Mooting: how to be successful

Mooting is not as complex as its archaic-sounding name suggests.

Essentially, it’s a simulated court experience, in which two teams argue a preset legal issue or problem in front of a judge. It’s a chance for students to practice their research and debating skills, which means it’s excellent preparation for life as a barrister.

Lawyer 2B assembled six experts, including a number of champion mooters, to give their tips on how to get started – and how to do well.

The panellists

Amy Woolfson is an LLB graduate. She won the 2013 Welsh National Mooting Competition, representing the Open University.

Richard Murtagh is an LLM student. He won the 2014 Birmingham Postgraduate Cup and the 2013 UKELA Junior Shield, representing Birmingham University.

Bethan Hall is a part-time GDL student. She won the 2014 ICLR Annual Mooting Competition, representing the University of Law.

Matthew Abraham is a barrister at South Square Chambers. He was the 2008 winner of the London Universities’ Mooting Shield, when he represented UCL.

Paul Stevenson is a barrister at Tanfield Chambers. He judged the final of the 2013 Inner Temple Inter-Varsity moot.

Sarah Hutchinson is co-chair of the academic and professional development committee at the International Bar Association. She did her first moot (and lost!) in 1983.

What format does a moot take? Is there any variation?

Bethan Hall index

Bethan Hall: Moots can vary hugely. The biggest difference is in the time that you are given for your submissions: some will allow ten minutes, some 15 or 20. Some will pause for intervention and some will include intervention in the overall time. How you adapt your mooting style varies hugely with the difference in time that you are allowed.

On what criteria do the judges make their decision?

Paul Stevenson: This very much depends on the competition but all moots tend to have published, objective criteria against which performance is judged. As a general rule, points are awarded for written and oral advocacy but a greater proportion of marks is usually awarded for oral performance. Points will usually be given for the structure of the argument, legal analysis and dealing with interventions from the bench. Some competitions identify a best individual performance, at least in later rounds, but many score based on the team alone. Remember: it usually possible for a team to lose a moot even if they are right on the law. A moot is about more than legal research.

How did you get into mooting? What are the ways in which students can get started?

Amy Woolfson: As well as the major competitions run by chambers and legal publishers, many law schools and student societies run their own mooting events.  This is a good way to get started in a supportive atmosphere.  My university didn’t have anything like that when I started out but we now have a student society that organises training and internal competitions.  If you don’t think you are quite ready to get up on your feet, then offering to help out at one of these events will give you a taste of what it’s about.  Watching other people moot has helped me to develop at least as much as participating in competitions myself has.

Bethan Hall: The University of Law, where I study, holds an annual GDL mooting competition, which they advertise heavily at the beginning of the course and encourage everyone to apply to take part in. I plan on practicing at the bar and thought that entering the competition would be the best way to get some advocacy experience.

Richard Murtagh: I got my first taste at the Middle Temple in 2009. Studying for my LLB with the Open University made it difficult to take part in group activities such as mooting. However, I joined an Inn of Court early to take advantage of special opportunities for students. One such opportunity was a ‘speed-mooting’ event, where law students from round the country could come together to compete.

Speed-mooting is the same as ordinary mooting, except that it’s, well, speedier! You are presented with a legal problem, and handed a ready-made bundle containing some judgments which must be used as authority to support your argument. After two hours, you are called to appear before the bench to make oral submissions, and to receive some feedback on your performance.

For the newcomer, speed-mooting can feel like baptism-by-fire! But looking back, I appreciate how it thrust me into the role of the advocate. Speed-mooting days are organised by various universities as well as the Inns of Court, so get googling.

What was your first time at a big event like? How long did it take you to be successful?

Amy Woolfson

Woolfson: I was pretty scared! I’d never been to a moot before, the moot problem related to an area of law I hadn’t studied yet and I had no idea what the standard of the other competitors would be. My team mate and I were convinced we would come last.  Incredibly, we ended up in third place, missing out on a place in the final by one point.

Hall: My first time mooting at a big event was at the Inner Temple and it was also my first time being judged by barristers. I was so scared that I was shaking from head to toe. One barrister in particular seemed ferocious, barely letting you finish a sentence before intervening. I spoke to him afterwards and he turned out to be a very lovely man. It was the first time I realised that the people who are judging you are just people who are trying to elicit the clearest answer from you that they can, not out to attack you.

There are usually two people on a mooting team. Any advice for the best way of working together with your partner?

Hall: Sometimes you will be working with someone that you don’t know very well and the best way to deal with that is to respect the work that your partner does and be sensitive to when they are nervous about a moot or insecure about a submission that they are making. I always found it best to meet in an informal setting and have a glass of wine or a coffee and get to know each other better.

In other situations you will know your partner well and be with the same person round after round, sometimes for months. In these situations brutal honesty is the best way to win! My partner Gus and I would be very honest about the weaknesses in each other’s submissions and advocacy and by doing so we learnt each other’s strengths. It’s important to see yourself as a team and not as separate advocates.

Woolfson: Show your partner plenty of respect: you won’t win without them! Mooting is a wonderful way to meet people and I’ve made some good friends through entering competitions and helping out at events. In terms of how to succeed, I would take some time to try to understand each other’s arguments – so that you can give each other feedback. And try to meet up or have at least one Skype call to run things through in advance of the big day.

Presumably there’s more to mooting than turning up on the day and arguing. How should you prepare?

Sarah Hutchinson: The standard advice for any lawyer on any matter applies in mooting as it does in all transactions and cases – preparation, preparation and more preparation. In mooting, the objective is to identify your strongest argument and concentrate on that issue. Don’t waste time arguing points you are likely to lose other than in preparing rebuttal arguments on points the other party is likely to focus upon.

Paul Stevenson

Stevenson: Mooting success hinges on preparation and effective team work. Teams need to make sure that they brainstorm the issues in advance and work out how the argument best divides between team members. This division will usually be by issue in the appeal or cause of action but it might be less clear than that. Teams will then have to decide how best to allocate roles within the team and make sure that they share their best points so that everyone has a chance to shine.

Woolfson: My first step is always to read through any cases or statutes that are referred to in the moot problem.  Next, get on to a legal database and take a look at a leading commentary on the current state of the law – I tend to use Halsbury’s Laws – for an idea of the main issues.

Try to stay away from textbooks or student guides – you need to be able to present your argument in a practical rather than an academic way. The other risk with using textbooks as a reference is that there may have been a development in the law since they were published. It might not be on your course syllabus but you’d be expected to know the latest position of the law if you were in court and it’s just the same when you are mooting.

Matthew Abraham: From my experience, of both participating and judging moots, I have found that the most important part of preparing for a moot is making sure that you have the submissions that you are going to make and the authorities that you intend to rely on in support clear in your mind. This will assist in three key areas that judges often focus on when judging moots: first, presentation and clarity of argument; second, use of authorities; and third, dealing with judicial intervention.

Murtagh: In my opinion, too many mooters treat the problem as a purely academic exercise. They set to work on spotting legal issues and identifying relevant cases, but they overlook the most important aspect of their case… the client!

Whenever I’m mooting, I try to keep the fate of my client at the forefront of my mind. At appropriate moments, I remind the court that my client’s liberty or money is hanging unjustly in the balance. If done well, this can add moral force to an advocate’s submissions. It surprised me to find that so many of the opponents whom I faced were much more concerned about the legal point they were arguing than the injustice to their client who was (theoretically) paying them to argue it.

Law is an academic discipline, granted. But mooting is a different beast. It’s an exercise in practical advocacy. It’s about using your textbook knowledge to assist a real-life person. So, when you first get the problem, take time to really empathise with the client you’re representing.

Have you any key pieces of advice for when you’re on your feet in front of the judge?

Woolfson: I have come to realise that the key thing about mooting is to convince the judge of the merits of your argument.  This sounds obvious, but so many people focus on making their speech rather than really understanding the law that is in play. You might only want to cite a small passage from a case when making your submissions, but if you are going to know what you are talking about you need to have read the entire case, including any dissenting judgments.

Richard Murtagh

Murtagh: In the final round of last year’s UKELA tournament, I was up in front of Lord Carnwath of the UK Supreme Court. As if this wasn’t intimidating enough, the main precedent that was against me in the moot had been decided and written by Lord Carnwath himself.

Talk about pressure! The judge knew his own judgment inside out, so there was absolutely no room for bluffing. But understanding the decision, and how His Lordship had reached it, enabled me to wriggle out from under its weight to assert my own point of view… and win the moot.

The moral of my story: Prepare for every moot as though you will face the judges who decided the main case that is against you. Taking this approach will force you to think really hard about how your case is different, and why your case should be treated differently.

Woolfson: Remember to give case names properly – so for example if it’s a criminal case ‘R v Jones’ should be said as ‘the Crown against Jones’. Speak clearly and at a measured pace. Make eye contact with the judge. This is much easier if you are not trying to recite (or worse, read) a pre-prepared speech. I always try to lower the tone of my voice a little bit as I think it makes me sound more authoritative. When your team mate or opponents are on their feet, remain absolutely silent, sit up straight and make notes.

Hall: I think the key to being successful in mooting is to not be put off by being unsuccessful in one moot or one competition, keep entering and keep trying to win… and when you do win, enter some more!

There are several national champions on this panel, but how successful do you have to be as a mooter for it to have weight on pupillage application forms?

Stevenson: Most chambers (mine included) expect any applicant for pupillage to have done some mooting, debating, public speaking or similar and any candidate who has not done any would struggle to make it through our initial sift. There are some stellar candidates who have competed with success in national competitions and we would always take note of that and give credit for it, but mooting is only part of the ‘mix’. Any candidate will also need to have good academics and relevant experience, mooting aside.

Matthew Abraham

Abraham: Any experience is good experience. Pupillage applications often set out questions that result in generalised answers and candidates often stand out when they have backed up generalised statements with personal experiences. To this extent any mooting experience is undoubtedly helpful. Even if the mooting experience was merely a bit at university, it still shows that the candidate has taken an interest in an area that is central to practice at the Bar.

Hutchinson: Success in mooting is less important than participating. After all, you may be on the losing side because the other party has a stronger legal case rather than as a result of your ability.

Is it possible for someone who’s not naturally combative to be a good mooter?

Stevenson: This question brings to mind the aphorism that cross-examination doesn’t have to be cross. Mooting aims to replicate submissions before an appellate tribunal and it’s not a jury trial. Judges will look for a confident advocate who is creative and adept at thinking on their feet. Sound, measured submissions will defeat half-baked arguments made with bluster and bravado.

Hutchinson: Yes – identifying your strongest points and articulating them clearly and calmly is much more persuasive than adopting a combative approach.

Abraham: Mooting is clearly adversarial but that should not be misunderstood as requiring a combative or aggressive nature. The best mooters are often those that understand the other side’s position but are able to provide sound, logical reasons for why those views ought not to be followed. The party that wins a moot is often not the party that wins as a matter of law and to this extent is more about the individual’s ability to deal with the problem at hand rather than engaging combatively with the other side.

Mooting is an obvious thing to be doing if you want to be a barrister – is it of use if you want to be a solicitor?

Sarah Hutchinson

Hutchinson: Definitely. The mooting skills of preparation, analysis, clarity of argument and articulation are critical in all aspects of legal practice whether contentious or non-contentious. Mooting is an excellent bedrock to all areas of legal practice and will demonstrate a law student’s commitment to their chosen career.

How similar is the mooting experience to that of standing up in court for real?

Abraham: The mooting experience as a whole has similarities to standing up in court for real. This is the case despite the fact that the nature of court proceedings varies greatly depending on whether you are doing an uncontested application or a full-blown trial. The basic skills utilised when preparing for moots as well as when presenting arguments are similar to those used when appearing in court. I have found that mooting has provided a solid foundation upon which I am constantly developing every time I go to court.

From what you’ve seen, do the former mooting champions eventually become the star barristers? 

Stevenson: I’m certainly aware of stellar mooters and debaters from my time at university and Bar school who are now star performers in practice. That said, no-one who I’ve judged in moots is yet a star at the Bar but I’d say that there are some definite stars in the making.

Sponsor’s comment: Edward Chin, Birkbeck, University of London and Vice-Chair of the IBA Law Students’ Committee 

During law school, we learn about the theories of law, but we rarely get the opportunity to apply it. In a mooting competition, not only do we have an opportunity to apply the law, but we get to learn many lessons that are not taught in school. One of the most important lessons is how to build relationships.

In international mooting competitions, students get the rare opportunity to build international relationships and create an invaluable global network of friends and colleagues. One of the key things that any major mooting competition promotes is dialogue. It is a dialogue between the mooter and the judges, the mooters and other competitors, and the mooter and their teammates. As a mooter, a good argument – even a brilliant argument – can only get you so far. How you present that argument and how you can persuade your judge is the cornerstone of winning your competition. A good mooter will not only respect their opponent’s different views, but understand its weaknesses and strengths to further enhance his or her own argument. Essentially, all of this is known as diplomacy and mutual respect. Both notions form the key foundation of international relationships.

Although not immediately apparent, international mooting competitions provide students with the opportunity to understand how one should build relationships. These skills are not restricted to the competition; rather, they are important life skills. This is especially important for individuals who would like a career in international law firms, international relations, or any career that requires interactions between different individuals. Therefore, students should take advantage of this excellent opportunity to practice these essential skills.