UVA Becomes First U.S. Team To Take All at International Tax Law Moot Court
University of Virginia School of Law students won the International and European Tax Moot Court in Belgium last week, becoming the first U.S team to earn that honor in the competition’s almost 15-year history.
Christina McLeod, Phil Ogea, David Rubin and Julia Wynn comprised the winning squad, with student Brandon Dubov serving as team coach and Professor Ruth Mason acting as faculty adviser.
It was only the second year that UVA Law has fielded a team.
“Our students left for Brussels resolved to win, and that’s exactly what they did,” Mason said. “In two short years our students have made Virginia a force to be reckoned with in this competition.”
This year, UVA Law students pleaded against teams from India, Luxembourg, Belgium and Germany before meeting students from National University of Kyiv-Mohyla, Ukraine, in the final round.
The students participated in the moot as part of Mason’s International Tax Practicum class. Fellow tax faculty members Michael Doran, Andrew Hayashi and Ethan Yale also helped prepare the students through mooting.
UVA Law has one of the most prestigious tax law programs in the U.S., and the win boosts the school’s reputation for tax expertise abroad.
Schools from all over the world participate in the competition, which is organized by the International Bureau of Fiscal Documentation and the University of Leuven, in conjunction with the multinational professional services firm Deloitte.
The competition began with a written phase in October.
“I have been impressed with our team all year, and I am incredibly proud that they won the competition,” Mason said. “The IBFD wrote a challenging problem that our students attacked diligently over the last few months.”
Part of the problem involved two hypothetical countries that signed on to what tax lawyers call “the MLI,” considered the world’s first truly multilateral tax treaty, which implements new corporate tax anti-abuse measures.
“Because the MLI is so new, no one really knows how it will apply, and there isn’t that much guidance available on how it should be interpreted,” Mason said. “I thought the IBFD made a great choice by including the MLI, although it definitely made the competition more difficult.”
Given the complex subject matter, McLeod said her training under Mason and other UVA Law tax professors helped her to think on her feet.
“I found the rebuttal and surrebuttal parts of the arguments incredibly exciting,” McLeod said. “I realized just how much I had learned when I could quickly respond to the challenges raised by the other side and bolster my position in the process.”
Ogea and Rubin argued in the final round. Kyiv-Mohyla had won all of the individual and team pleading awards in the first and second rounds, and they were ranked first going into the final.
“Vegas probably would have had us at 5-to-1,” Rubin said. “A 1 percent difference in memorandum scores between us and the team ranked third is what sent us into the final.”
Dubov said creative thinking was important in the final showdown, as it had been throughout the contest. The question at stake involved whether a taxpayer’s royalty could be taxed.
“The team argued that the royalty was not a true royalty and needed to be re-characterized under the tax treaty and domestic law,” Dubov said. “Although the team was able to steer the facts to that conclusion, neither the drafters of the problem nor our competitor foresaw it. The team turned the problem on its head.”
Going into the final, the team had to process new information on a quick turnaround.
“While we had months to prepare for our first four arguments, we only had 36 hours to write an entirely new brief on a new problem,” Ogea said. “Arguing on such short notice tests the fundamentals. Rushing to analyze the new issue highlighted how much we'd learned the past few months.”
The team didn’t get much sleep before their Friday appearance in front of the three-judge panel.
“I got in bed at 4:30 a.m. and woke up at 6:15 a.m.,” Rubin said. “I remember eating my customary Belgian breakfast of two chocolate croissants and four cups of coffee. After that, I blacked out until the competition's organizer announced that the University of Virginia team was the champion.”
After the results were announced, the students were treated to a victory lunch with the judges, the competition's organizers — prominent international tax scholars in their own right — and representatives from Deloitte.
“We got to discuss tax law and life stories over champagne with the very scholars whose work we had practically memorized over the last six months,” Rubin said.
“The judges and scholars were all huge fans of Professor Mason,” Ogea added.
So were the students. Wynn said she initially got interested in the competition because of a previous class she had with Mason.
“I have been looking forward to this competition since fall 2016, when some of my older friends first joined the team,” Wynn said. “As I took International Tax Topics and EU Tax with Professor Mason, I watched the team learn and discuss the issues we were learning in class and looked forward to the day I could apply for the team myself. I found Professor Mason's classes extremely intellectually stimulating and wanted the experience of applying these concepts to an actual case.”
During the week, the students interacted with tax professionals, both prominent and aspiring, from four continents.
“One of the highlights of the competition for me was getting to know the other teams,” McLeod said. “It was always interesting to hear about the legal system in their country and about their tax coursework. I also enjoyed bonding with my team members throughout the week.”
Dubov, who hails from Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey, earned a B.S. in economics from The College of New Jersey. After graduation, he will join the tax practice at White & Case in New York.
Ogea grew up in Kennesaw, Georgia. He has bachelor’s degrees in genetics and cellular biology from the University of Georgia. He will practice tax law at Eversheds Sutherland in Atlanta after graduation.
McLeod, of Fredericksburg, Virginia, studied finance and marketing at UVA’s McIntire School of Commerce. She will join the tax group at Vinson & Elkins in Washington, D.C., after graduation.
Rubin, the only second-year student on the team, is originally from Sacramento, California. He has a bachelor’s in rhetoric from the University of California, Berkeley, and will be working in the Los Angeles office of Gibson Dunn this summer. He will coach next year’s squad.
Wynn, of McAlester, Oklahoma, holds a degree in international business and economics from the University of Oklahoma. She is headed to the corporate, business and transactions practice group at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius after graduation.
“I'm so proud of us for proving that Americans can understand and apply international tax law in a way the Europeans did not anticipate,” Wynn said. “We were truly the underdogs!”