Law students value oral advocacy competition

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Taking part in the Oral Advocacy Competition were (front row, left to right) Michigan Law Lecturer Dan Korobkin from ACLU of Michigan; Sharyl Reisman, Jones Day; and Linda Coberly, Winston & Strawn, who served as judges in the semi-final and final rounds; along with (back row, left to right University of Michigan Law School 1Ls Brendan Flynn and Sumner Truax.

– Photo by Leisa Thompson Photography, courtesy of U-M Law


By Kristy Demas
U-M Law

“You can’t be a one-trick pony,” said University of Michigan Law School 1L Austin Fregene of his approach to the 1L Oral Advocacy Competition (OAC).

As someone who didn’t debate in high school, Fregene viewed OAC as a chance to hone his public speaking and persuasive argument skills.

“Unlike debate, you have to be able to convincingly present both sides of a case — even when you might favor one position over another.”

1L Sophia Montgomery noted that OAC lets you “dip your toes into oral advocacy.”

A theater major as an undergraduate, she considers the appellate competition to be great training for helping participants think on their feet.

“You’re forced to answer questions posed by the judges throughout the argument — requiring you to respond directly and not by delivering a prepared set of points,” she said.

While not as demanding as the Henry M. Campbell Moot Court Competition, which is open to second- and third-year students, OAC — unique among law schools — allows 1Ls to hone their oral advocacy as well as strengthen other skills.

Montgomery, who made it to the semifinals with Fregene, said the experience helped her become a better legal writer —including how to be more persuasive and better organize her arguments.

1L Brendan Flynn found that one of the most rewarding parts of OAC was the opportunity to practice with classmates.

“The experience of collaborating, coupled with the feedback we received from the judges, was as valuable as the time spent actually competing,” he said. “There are competitions that genuinely provide everyone involved the chance to reap some real, tangible benefit, and this was absolutely one of those occasions.”

OAC is organized by previous competition participants.

2L Haley Dutch was this year’s lead organizer and described it as “a low-stakes way for first-year law students to practice and improve their oral advocacy skills,” particularly those with no previous debate or public speaking experience.

Dutch said that of the more than 200 1Ls who attended the January OAC information session, nearly 180 participated in the preliminary round on February 8.

After the first weekend of competition — during which participants argued four times — the field narrowed quickly to 32 quarterfinalists. Eight made it to the semifinals; the finals took place on March 18 when Flynn and 1L Sumner Truax went head to head.

Flynn, who won this year’s competition, signed up for OAC as an opportunity to practice appellate arguments in a supportive setting. “The first two rounds were judged by older students and that made trying to work on a new skill more welcoming,” he said.

This year, nearly 80 upperclassmen judged the preliminary round. Subsequent rounds were judged by Michigan Law Professor Samuel Bagenstos and Lecturer Brian Willen —w ho also consulted on the competition’s packet, which consisted of the legal question being argued along with background information.

The semifinal and final competitions were judged by practicing attorneys Sharyl Reisman, from Jones Day, Linda Coberly, from Winston & Strawn, and Michigan Law Lecturer Dan Korobkin from the ACLU of Michigan.

In addition to deciding rounds, the judges also offered mooting practice and informal mentoring to participants — an added benefit to OAC competitors.

“Because it is largely student run, OAC provides a space for upper-level students to mentor and provide feedback to 1Ls, who are able to develop interests and styles they may not otherwise be inclined to explore so soon,” said Assistant Director for Student Life Bayrex Martí. “Whether they are involved in its planning or as competitors, students participating in OAC are sustaining a legal advocacy community by fostering collaboration and rewarding ownership — two invaluable professional (and life) skills.”

Fregene, Montgomery, and Flynn wholeheartedly recommend that 1Ls get involved in OAC for its outstanding preparation for the Campbell competition, but also because it looks good on a resume, gives hands-on training to would-be litigators, and boosts confidence.

“It helps train participants to speak meaningfully and with purpose — because every word matters,” said Fregene.

Dutch agrees. “I was so scared to do this essential part of my chosen career. I had no previous public speaking experience, and it’s very intimidating to stand up in front of people and ask them to judge you,” she said. “Through the competition I bonded with my friends, learned a lot, and, most importantly, felt very empowered in my own ability to be an advocate.

“I’m really lucky to have worked with my amazing peers to lead OAC and help the next generation of 1Ls share that same experience.”

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