Dan Joyner: Why I Won’t Attend the Jessup Competition Again

by Kevin Jon Heller

[The following is a guest post by Dan Joyner, Professor of Law at the University of Alabama.  Our thanks to him for contributing it.]

So, as you probably guessed from the title of this post, it’s going to be a bit of a rant. But this has been festering inside me for the past five years and I want to get it out.  I’m on a plane right now flying back from the U.S. Midwest Regional of the Jessup International Law Moot Court competition in Chicago with my team.  I’ve been the faculty advisor for the Jessup team at Alabama for the past five years. During that time, my team has competed in Miami, Houston, and Chicago, as well as in the international rounds in D.C.  I’ve gone with my team every year to each one of these venues. So I’ve seen a lot of the Jessup process, in a number of different venues in the U.S., and I’ve put in A LOT of my own time coaching my team and travelling with them. And here I mean A LOT of my own time. Many, many hours advising them as they research their memorials, then three to four per week oralist round practice sessions in the lead up to the regional.

I have noticed over the years that, at least at the regional locations we’ve been in, not many of my international law faculty colleagues have accompanied their teams as I have done. Some have, to be sure. But more often than not, their students are either there by themselves, or they are accompanied by a non-faculty team coach.  And in my anecdotal conversations with students from other schools’ teams, it is usually the case that they have not been coached seriously by the international law faculty members at their law school. I now think that these faculty colleagues in international law at other schools have been much wiser than I have in this regard.

I have learned over the past five years through sorely frustrating experience that the Jessup competition is not in fact an international law moot court competition, notwithstanding this being stated in its name. This is, in fact, simply false advertising for the competition. In reality, Jessup is just another law student moot court competition in which style trumps substance, and where good used car salesmen typically come out on top.  As such, the Jessup competition is simply not worth any serious investment of time by those of us who actually care about the substance, rigor and correctness of international legal analysis and argumentation. Frankly, sometimes I think my students could be citing to sources of Kryptonian law, and if they did so confidently and persuasively, they would be just as well off.

The clearest evidence for this conclusion is that if, counterfactually, the Jessup competition was in fact about international law, then it would be staffed by memorial and oralist round judges who themselves had a decent knowledge of international law. In my experience at all of the regional rounds in the U.S. at which my team has participated over the past five years, this has definitely not been the case.  Instead, the judges of both the memorials and the oralist rounds overwhelmingly appear to consist of pretty much anyone ILSA can persuade to come in from their commercial real estate, environmental zoning, or bankruptcy practice for a day or two, put on a black robe, and pretend they’re a judge on the ICJ. Now, I know that individually all of these judges are well meaning, and I don’t mean this to be an attack on them. But every year I’m baffled when the judges introduce themselves, after having critically evaluated the arguments of my students, whom I’ve been training in international law for the past year, by how clearly unqualified they are to have passed judgment on my students, who have manifestly forgotten more about international law than the judges will ever know.

Again, I’m not meaning to slight the judges here. They are well meaning and are not to blame in any way.  I’m just making the point that, at least at the U.S. regional venues I’ve attended, the judges have been totally unqualified to judge international legal arguments.  And this then necessarily results in the competition being one of style, and the subjective vicissitudes of the judges’ tastes.  I have seen this time and time again. Our opposing teams will spout absolutely rubbish legal arguments, but will do it in an apparently pleasing manner to the judges, while my students make careful, well researched and supported legal arguments, and ultimately lose the round. What’s clearly happening in these cases is that the judges simply can’t tell good international legal argumentation from bad. So with the legal issues being necessarily extraneous to the process, a range of subjective and stylistic factors become the basis for the judges’ ultimate determinations of a round winner.  In fact, I’m convinced that my efforts to teach my students thorough international legal research and argumentation has actually hurt them at Jessup. This is because the judges, who don’t themselves know what the proper use of international legal sources is, clearly have their own closed universe of sources and arguments listed for them in their bench brief and score sheet. And wo betide the team that presents perfectly valid and supported arguments that don’t use the sources in the distributed batches of materials. Again, I’ve seen this happen multiple times.

When this happens, and it happens every year, I have to retreat to a mental Lotus position and try not to have a heart attack.  Every year after the regional competition, I have about two days of this, trying to remind myself that it’s only a student competition, and that my students are still getting a lot out of it (which, to be fair, they are). But every year I also have to watch my students come to the same painful realization that I have come to over the past five years – that all of their hard work and all of their time spent learning correct principles of international law has in the end been completely irrelevant to the outcome of the competition for them. This upsets me.

Again, I think that most of my international law faculty colleagues figured this out a long time ago, and that’s why they don’t waste their time trying to teach correct principles of international law and rigorous legal argumentation to their schools’ Jessup teams. I’m sure they support their teams, and maybe judge a practice round or two. But they know that in the end their team will rise or fall based on factors wholly unrelated to their deep knowledge of the law. As such, if anyone at their law schools coach their Jessup teams, it will typically be a non-faculty member.

And just so you know, I’ve said all of this to Jessup administrators in the past. They inevitably respond that they do the best they can with the resources they have to work with in regional competition cities like Houston or Miami. I’m sure that’s true. So I’m not really attacking the Jessup administration here. I’m just finally realizing that, despite the Jessup administration’s best efforts, and despite the judges’ good intentions, the Jessup competition still sucks as an international law moot court competition. At best it’s just a moot court competition where students sometimes mention international law.

But I have finally learned my lesson and intend to act on it. I’ll still coach my team at Alabama. I’ll teach them correct principles of international law and rigorous international legal argumentation to the best of my ability. I’ll do this for them, for pedagogical reasons, and for me because I still learn and grow through the process. But I won’t attend another regional Jessup competition round. I just can’t stand to watch the travesty happen again and again. I just don’t need the yearly frustration. In that, I’ll join my wiser colleagues who figured Jessup out long ago.


39 Responses

  1. It’s not any better in the Netherlands where you have judges from various international tribunals.  In all fairness, most of them know international law and ask substantive questions, but their judgment holds no water, since the administration ends up choosing the “used car salesmen.”

  2. Is this a problem unique to Jessup or does it happen in other international moots (Vis, Stetson, Pace, etc.)?

  3. In Australia, the only criterion of victory is how often the advocates say “your Excellency”; knowledge of the law and the ability to present an argument are basically irrelevant.  The year I coached, an opposing coach came up to me after a round and said “Congratulations, you destroyed us.”

    We lost unanimously.

  4. Dear Dan,

    As a past participant and current coach of a Jessup team from Israel I have to say that while “I understand your concern” I don’t share your views. It is true that regional and even some of the preliminary rounds in the international level involve judges with far less knowledge of the law. But this does NOT in any way change the fact that Jessup is still by far the most prestigious and challenging International Law moot court competition in the world today. 

    I’ve learned more in doing Jessup than I would have ever learned in an academic course or writing a seminar paper. From general international law (Art.38(1) sources, general principles, ICJ procedures etc.) to particular international law subject matters (the ever-complex and ever-expanding dynamic fields of public international law, namely IHL, IHRL, Responsibility, UN law etc.) Writing 20,000 word memorials in English on these topics, researching them and establishing your legal argumentation is nothing short of amazing, hard, unique, exhausting, exhilarating.

    But Jessup is also about providing students with the practical tools needed to advance their international legal career. If you look at a Jessup Oral Round Judging sheet you will see that the law as it stands alone receives only 30 points out of an overall 100. It is a substantial element in judging but it is NOT the only criteria, and it shouldn’t be either. I don’t want 500 teams standing therer in Washington citing the same laconic legal argumentation – I want them to be passionate about it too. Style, poise and demeanor, organization and time management, knowledge of facts and primarily the ability to PERSUADE a judge (by manner of Q&A) take up the other 70% of the overall score.

    In every field of legal practice (be it international law or contractual law) the black letter law, the theory behind it, its rationale and logic are only vessels in an attempt to persuade. Every verdict of a court or a legal article by a professor follow this line. We analyze the law, we use the law, but we try to convince other that our interpretation is just and right and most appealing. You can call this being “a car salesman” – I see it as being a lawyer, an advocate. You need to know the product, what you’re selling, no question about it (30%) – but you also need to know how to SELL it. As a coach I can tell you that I have worked with my students both on their legal arguments (crystallizing them to perfection) as on their presentation and strategy. Having such strategy is nothing to be ashamed of, at the end of the day – this is a competition.

    Again I share your views and hope that better judges are found and that they follow both the bench and their own independent legal thinking when judging. but this does not diminish from the competition as a whole and I hope that you remember that and continue coming to the competition, to the very least to be there for your kids, hold their hands and show your support. As a foreigner I’ve never witness a US regional round but even if the judges judge poorly, you have to admit there is something special about dozens of 20 something year old students passionately arguing and citing old and forgotten ICJ procedures and General Assembly resolutions. 
    All the best,

  5. I’m a student. I think you should not think a lot about the results. Any student will be really grateful for all the time a teacher can spend with him/her. This what really matters… and the fact that we have the chance to do deep investigation in international law. In name of students I thank all Professors who coach!

    Best wishes!

  6. Finally Jessup has caught up with the rest of the society. It seems that the rest of humanity suffers increasingly under the “used car salesmen”-syndrome. Arguments, talent and value count less and less, while the sale techniques more and more. We will finally reach the stadium when I’ll sell a guy a house and he’ll sell me a car, based on our ultimate talent to sell them, not on the quality of the product. And his roof will fall on his head while my car loses the wheels on the highway. If humanity will autodestroy itself, it will not happen through WMD’s, climate change or overpopulation. It will be by selling talent.

  7. Surely this post is ill-timed – given that many national rounds are yet to take place and that now, many students and coaches may be encouraged to rely on the (sometimes) lazy excuse of bad judges. Even with bad judges, the performance of a team is causally linked to the outcome of the round.

  8. As a veteran Jessup coach, I understand Professor Joyner’s frustration.  At the regional level, there have always been problems with finding enough judges qualified to understand the legal background, and also with the time to study the materials.  I am taken by two comments, from Asaf, and Dome.  Asaf is correct that students competing in Jessup learn many things (and, often, more international law than their judges).  Dome is correct that the example of faculty members who donate so much time to a subject they love and to a vocation about which they are passionate teaches a great deal.  With its flaws, and I think it has fewer than other competitions I have seen, Jessup ends up a net positive.
    On another post, from m3, I think the Vis judges are better.  Most know international commercial arbitration and international commercial law from practicing it.  But it is a centralized competition, not a regionalized one.
    Take a breath, Professor Joyner.  When you see another group of students who care about international law, you’ll be tempted to help them.
    Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

  9. EMS – do you mean lazy, or cowardly – like people who respond to blog posts anonymously?

  10. I’m a student. I really understand your critics, but it seems a bit too academic one. What a real government or company wants for international lawyers or now-students – that would not be mere rigorous or correct knowledge of international law that. Students will sometimes come to the time when he/she must be “good salesman” to satisfy his/her client. I think this aspect of “style” is considered more important in Jessup so far as Round Points allocation for Memorial and Oral Proceedings, that is 3:6, shows. And this would be the needs of the world.
    Another aspect, what you call “substance”, is fairly assessed in Memorial round, that is why those who cannot always be good salesmen, for instance Asian Teams disadvantaged in English compared to native Teams, can come out on top. I do not mean legal substance can be ignored in oral proceedings. But that must be properly expressed in good style to be recognized.

  11. Response…
    I generally agree with William.  In Houston, I have often been one of the three judges in the final regional round.  There are three law schools in Houston and the Jessup administrators try to attrack some of my IL colleagues, but they are not often successful.  I try to ask questions about the nature and sources or IL and pertinent specific IL questions to “weed out” the mere-moot-courters.
    One should help if one has time during the ASIL meeting in Wash., D.C., since they appreciate IL profs. and other professionals helping during the various rounds there.  I have been a judge on the final World Round, and both teams were fine.
    Many years ago, it was expected that IL profs. would not direclty help students write their memorials or directly help them prepare for orals, but IL profs. could be judges in practice rounds.  Perhaps this has changed.

  12. Response…
    sorry for the typos.
    Once during the very high rounds in D.C., however, I asked both teams questions about derogations re: human rights and neither team seemed to be prepared for such, although it seemed obviously connected to the case.
    One team, that lost in a close round, filed a protest against me for asking such, to no avail.

  13. I guess I am one of those  Jessup judges that “come in from their commercial real estate, environmental zoning, or bankruptcy practice for a day or two,” being a patent litigator myself.  By way of background, I competed in the Jessup in 1987, and have judged at U.S. regional, national, and international levels each year since.  During that time, I have logged approximately 200 rounds of judging experience.  I am certainly no international legal expert.  However, I undertake a detailed study of the the compromis, clarifications thereto, and bench memorandum in preparation to judge each year. 

    In my experience over the years, prepared judges at all levels of the Jeesup are the rule, rather than the exception, irrespective of their day-to-day practices. 

    It is unfortunate when a Jessup judge is unprepared, and it certainly does happen.  However, if a purpose of the Jessup is to teach oral advocacy skills for use post-graduation (in addition to teaching public international law), then learning how to deal with an unprepared judge is part of the process. 

    As a patent litigator, I know something about judges who are ill-equipped to sit in judgment in a particular proceeding, understanding neither patent law, nor the particular technology in question.  This is a problem I encounter almost daily, in fact.  However, retreating to my office and complaining about the quality of judging does neither myself, nor, more importantly, my clients, any good whatsoever.

    I have seen teams that are obviously well-versed in international legal authorities.  Often, however, their knowledge manifests itself in a lengthy string cite of case names and international legal scholars with little, if any, additional explanation as to the importance thereof.  In other words, these agents start with the assumption that the panel is familiar with the cited aurthority to the same extent that they are – a dangerous assumption in any court. 

    I will reward a team that puts forth a thorough discussion of a few citations, as opposed to a team that races through a laundry list of authors.  I suppose that this could be misconstrued as lack of preparation, or rewarding teams with a lesser knowledge of international law.  I would characterize it is rewarding superior oral advocacy.

    Finally, I would urge Professor Joyner to reconsider his decision not to participate further in the Jessup.  Having been a competitor, and having met thousands of competitors over the years, I can assure you that the sting of losing is soon forgotten, and the value of participating in this worldwide competition is the memory that Jessup alumni carry with them.  This is evident from the number of such alumni that return, year after year, volunteering their time as judges and coaches.

  14. It appears that the US Administrators have taken a leaf out of the book of the organisers of national rounds in India, for it cannot possibly be the other way as Surana & Surana has thrived on its reputation to host the worst possible national rounds ever year after year. Though some of the judges are really good, with the India South rounds seeing more of the better judges conversant with international law, calling the quality of judging in the north rounds poor is a severe understatement. These judges have no idea whatsoever about the problem let alone the nuances of international law involved. Courts are reduced to a competition of paying better lip service and playing dumb. And though the Jessup Internationals may arguably be the ultimate Holy Grail of mooting, the Vis Vienna Moot is easily the best organised moot, (and most of it is down to the wise ageless adorable Prof. Eric Bergsten) and no such travesties have been attached to it to undermine its prestige and the respect that it commands as a top, top international moot.

  15. Response…
    George: good points, and thanks for helping.
    It is true that the Jessup is a hybrid — it is not like the ICJ (with few questions) and the ICJ doesn’t formally recognize “best oralist.”
    We should all try to help the organizers of regionals attract more int’l law profs. as well as what appears to be a very good judge, George.

  16. As a Jessup participant, I fully share concerns about ‘bad’ judges who are unqualified in PIL, but I must note that this is only one side of the coin. The problem is not judges’ qualification as such, but rather what they look for when judging. They may very well understand that the team prevails on the law and still say “you were monsters in terms of law but we decided against you because your advocacy skills are not as good as those of your opponents.” My team heard this in the run-off round in DC last year. However, in other rounds my team evidently prevailed in terms of advocacy – and we lost. We have learnt not to be frustrated about it since we can do nothing about the criteria judges use to decide – for us it depends fully on good luck. However, there is something ILSA and national administrators can do. And it does not require many resources. They should just ensure that all rounds, both preliminary and advanced, are judged on the same criteria. There are such criteria – they may be found in the score sheet: knowledge of the law, knowledge of the facts, Q & A, style & poise, and time management. Even a judge unqualified in PIL may use criteria 2-5, even a person who did not read the Compromis may use 1 and 3-5, etc. But it is crucial that advanced rounds are judged based on the same criteria! “Passion for the law”, “being too stubborn” or “disrespect toward the court by having no notes” is nowhere on the score sheet, and there is no reason why such and similar reasons should decide the fate of the final round while all other round are judged on different criteria.

  17. While I do post sub rosa at my own peril (see a response from “Dan Joyner” at 1:49pm, which I sincerely hope was not penned by Prof. Joyner), I want to clarify one point that people are missing:  Dan is not saying that he will not help his students or that he will not participate in the Jessup.  He is saying that he will not attend the Regional Rounds in the future because to see his team fall at the hands of “unqualified” and ill-prepared judges is just something he cannot bear.
    To this, I applaud his honesty.  There are a number of judges in every moot court competition who judge based on stylistics or defer to any judge with greater expertise–skewing results to that one judge’s biased interpretation–and that reality becomes greater and greater as competitions become larger and larger.  One of the reasons why the Jessup International rounds are more prestigious is that there are judges drawn from the host of international practitioners who descend on Washington for the ASIL conference and supplement the already talented pool in DC.
    But Dan, now that your concerns have been registered, do you expect that your team will go to regionals with the same excitement?  Will they devote the same passion to a fruitless fight?  Will your Jessup team still draw the same talented students it would have without your public comments?  The comments themselves are well-taken–though there doesn’t appear to be much that can be done, even if the public censure galvanizes ILSA to recruit harder–and your frustration is understandable.  However, preparing your students for defeat instead of modifying your approach given the realities of the competition is a disappointing tactical choice.  Refusing to travel with your students on this principle also sends an unfortunate message to them that your personal objections are more important to you than their hard work and their relationship to you.  As you do appear devoted to them–more than your colleagues at other schools, if what you say is true–it would be a shame for you to inflict your revenge on your students instead of on the judges.
    As another commentator stated, ill-prepared judges exist in real life.  Sometimes, even with knowledgeable judges, form does take unfortunate precedence in the courtroom.  Lawyers make adjustments to deal with these challenges–at the cost of foregoing intellectually intricate and precise arguments, to be sure–because that is what the competition requires.  That is what the profession requires sometimes.  And that is why teams practice more (and differently) between regionals and nationals/internationals–because the proceedings and approaches are different, just as they are in practice.  That said, if your intention was to force change by strong-armed rebuke, I hope that it works.  Competitions are always better when students are challenged on the law and on their style.
    Finally, as a member of the international law faculty, I hope that you have called on your colleagues at schools in the host cities to join judging panels.  The field is a small(ish) one, and I imagine that your persuasion would make a difference.  Instead of pushing the competition away, why not take on the challenge of wooing judges and building the bench?  You would honor your teams even more by using your own clout to bring the best judges to the competition.

  18. After having gone through a disastrous Jessup regional in the US and a fantastic Jean-Pictet Competition in France, I can wholeheartedly recommend the Jean Pictet Competition. Although it is mostly about international humanitarian law, there is a lot of general public international law there too. And students have a whole week to show what they know and how persuasively they can apply the law to facts,  judges are usually ICRC staff, academics teaching IHL or military lawyers.

  19. I competed in Jessup last year and will compete again in a few weeks.  I generally agree with the thrust of Prof. Joyner’s post, that style trumps substance in Jessup and that this can be frustrating.  Our team lost last year based on the personal qualms of judges.  My response?  Suck it up.  That’s life.  And as I see it, that’s the way life has always been.  Mihai can point out that Jessup has caught up with society in the sense that we are all persuaded by glitz and glamour now and never were before, but that is over-nostalgic bull.  Showmanship wins.  Confidence helps even the weakest arguments.  It always has.  It is part of persuasion.  Jessup should not be different from other moot court competitions because it is about international law.  It’s still about law, and there are still lawyers on each side making the best case they can.  Preparing students for Jessup by only getting them to understand the principles of international law and not how to concisely and persuasively apply those principles is a disservice to the students.  That is not how it works in Jessup or in practice.  Wo betide the team that carefully adheres to its prepared arguments when the judges clearly don’t buy or understand them. 

    I am, admittedly, one of the used car salesmen, although I do not attach the pejorative notion to that label that others seem to.  I know my law and facts, but when it comes down to brass tacks, my role is to be persuasive.  Law, particularly international law, does not provide a cookie cutter solution to new fact patterns.  If it did, Prof. Joyner’s comments would be valid.  Instead, law gives an advocate a framework within which to operate as persuasively as she can.  I did well last year individually with creative arguments (not the bench memo fodder Prof. Joyner alludes to).  It is possible to do well while thinking outside the box or using alternate sources, so long as you clearly explain what you are doing to people who might not know what you are talking about.  Prof. Joyner’s students can present all the law they want that is on their side.  If they fail to persuade, be it because they look shifty, because they do not clearly state their points, because they cite a laundry list of law they do not demonstrate an understanding of or because they simply fail to address what a judge thought was an important concern, that is not a failure of Jessup.  That is a failure of the student to be persuasive.  And as Mr. Summerfield points out, Jessup is about rewarding persuasive oral advocates, not those who can name or have read the most cases.

  20. As one of the students who competed at this competition, I must agree. Our team was better researched, better spoken, and better prepared, and we lost because of judges who were laymen to int’l law. We went up against a team that made it into the quarter-finals, and when the judge asked the agent to summarize his co-agent’s argument, he had to lean away from the podium and read his co-agent’s notes. Total fail. I won’t name the school, because frankly, that’s embarrassing. They also need to reform their judge standards. We got judged three times during the preliminary rounds by the same layman judge. Also, after one of the rounds a judge waved at someone in the audience, and after another, they mentioned that they recognized competitors on Case Western’s team. They need a mandatory recusal mechanism and a more careful and varied distribution of judges. My last round I only had two judges, one worked for an insurance company and the other was in domestic criminal law.

  21. If this was at the Midwest Regional (which I assume), I am hoping that you brought these issues to someone’s attention.  The same judge is not supposed to hear the same side of a team more than once, and there is an automatic recusal for teams that a judge knows.  These are certainly things that can be redressed, but I would need more detail.  Thanks.

  22. I wonder – does any unsuccessful Jessup coach/participant ever come home from the rounds and say to themselves: “Wow, we got beaten on substance and style. I thought we knew the law well, but I was wrong. And our style just didn’t pass muster. The better teams sure won” ?

  23. I fully share Prof Joyner’s concerns. I am a former participant at all levels of the competition and have been involved in coaching teams. Unfortunately, I have to disagree with iLawyer’s view that judges in DC are more qualified than those at lower levels. In fact the teams I have had contact with are fully aware that the judges one will encounter in Washington are often less qualified than those in previous rounds for which ever reason.
    Further, I think it is an unfair criticism of Prof Joyner to say that he puts his own interests above that of his students by not attending any more. For ambitious teams Jessup is fun, but it is also a lot of work usually on top of regular studies and there is nothing more frustrating than losing due to an ill-informed judge’s verdict. While the “sting of losing is soon forgotten” (to quote George Summerfield), the perception of having been treated unfairly is not and I know many who left the competition at various stages with a very bitter aftertaste. So letting students know about the realities of the competition might just prepare them very well for the eventual disappointment, but most teams, I think, have already recognised anyways that there is something very unpredictable about succeeding in Jessup.
    Many Professors I have spoken to absoluty share Prof Joyner’s view and rumour has it that for some Universities (e.g. Cambridge) at least perceived injustice was the reason to boycott the competition all-together.
    Now, of course, the question is what and whether anything can be done about this issue considering especially that it is probably already difficult enough to find judges. The answer is probably: not much. But there is no doubt that participation alone is an incredibly rewarding experience so I do not think people should stop competing. However, it might just be healthy to realize and to avoid eternal disappointment that many times throughout the competition (and indeed throughout) life ill-informed judges may put a very sudden end to one’s well-deserved aspirations.
    Against that background, I think Prof Joyner’s decision to shift the emphasis from the competition itself to the learning process before the actual rounds is the right thing to do and it is admirable that he remains committed to the very best sites of the Jessup and did not let his disappointment cause him to abandon the competition all-together as many have done before in his situation.

  24. @Brian.  I dont think persuasiveness, looks, and eloquence should trump law. They may in fact do at times, but that is a serious problem and it is disturbing that you seem so content with the state of affairs you describe.
    Regarding your point with respect to international law, it is stating the obvious that there are hardly ever clear answers to the problems posed by the compromis. But that does not mean one can utilze any means to come up with some answer that sounds good, but lacks any support in international law and convinces a domestic lawyer nontheless. Now, I dont think that’s what you were saying, but this does happen – especially with teams in Washington – and is very frustrating. It is especially frustrating, because it introduces into the sphere of (international) law a manipulating element that relies on a lawyer’s superficial, external factors (looks, eloquence) rather than substantive principles of law, perverting the course of justice.

  25. I was a participant for two years, went to international rounds in one, and have coached the past couple seasons. I agree that its frustrating when international law professors spend little or no time on the team. It has been, in my experience, a remarkable learning and teaching tool.
    However, I do detect some frustration here, and I encourage you to reconsider. International law and diplomacy often has more to do with being convincing than it does with being legally perfect. I suspect this has something to do with the consensus based nature of much of international law. The constant presence of policy considerations forces us to look to natural law more than in other areas. Thus, the call to “what makes sense” over “what is technically correct” is strong. Though frustrating, teaching students to also focus on delivery – without sacrificing legal knowledge – is a legitimate use of time, and one that will be well rewarded in “rel life.”

  26. Mike, I completely agree and was not trying to say that looks, in particular, should trump law.  But my understanding of what Prof. Joyner is taking issue with is that the teams that might understand the law better sometimes lose to teams that sound better.  I never said that teams can use whatever means necessary to win and that is okay.  The issue here is whether it is necessarily wrong to value style over substance in the context of advocacy.  The question is NOT whether the law itself should allow such a subjective factor to determine the outcome of a case.  I completely agree that the law should not.  

    But on the issue of what makes a good advocate, and what Jessup participants are at least in part being judged on, persuasiveness and eloquence are important factors.  I am not advocating making things up, but lawyers need to be able to make the best case they can, not just have a bunch of cases memorized and recite them.  And sometimes advocates do, in fact, make pleas based on policy to support what is otherwise an untenable legal position.  My problem with what is presented by Prof. Joyner is his failure to see that what is judged in Jessup is not just did you learn the law, but also can you persuasively argue to the court that your client should win.

  27. Totally disagree!!! Been both participant and Judge so I dare to say that I know it from inside out. Well, there will be always certain things to improve, but to state that all that competition is useless for students??? No way… And be reall – in real life – real judges also happen to be not the most clever persons on planet… So it’s all about your persuading skils, argumentation and in the end – do not forget – it’s about having good time with your team members and other participants all over the world 🙂

  28. As the organizer of the FDI Moot (investor-State arbitration), Prof. Joyner’s criticisms resonate with my own fears. We have the benefit of being centralized and usually in venues (e.g. London, Boston, Frankfurt) with a good pool of arbitrators with PIL and/or commercial arbitration backgrounds. But we also sometimes have to fill short notice cancellations, and even the most expert arbitrators may disappoint if they cannot take the time to prepare the case. We are probably just as helpless as the Jessup organizers in ensuring that.
    Ironically, some colleagues recently suggested that our scoring scheme should put more emphasis on the style criteria. I now wonder if that was just to make it easier to judge! ;->

  29. I did the Jessup in 2009 – 10. I entirely endorse the author’s concerns regarding the national rounds. The judging at the Indian Nationals is shocking beyond belief. Most judges we went up before were not international lawyers, and (evidently) had not read the compromis. The Indian nationals are a speaking contest, and that’s flattering. This is a common complaint year after year. What is most distressing, however, is the lack of accountability that pervades the nationals, because from all accounts, this is the story every year.

    I think, though, that the international rounds at DC are a different matter entirely. We found the judging there, by and large, to be phenomenally good, with a lot of focus on the quality of the *legal* argument. Style does matter a lot at DC as well, but I think research and arguments matter at least as much.  

  30. I just returned from the Rocky Mountain Regional round. In the semi-final round I had to silently endure one of my team be virtually ridiculed for stating positions that were correct and entirely uncontroversial statements of law in the jus ad bellum regime. She lost considerable time trying to educate the bench, which at the end of the day seemed incredulous. We will never know whether those two issues contributed to our loss of the round, but it certainly left us with the impression that they did. Yet, as dispiriting and disappointing as such instances are, I was left with the sense that my team learned a tremendous amount about international law and about advocacy in the process, and probably benefited pedagogically from my being there with them during the competition. So at the end of the day I think it is helpful for international law faculty to attend with their teams. It can only serve to keep some pressure on ILSA to try to have some knowledgable judges on each panel. If we abdicate the field, the Jessup will only get worse in this regard.


    I would like to say that as a former Jessup competitor for two years and a coach this year to my law school’s Jessup team, I fully understand the bitterness and frustration that arises from losing because of regional judges’ lack of international legal education. My team lost the first year I was on the team to a competitor that read his entire argument without looking at the judges once, except to occasionally pound the podium to yell, “Time is money!” His partner conceded an entire issue as well, arguing the completely opposite legal argument as she was required to. Yet both competitors received nearly perfect oral scores while our team received scores in the 70s – even though we had the 2nd best Memorial in the region and were ridiculously well versed in international law and well practiced. We also lost in a later round to a team that did not even know the most important cases and one of my teammates took one of that team’s competitor’s aside and begged her to make sure she at least read the major ICJ cases – in order to not embarrass our region at the World competition. SO – I know all to well the deep feelings of bitterness and a sense of violation that arises from losing to ill-prepared, uneducated competitors after your team spent hundreds of hours preparing, simply because the judges do not even understand the fundamental basics of international law.

    With that said, I do not think cursing the Jessup competition or worse, forsaking your team, is the answer. Instead, I think you do two things: 

    1) Ask how you can play the “game” better by being: BOTH proficient in international law AND oralists that convey complex international legal issues in a persuasive way that domestic lawyers understand.

    2) Contribute even more to the Jessup Competition by helping with the organizational structure and advertising international law and Jessup in your community, to increase the quality of the competition and the promotion of international law.

    The biggest lesson I learned after losing to a team that became the Regional winners but only had scored 60s and 70s on the Memorials (perhaps because rather than using the law they kept referring to the Respondent State as a “bigot” – despite the lack of racism issues in the problem), was that even though I was very proficient in the law, I was obviously not conveying my legal knowledge to the judges in a coherent manner. So what did my team do to grow and learn? We started boiling down our arguments into more simpler and understandable ones. What not all Jessup Competitors understand is that these issues are RIDICULOUSLY complex and that ONLY the Competitors themselves and the creator of the Compromis will fully understand all of these issues. The competitors are experts on the legal issues that year. But, the judges are not. Instead of expecting the judges to be experts, the Jessup competitors need to learn to teach the judges the law. Only if you can effectively teach the law and communicate with the judges, will the judges be able to have a meaningful interaction with the competitors. In sum, if you keep losing your Regional competitions, some of it will likely be due to subjectivity and bad judges. But, some of it is inherently your team failing to break down the law and effectively teach the judges. If the judges do not understand your arguments, it is only half the judges’ fault.

    The second thing that one can take away from losing in a Jessup Regional competition is that underpaid, overworked, imperfect humans are running this competition. ILSA is vastly underfunded and understaffed. There are four main staff members coordinating this massive undertaking and only one Regional coordinator for each U.S. region. Some regions are very lucky to have a Regional coordinator that is very experienced and has a massive network of colleagues with international legal experience or passion, willing and able to perennially judge. But not all regions are so fortunate. What can be done? Spread the word and start fundraisers for Jessup. Coordinate with ILSA and find ways to get more people involved. Collaborate with ILSA in finding ways to create new, more effective ways to teach judges basic international law quickly and to train them. After my devastating loss my first year on the team, I was part of a coordinated effort to reform the scoring system in the U.S. Regional system. The scoring sheets were horrific and were not mandatory, even in preliminary rounds. ILSA has committed itself to improving the quality of the Regionals and consistency between the different Regionals themselves. They are working hard – but need more help. 

    I personally think that bad-mouthing the entire Jessup system not only is unproductive, but detrimental to the prestigious name of this institution itself. How many other legal competitions have over 600 teams compete from around the world, have judges in final rounds at the world competition that are current or former ICJ judges, and allows you to intimately understand and develop legal arguments about current pressing issues in international law? Being part of the Jessup Competition was the best and is the best thing I have ever done in my life so far. I learned about the law, teamwork, and so much more on a level far above anything I learned in my law school classes. I am proud to be part of the Jessup family. I understand feeling bitter from losing – but there is so much more to this competition than merely winning. 

    Finally, I will just say that many professors do not attend the regional competitions because they are just too busy! Also, many prestigious law professors are part of the ILSA Board or help write the Compromis, so they are not allowed to sit with the team during competitions or assist the team. Additionally, because many of them are well known and recognizable, many of them would give away their team’s origin. My team’s Coach would sit away from our team during each round in order to avoid being recognized and associating himself with our team, thus giving away which school we attended. So, one may inaccurately interpret that the lack of participation by other international legal professors in some way equates to avoidance of the quality of regionals. This is generally not true. It would be a shame to sacrifice the quality of your school’s team or abandon them when they need you most, simply because of a remnant bitter taste of losing from the previous year. All moot court and mock trial competitions have a level of subjectivity and unfairness to them. As does the world. But the point of these competitions is to learn and grow. Winning is a bonus. Is the Jessup Competition imperfect? Yes – as is the ICJ which it imitates (The Wall opinion and attribution of an armed attack to a State actor requirement???). Is the Jessup Competition still worth it and the most amazing experience in international law a student can have in law school? A resounding yes.


  32. The Midwest Super-Regional Rounds of the Jessup Competition had more than 160 slots to fill with judges (plus additional judges for the memorials).  It is not easy to find that many volunteers who can (1) give up at least four hours to go judge the competition, plus some additional time reading the problem and bench memo, (2) give up time that their employers prefer they spend working on client matters, and (3) do this for no pay whatsoever, not even reimbursement of your parking expenses.  Some judges drove in from Indiana and Wisconsin and points beyond to help fill those 160 judging slots.

    Having the Jessup Competition in the same city (Chicago) for a couple of years has increased the pool of judges who are knowledgeable about international law.  The Jessup Competition is always looking for additional judges (so please make your own interest known by visiting http://www.ilsa.org).

    This is the largest moot court competition in the world.  Its international rounds (which will be held in March in Washington D.C.) are amazing.  It is an organization worthy of our support and assistance.  

    Dr. Joyner has said that he won’t be coming next year as a team coach for the superregional rounds.  Maybe we can now enlist your help as a judge?  There will be more then 160 opportunities to judge again next year in Chicago!

    Mark Wojcik

    P.S. For those of you who have accounts on Linked In, feel free to join the group for Fans of the Philip C. Jessup International Law Moot Court Competition.

  33. /* Style Definitions */
    {mso-style-name:”Table Normal”;
    mso-padding-alt:0cm 5.4pt 0cm 5.4pt;
    font-family:”Times New Roman”;
    mso-fareast-font-family:”Times New Roman”;

    As a former Jessup participant, I agree with much of what has already been said.  The Jessup experience is a net positive, and a lesson in life as well as the law.  I could not be more grateful for the time and energy our coaches poured in to our development as a team.

    Mooting is all about persuasion, and different judges find different things persuasive.   My Uni’s approach was always that simple and attractive arguments should not be made at the expense of integrity and legal correctness.  Our goal was to be technically perfect, to embrace inconsistencies and complexities in the problem as challenges and opportunities for creativity. This saw us win in Australia, but get knocked out in the quarters in Washington, where style seemed much more the focus and the quality of judging in the quarter finals was actually lower (in terms of credentials, knowledge and commitment) than what we experienced throughout the Australian knock-out rounds.  

    As Kenya points out – the trick in jessup is to have both the arguments legally perfect and to have mastered the (seemingly impossible) task of presenting all those complex ideas simply.

    Everyone has their story – we were knocked out in the quarters in DC by a team who got busted by the judge for consciously misleading the court about the law on a lynchpin of their argument during the moot and still won. One of the judges literally told the speaker during the moot that he knew she was misleading the court, and her defence was to giggle, apologise and ask if she could move on.  But the result didn’t punish what we’d been taught was the cardinal sin of mooting. In the final, the same argument was run – it actually provoked audible murmurs in the audience but the judges didn’t pick it up. The respondent team in the final used it for their rebuttal. However, it was to no avail – that team went on to be world champions and everyone else in that room who saw them lie to the faces of former ICJ judges felt robbed.

    It’s much easier to be a good sport when you lose to a deserving opponent. But life isn’t fair – and I’ve learnt much more about life from losing Jessup than I think I would have winning it. It’s hard to talk about this stuff because you end up sounding like a sore loser. Whilst it is disappointing to hear that things haven’t changed in the last couple of years, it is makes me feel a little vindicated to know that other teams feel the same sense of righteous indignation that we did. I really hope the organisers do something about it because it will only lower the standard and eventually the reputation of the competition if things continue as they are.

    In any case, call me crazy – but the opinions of my teammates and my coaches matter to me much more than our quarter final judges. And now as a lawyer, my integrity and professionalism is worth much more to me than that title. The Jessup community needs to work together to ensure that the competition promotes those values.

  34. Well, Kenya certainly gets the prize for Jessup cheerleader in chief. Followed closely by a number of others I know that the are many out there who feel a close association to Jessup, and for whom their Jessup experiences are very positive memories. It’s natural, then, for them to get a bit defensive when anyone tries to point out the shortcomings of the competition. But if you look at what I’m saying objectively, I’m not saying that the Jessup is not worth students doing. My students get a lot out of it. And I plan to continue coaching them through it for that and other reasons.
    What I am saying is that the shortcomings of Jessup should be honestly recognized, and that these shortcomings do make it unattractive for PIL faculty to invest much time in the competition. It is simply not a competition wherein the substance and correctness of international legal argumentation matters, at least at the regional level in the US, because that is rendered impossible by judges the vast majority of whom do not know international law in any depth.
    Kenya and others respond that teams need to be able therefore to use persuasion based on other factors, and to teach the judges the law. They say that this is in fact a real life skill that lawyers must know. To this I would say that we aren’t talking about an insurance case before a state court in southern Illinois here. Of course it’s true that state and federal domestic courts are often asked to hear and rule on matters in which the judges are not experts. And a judge hearing an insurance case may well have to be taught much of the law in question by the lawyers. But at least domestic court judges have the benefit of having all issues before them be based upon sources of law that they do understand, and within a legal system that they do understand. By contrast, if I am supposed to teach a domestic law judge about an issue of international law, when he does not even have those basic legal frameworks in common with the legal issues under consideration, then I would say that I am on a whole other planet of difficulty, and that to hope to meanigfully teach that judge the law in 21 minutes is the acme of foolishness. And whatever you may think of the decisions of the real life ICJ (there were some unfortunate disparaging comments made above in one of the posts) in the context of individual decisions, these are not simply domestic lawyers who have to be taught international law by counsel appearing before them. They are experts in international law who have a solid basis for understanding the legal issues before them. Style and used car salesmanship will not win the day before them as they might do in the insurance case in southern Illinois. So again, inasmuch as the Jessup competition is meant to teach and prepare students for what it really means to practice in front of international legal tribunals like the ICJ, the shortcomings that I have pointed out are serious shortcomings indeed, and I maintain that Jessup judging at the regional level is not giving students a meaningful and correct education in this regard.

  35. /* Style Definitions */
    {mso-style-name:”Normale Tabelle”;
    mso-padding-alt:0cm 5.4pt 0cm 5.4pt;
    mso-fareast-font-family:”Times New Roman”;
    mso-bidi-font-family:”Times New Roman”;

    As a former participant, coach, international rounds judge and national administrator for Germany I would like to comment on Prof. Joyner’s statement. First of all, I completely understand the frustration and bitterness that goes along with being involved with the Jessup. I myself lost with a team and I still feel the frustration.
    I cannot evaluate the judges in the U.S. regional rounds but I surely can for the German national rounds (16 participating schools) and the international rounds. As far as the quality of judges goes, I believe Germany has an outstanding array of judges and that has been so since I got involved with the Jessup which has been for more than 7 years. Almost 75% of the judges are either professors in international law or at least do academic work in that field. The rest is composed of lawyers who mostly have been involved with the Jessup at some point in their career. I understand that it is much harder in the U.S. to recruit judges since the distances are very long and they do not get reimbursed for their travel expenses ect. (German national administrators spend an incredibly long time fundraising since all judges get paid for their travel, hotel room) I would assume that almost every professor in international law in Germany either judges or coaches a team since it is very prestigious even for professors. And yes, The Hague is not too far so we are lucky to get ICJ judges to come, too.
    As far as the international rounds are concerned I can also not agree that the quality of judges is that bad. Of course the judges are much younger and not that many do academic work however most of them have a profound understanding of international law, almost everybody has either been a participant or coach, plus the ASIL conference is in town during the same time and many participants spare some time to judge a round or two. I did experience that presentation is a lot more important in the U.S. than it is here in Germany where most of it is about the law. But as far as I can assess that, it is deeply rooted in the different styles of legal education. But that does not mean that presentation is everything.
    There are two rules one should follow when assigning judges:
    I believe that it is important that on each bench there is at least one judge that really knows international law and it should never happen that a judge sees one team (in this care I mean App. or Resp.) twice in the preliminary rounds. If you follow these two rules there is not much that can go wrong. Jessup is still the best experience a student can get out of law school.
    I do know that Prof. Joyner mostly criticized the regional rounds and I could not comment on that however I had the feeling I needed to write something about other parts of the world. Somebody not involved with Jessup could think that the whole competition lacks knowledge and the prestige the competition has, is not deserved.

  36. The biggest problem with moot competitions in general is that oral advocacy simply doesn’t play much of a role in appellate advocacy. The briefs are far, far more important. Furthermore, that is entirely rational because oral arguments are comparatively low bandwidth. At the trial level, where there are issues of credibility, people believe(rightly or wrongly) that they can make better assessment in person than by reading a written statement. But creditably is irrelevant when there is a question of law, not fact.

    On the other hand no law professors would want to get involved in a moot court that deals with fact bound adjudication (where advocacy really makes a difference) because they aren’t intellectually interesting exercises. Also such simulations are difficult to arrange because of the need for far more 3rd party participates. So we get the status quo of a round peg being forced into a square hole.

  37. I love the comment from J — “I’ve learnt much more about life from losing Jessup than I think I would have winning it.”

  38. I am inclined to chime in with what Annelie Gallon has only very meekly and tactfully insinuated: that the perceived flaws and failures may have far far more to do with the immense cultural hiatus between Civil Law and Common Law traditions, than with anything else.

    The ICC is a prime example for how desastrously Common Lawyers fail before Ius Commune judges again and again. And that is in real trial, not in moot court.

  39. omg!!! I thought it happens only in Bangladesh!!! If it is the situation in Jess Up, then we are in a far better situation. The same thing happens here, teams with stylish and smiley presentation win the competition.
    We’ve also experienced this problem with the judge even in Commonwealth Moot last year. The team that was only shouting made their way to final but team like Canada and Souh Africa, who gave much substantive arguments, failed to reach even semis.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. There are no trackbacks or pingbacks associated with this post at this time.