University of Ottawa has been supportive, it can be a challenge to focus on the practicalities of practising law.
“The university system is driven by research grants,” he said. “They are forgetting the students. Some schools have lost sight of their mandate.
“A professional school like a law school prepares people for the job,” Prof. Daimsis said. “Students should be leaving law school and going into the world, ready to make it a better place.”