A trial run

By Bess Keaney

On the occasion of Melbourne Law School’s 160th anniversary, MLS News takes a look at mooting – the traditional sport of law students and a fond memory for many MLS alumni.

More than a few of Australia’s most prominent judges, barristers and solicitors have cut their teeth in the MLS Moot Court.

Joshua Quinn-Watson
Above image: Joshua Quinn-Watson (JD 2017). Image credit: supplied.

Mooting has been intrinsically linked with the law student experience since the earliest days of MLS. The Law Students’ Society (LSS), which began in 1887 as the Articled Clerks’ Law Debating Society, was originally an avenue for budding lawyers to debate issues of law.

But the modern practice of mooting is distinct from debating, according to Joshua Quinn-Watson (JD 2017), a member of the 2015 Jessup International Moot team and the 2018 Jessup Coach.

“In debating, the objective is quite often to show that you’re the smartest person in the room,” Quinn-Watson says.

In mooting, the objective is to assist the smartest person in the room – the judge – to make the smartest decision.

“The first time I participated in a moot there was this wonderful, comforting feeling that the judge was going to see the truth,” says Susanna Lobez (LLB(Hons) 1988), a member of the 1988 MLS team that won the Jessup International Law Moot – the Law School’s first win in the prestigious competition.

“If you portrayed the facts adequately, and you stated the case truthfully, then the judge was clever enough to see it. There was this confidence that somehow the law worked.”

Moot problems are typically framed as an appeal against a decision in a lower court – the facts have already been agreed on, freeing students to deliberate on issues of law. Participants are tested on their ability to present a legal argument as they research, draft and orally defend their written submissions in front of a judge.

“It calls on all of your skills in research, all of your abilities as an advocate and your maturities as a teammate,” says Quinn-Watson, now a graduate lawyer at Arnold Bloch Leibler.

But some of the Law School’s earlier mock trials called less upon the faculties of maturity.

The mock trials held annually by the LSS throughout the 1930s and 1940s better resembled theatre pieces than the formal scenarios students participate in today. According to LSS minutes, the problem in one trial, broadcast live on ABC Radio, was whether modern composers were justified in using classical themes; in the 1944 annual trial, the defendant claimed to be a were-rabbit who transformed at the full moon.

Nowadays, a sense of formality underpins proceedings from the beginning.

“One thing our academic advisors were really tough on was how professional we were and appeared,” says Rudi Kruse (JD 2011), a barrister and member of the 2008-2009 WTO Moot and 2010 Gibbs Constitutional Law Moot teams.

We learnt all the formalities around what you say and how you deal with the bench – it was great training for the profession.

Susanna Lobez
Above image: Susanna Lobez (LLB(Hons) 1988). Image credit: supplied.

“Two of my team went virtually straight to the bar,” says Lobez, herself a former barrister turned broadcaster and now author of Gangland Oz: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.

Lobez’s Jessup team helped establish a strong track record for MLS in prestigious mooting competitions. Melbourne has won the Australian Law Students’ Association (ALSA) Championship Moot seven times – more than any other university – and added two more wins in the Jessup moot in 1993 and 2000.

The 2000 victory earned MLS a commendation in the Federal Parliament by then Senator Brian Greig.

“The [Jessup] competitions have proven to be a training ground for some of Australia’s most outstanding legal minds,” he said.

“I sincerely congratulate the team and their coaches from Melbourne University… I am sure [the students] will uphold Australia’s strong tradition of legal excellence in their future careers.”

Although there was “no ticker tape parade”, Lobez says her own team’s Jessup win was “quite well-received in the legal community and very exciting to come home to”.

She recalls working out of a “bunker” at one of the campus colleges in the lead-up to her team’s national and international Jessup finals, where twice weekly they would meet to take turns representing the two hypothetical sides.

“It was eight months of intense activity on one project,” Lobez says.

“I remember the feeling of not noticing spring!”

When MLS moved from the Law Quadrangle to its new address on Pelham Street in 2002, students were given a new training ground in the Moot Court – a state-of-the-art model courtroom, complete with recording facilities.

“The Moot Court makes it feel like we’re doing a dress rehearsal,” Quinn-Watson says.

“It has a lot of gravitas, that room.”

Quinn-Watson’s 2014 Jessup team became so well-rehearsed in the MLS Moot Court that they decided to take the wooden podium to the national finals in Canberra.

“We had mooted on it so many times it would have felt strange using anything else,” he says.

“I think it’s like how sportspeople get very superstitious about equipment.”

Rudi Kruse
Above image: Rudi Kruse (JD 2011). Image credit: supplied.

For Rudi Kruse, the pressure of mooting was real even before the competition began.

“We had a number of senior legal professionals – people from the bar, academics and judges – come in to judge our practice moots,” he says.

“It was often scarier and more intimidating than the actual competition.

“But being around people who I really respected, who were giving me feedback about how I was going about it, was really important.”

It’s this community around mooting that makes it such a memorable part of the MLS experience, according to Quinn-Watson.

When you moot at MLS you get absorbed into this community of mooting diehards.

“People who have participated in moots are just so invested and interested in the people doing it after them. It’s an incredible community,” he says.

The Jessup experience remains the highlight of Lobez’s time at the Law School.

“The team bonding – I imagine it’s like that for Olympians who go off overseas together to compete,” she says.

“Our Jessup team, we’re friends for life.”

Banner image: Susanna Lobez pictured with her Jessup team following their 1998 win in Washington DC. From left: Fiona Hudgson, Rosemary Martin, Daryl Williams QC, Susanna Lobez and Jonathan Gill.

Credit: supplied.

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 18, November 2017