By Nicole Boyd
“The real skill of appellate argument is the ability to take complicated concepts and make them seem not so complicated. That’s what I’m trying to teach these students.” – Ryan Tenney
Named for the founding dean of BYU Law, a lawyer who argued 59 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, the Rex E. Lee Moot Court Competition builds leaders in the art of oral advocacy, while tapping the talents of dedicated alums and volunteers.
In its nearly fiftieth year, this intra-school event is a highlight for many of the student competitors during their 2L year. “I am one of those people who love public speaking and have my entire life,” said finalist Ashlee Burton, who plans to pursue a career in litigation. “I want to hone my writing skills and be able to argue in front of a judge, to explain myself clearly and persuasively, and be comfortable with that back and forth exchange,” she said.
Student training begins in Ryan Tenney’s appellate brief writing class; Tenney is an alum of the law school and an appellate attorney for the Department of Justice who is well-versed in the nuances of appellate advocacy.“There are so many things in life you can only learn by practice, and appellate argument is one of them. It’s really hard the first time, and even the fiftieth time, but it gets a little bit easier each time,” Tenney explained.
Competitor Brandon Graves agrees; keeping his nerves in check is essential. “It’s an interesting dance, especially if the judges are asking a lot of questions. It’s a balance of trying to get through your whole argument while still answering all of their questions, in full and to their satisfaction,” he said. Graves plans to use these skills in immigration law. To him, advocacy is all about good communication. “Change makers are good communicators, and they are also people who can pull the community together to bridge barriers of misunderstanding.”
Despite the challenges stemming from COVID-19 (including holding the competition on-line, where some competitors logged into Zoom from their bedrooms), a successful preliminary round was held on January 20th and 12 members moved onto the quarterfinals. In that round volunteer judges eliminated four students, leaving eight to compete in the semifinals earlier this month.
“I prepare by grounding myself in the issue and thinking through every possible implication of the law. You have to be prepared to clearly articulate what’s at stake for the judges and have a solid command of the law,” explained Burton.
It’s not only students who put in countless hours of preparation. “In those early rounds, we rely heavily on the broader legal community and alumni to judge those rounds, and that’s invaluable to us and the students. It’s a lot of work to get ready to judge a round, and we need a lot of people who don’t get paid,” explained Tenney.
As the Rex E. Lee competition chair, 3L Jenny Keeton works closely with Tenney and is responsible for planning, organizing, and executing the event. Keeton was one of last year’s finalists, an achievement that propelled her onto the school’s national team. She is preparing for the American Bar Association’s student moot court competition next month. Her advice to competitors heading into the final: Practice! “You must be comfortable in front of three intimidating judges who are asking hard questions. Practice your speech, know your introduction, be ready with 15 minutes of argument in case your bench is cold. You must have all of that information in your head,” Keeton counseled.
The February 19, 2021 finals will feature three accomplished judges. The panel includes:
- Judge Kent A. Jordan, U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
- Judge Maryellen Noreika, U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware
- Chief Justice Collins J. Sietz, Jr., Supreme Court of Delaware
Winners will represent BYU Law on the national team to compete in the 2022 ABA’s National Appellate Advocacy Competition in Washington D.C. The team will include four oralists and the two students with the highest brief writing scores.
Next fall, the cycle will start again for a fresh group of 2Ls. Tenney hopes for another 50 years of mooting and beyond and is grateful for all the volunteer alums who are willing to give back, helping so current students can move confidently forward. “I really credit a lot of the lessons,experiences, and skills that I developed as a moot court participant for launching me into a career as an appellate lawyer. Being able to help the next generation of students the same way I was helped by others is a gratifying experience.”
To volunteer or participate, or from more information, please email Professor Elysa Dishman, BYU Law’s faculty moot court advisor at firstname.lastname@example.org. Interested alums can help coaching competition teams and judging rounds, hosting events for traveling BYU teams competing in their hometowns, or making financial donations directly to BYU Law’s Moot Court program.
Next month, we will feature student competitors in several external moot court competitions. BYU Law has competitors in the following upcoming moot court competitions:
- William B. Spong Moot Court Competition (Constitutional Law) hosted by William and Mary Law School. Briefs were submitted February 5, 2021 and results are pending.
- NYU Immigration Law Competition on February 12-14, 2021 via Zoom, hosted by New York University.
- Energy and Sustainable Development on March 10-13, 2021 held virtually and hosted by West Virginia School of Law.
- Evans A. Evans Constitutional Law Moot Court Competition on March 12-14, 2021 held virtually and hosted by University of Wisconsin-Madison.
- Judge John R. Brown Admiralty Moot Court Competition on March 24-27 2021 held virtually and hosted by University of Texas at Austin School of Law in partnership with Tulane University.
- National Tax Moot Court Competition on April 1-3, 2021 held virtually and hosted by the Florida State Bar Tax Section.
- Weschler Criminal Law Competition on March 25-27, 2021 held virtually and hosted by University of Buffalo School of Law.