Jessup Moot Court Team Advances to International Round for Record Third Consecutive Year
From left, Jessup International Moot Court team members Lieselot Whitbeck, Omar El-Khattabi, Colin Downes, Virginia Newman and McCoy Pitt.
A team of University of Virginia School of Law students will advance to the international round of the Phillip C. Jessup International Law Moot Court Competition for a record third year in a row after finishing second in the Mid-Atlantic Super Regional on Sunday.
The team — captained by second-year law students Virginia Newman and McCoy Pitt and also including Colin Downes '15, Omar El-Khattabi '15 and Lieselot Whitbeck '14 — bested Georgetown to advance to the final round from a regional field that also included the University of Pennsylvania and George Washington University.
"They were fierce competition," Newman said. "So many teams had prepared so well, it just becomes apparent that people live and breathe Jessup when they're competing in it."
Downes and Pitt also were honored as the first- and fourth-place oralists, respectively, and the team's memorial (the international law version of a brief) placed third overall. A victory over Georgetown in the semifinal secured the team's place at the international rounds.
American University won the Mid-Atlantic Super Regional overall among a field of 24 teams that competed Feb. 22-24 at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. The international rounds, which convene 12 U.S. teams and finalists from a pool of more than 550 teams worldwide (including 140 U.S. teams), will be held the week of March 31-April 6 at the same location.
This is the ninth time the team has competed internationally in Jessup's 54-year history. The competition, sponsored by the law firm White & Case, will include judges from around the world and 150 teams from 80 countries, including from such far-flung places as Iraq.
"It is a tremendous opportunity to demonstrate the quality of the institution to a broad international audience," Pitt said. "At the International Rounds, we are not simply competitors, we are ambassadors for the school and we take this role very seriously."
Newman said the team aimed to advance beyond last year's finish in the top 20.
"Our goal this year is to get to at least the top 16, though I think we can get beyond that," she said. "I think this is a really special team this year."
Newman and Pitt attributed some of the team's success to a roster of coaches that included the Judge Advocate General's Legal Center and School Executive Director David Graham and Maj. Todd Lindquist. JAG School representatives have long helped coach UVA's Jessup and other moot court teams, and Graham, who won the national Jessup competition with a University of Texas classmate in 1971, has advised the Jessup teams for years.
"If we can moot in front of them, then I think we can moot in front of any practitioner in D.C.," Newman said.
Graham said the team profited "significantly" from Newman and Pitt's experience last year.
"They have used that experience — and lessons learned — to fashion a team, this year, of truly dedicated and accomplished oral advocates," Graham said. "While extensive knowledge of the international law issues dealt with is critical — and requires countless hours of research, study, and writing — the Jessup competition is, in the final analysis, a moot court exercise. Each member of this team has embraced this fact and, as a result, has worked tirelessly to hone those oral advocacy skills essential to succeed at this level of competition."
The team focused on brief-writing for about four months in the fall, and in the last month mooted three times a week with the JAG coaches and a range of UVA Law's international law and legal research and writing professors, including John Norton Moore, Paul Stephan, David Martin, Pierre-Hugues Verdier, Mila Versteeg, Ashley Deeks, John Setear, Karen Moran and Sarah Stewart, as well as visiting professor Tomer Broude.
"They're all so willing to volunteer their time and are passionate about helping us," she said. "Because we've gotten the best questions from the best judges at our school already, when we get those tough questions from the judges in the regional rounds and the international rounds, we've already answered them."
Pitt said mooting is an exercise in constantly revising arguments.
"A good performance comes down to success in three areas: knowledge of the law and facts, confident and articulate speech, and, ultimately, connecting with the judges," he said. "Preparation is the key to learning the law, refining one's speech, and developing a proper level of emotion and eye contact in presentation. Hard work is essential."
The team prepared its memorial and arguments based around a climate change scenario in which an island country is drowned by rising sea levels. They had to address whether the island was still technically a state, the legal rights and status of the island's refugees, and a sovereign lending issue involving a loan.
"We had clearly out-prepared every team we went against on that [last] issue," Newman said, thanks to help from Verdier, an expert on international law and financial regulation. "The judges were asking us questions about the application of international versus municipal law that Verdier had grilled us on."
On one Saturday the team traveled to Washington to be mooted by past team members Megan Strand '08, John Pappas '12 and Jonathan Ware '08.
"Megan's worked with so many different teams now, she gives really good advice," Newman said. "Without her, there's no way we would have made it to nationals."
Newman and Pitt returned from last year's team to choose this year's new members from a group of more than 20 who applied.
"If you're interested in international issues generally, going to this competition is such a gratifying experience to interact with people from all over the world who are studying legal issues in their own countries," she said.
In addition to several rounds of grueling competitions at the international stage, the week's events include a "Go National" ball in which competitors wear traditional garb. Newman said last year's team wore baseball uniforms to mark America's national pastime.
Newman and Pitt have kept in touch with fellow competitors from last year, and have been rooting each other on through preliminary rounds.
"We've all been communicating from across the world," Newman said. "We're waiting to hear whether everybody else is going to be there too."