International man of moot court Detroit attorney is judge in Philip C. Jessup International Law Moot Court Competition

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By Steve Thorpe

Legal News

When attorney Mitchell Meisner is home in Detroit, real estate is his specialty. But when he's on one of his "professional vacations," the world is his courtroom.

"I have an interesting practice, but this is totally 'other,' " he says. "It keeps my mind alive."

For 11 years, Meisner has been a judge in the Philip C. Jessup International Law Moot Court Competition. Now in its 53rd year, the competition includes students from more than 80 countries and 500 law schools, making it the biggest moot court competition in the world. The format simulates a dispute between countries before the International Court of Justice. Teams create written pleadings and prepare for the oral arguments, both of which are judged.

This year's competition problems include the legality of the destruction of a cultural site; who may represent a state after a coup d'etat; and state responsibility for a regional operation.

Thousands of law students compete in the national and regional competitions for the right to advance to the White & Case International rounds held in the spring in Washington, D.C.

In 2011, the University of Sydney in Australia had the top team and Columbia University from the U.S. was the runner-up.

Meisner, a partner at Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn, served as a judge last month in the 10th Chinese National Round of the Jessup competition held at Renmin University Law School in Beijing. In the past, he has served as a competition judge in China, Russia and the United Kingdom, as well as numerous rounds in the U.S.

"I got started when U of M hosted a regional Jessup competition," he says. "They needed judges and I said, 'OK, it sounds interesting.' I was completely ignorant of the field of public international law, but I found it fascinating. I really got to like it."

As much as Meisner was enjoying the annual competitions, it began to trouble him that he didn't know more about international law.

"I decided after a couple years that I had to learn what everyone was talking about," he says. "I might hear an argument from a student and think 'that's great' and it might turn out to be totally bogus. I started studying on my own, reading about the field and reading all the materials that circulate."

As the years passed and Meisner became more knowledgeable, the competition tapped him to start judging some of the more advanced rounds.

"They now consider me experienced and I started to do some of the judging in Washington and that's where I really saw the flavor of it," he says. "Up until then, I had only been dealing with American law students. In Washington you had all these foreign students and judges from all over the world. They were also more likely to be practitioners in the international law field."

Meisner gets tremendous enjoyment out of rubbing shoulders with a virtual United Nations of young law students and seasoned experts during the events.

"One of the reasons I do it is to hobnob with an interesting assortment of international lawyers. It's incredible," he says.

He also knows he's meeting some of the top international lawyers of the future just as their careers are taking off.

"In some countries, it's a very major deal. In Russia and China the top 12 or 15 students just get skimmed right off by international law firms when they graduate. It's an incredible career opportunity," he says. "And they demonstrate they can practice well in English, because it's all in English."

So what makes a particular law school competitive?

"Number one is tradition at the school," Meisner says. "If you've got competitors who are really enthusiastic, they recruit followers from the next class. If they stick around as coaches or if some faculty want to coach, that's helpful. For example, Case Western Reserve has a very eminent professor, very well-known, who takes a strong interest in it and coaches the team."

Meisner has the utmost regard for practitioners of international law, both students and professionals.

"It's an extremely difficult area of law. Even with all I've learned, I would be totally at sea if I had to start on my own."

Although he believes that he's giving by volunteering as a judge, Meisner says he's also getting something back.

"One of the things that inspires me is that you spend all this time with a group of law students and they all see eye to eye," he says. "There's a sharing of values ... the value of the rule of law and the value of the development of international law as something meaningful between countries. I like that setting. It's exciting."

Meisner also believes that the competition and the students and judges who participate in it are part of a bigger, much more important picture.

"Not only is it an opportunity to participate in the competition but, if want to be idealistic, international law is a great hope for peace."

Published: Wed, Mar 7, 2012

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