The Adaptable Law Professor: Ten Tips for Keeping the Magic of an Oral Argument Competition Alive on Zoom

Christine Tamer
Director of Legal Writing and Assistant Professor
UNT Dallas College of Law

Melissa Shultz
Associate Professor
Mitchell Hamline School of Law

As professors, we impress upon our law students that one of the traits most important to becoming a successful lawyer is adaptability. Through our carefully plotted course problems and assignments, we spend countless hours struggling to make law school mimic legal practice. We do this in order to show law students what is expected of good lawyers: good lawyers must be prepared for the unexpected; good lawyers must be armed for the ambush; good lawyers must be flexible and able to pivot with only a moment’s notice; and good lawyers must think on their feet to come up with creative solutions to clients’ ever-changing legal and business problems. That is, good lawyers must be adaptable.

Then, enter the pandemic. Suddenly mid-semester, we—the professors—had to practice what we had been preaching all this time. We had to be the adaptable ones.

Admittedly, the list of challenges law professors across the country faced in adapting their in-person courses to an online environment with little (if any) notice was endless. For the vast majority of legal writing professors, however, the timing of the conversion presented a unique challenge. Legal writing programs had to figure out how to hold their often tradition-steeped, multi-day, multi-dimensional oral argument competitions that not only serve as a part of the students’ grades but also as springboards for advocacy programs across the country in a way that complies with pandemic restrictions.

In response, all programs had to adapt. Understandably, some programs decided to cancel oral arguments altogether. Other programs decided to hold in-class oral arguments online in a synchronous or asynchronous format, but opted to forgo the extracurricular competition that typically stems from those in-class arguments. And some programs decided to traverse into the unknown: put it all—the traditional in-person, in-class-rounds and the subsequent competition—into an on-line synchronous event.

At University of North Texas Dallas College of law, we elected the third category. Normally, after our first-year law students turn in an Opposition to Motion for Summary Judgment (the major written assignment for our Legal Writing II course), our legal writing department hosts an oral argument competition for the top 24 students, who qualify based on their in-class oral argument grades. The competition, which is held over a weekend in mid-April, right before the hustle of final exams begin, is the highlight of the 1L year for many of our law students. The highlight is not necessarily the oral argument competition itself—the 24 students going through the brackets, arguing before a panel of outside judges—although that is part of it. The highlight is really the magic that happens because of the competition. It is the community coming together—students, professors, members of the legal community, families, friends—helping, cheering, and encouraging. It is the teamwork that happens behind the scenes with the upper-level students, who helped plan the competition since the fall.  It is the little things—the anticipation of the coin flips, the revealing of the dry-erase-board brackets, the hustle of the tallying rooms, the excitement over trays of food, the socializing over the lunch break, the donning of matching competition t-shirts, the awarding of the trophies—that come together to make our annual competition one big, magical thing.

For many schools like ours, the 1L annual competition is not just an oral argument competition. It is a law school pep rally of sorts that offers a time to come together to celebrate what everyone has accomplished that year. When the pandemic hit and the world shut down in March, our annual competition (and the months of planning that had already gone into it) seemed doomed. While the easy thing—the perfectly understandable thing—to do would have been to cancel it, we decided to do the hard thing instead. We decided that somehow, someway, we had to not only make the oral competition happen online and in a synchronous fashion, but we also had to keep the magic that goes with it. Because lawyers, after all, are adaptable. And because, our students—who were craving normalcy and in desperate need of a distraction—needed that pep rally more than ever.

Unfortunately, it looks like the next twelve months may require just as much adaptability as the past six—for both professors and for students. Because of the likelihood of oral argument competitions staying online for the foreseeable future, we want to share our top tips for hosting a successful online synchronous oral argument competition. What we ultimately learned from this past spring was that—with a little pixie dust of planning and creativity—legal writing professors can still keep the magic of the oral argument component of the course and competition alive in the Zoom world of today. 

Tip 10: Organize each Zoom Courtroom with care.

If in person, one of the magical parts of an oral argument competition is the pure intimidation and power of walking in a room and seeing three judges sitting at a table or on the bench of a courtroom.  This ambiance—with a bit of work—can be recreated on Zoom by making a few adjustments.  First, capitalize on the ease of judging on Zoom to get more high-profile lawyers and real judges in your community to serve as competition judges. Publish a list of the volunteer judges with their credentials in advance on the competition website so students can read about their potential judges before they appear in their courtroom.  Second, recreate the image of three judges on the bench or at a table together by having all volunteer judges use a uniform Zoom background.  This uniformity of background creates the illusion that the judges are all together in one space.  Third, once order is called in the courtroom have the judges ask each competitor to turn his/her camera off and place his or her sound on mute when he or she is not arguing. This approach will help maintain decorum in the courtroom.  Fourth, in lieu of having your bailiff pictured in the Zoom room, have the bailiff set his or her camera so that it captures the image of a digital timer.  This approach will allow each competitor (and the judges) to keep track of the time allotted for each part of the argument and will mimic what bailiffs and clerks in real courtrooms are doing during Zoom arguments. Last, make sure to enable the waiting room function for each courtroom being used in your competition. This functionality will allow your judges to gather before rounds begin and get organized. It will also allow judges to push students out of the room while they tally/discuss after the round closes. Finally, this functionality allows the courtroom to remain open and next-round competitors to wait in  waiting room while the judges break or regroup between rounds, eliminating some unnecessary transition time.  

Tip 9: Prepare and share a podcast instead of a bench brief with competition judges.

In a normal oral argument competition, the judges are given a bench brief that summarizes the facts, the law, and the arguments of both sides to help them prepare to judge the competition. Instead of doing a bench brief, we started (actually pre-COVID) doing a podcast. Using a podcast allows the volunteer judges to get all the information they need in an easily digestible format that they can listen to while they are, for example, driving to work in the morning. While we still do provide a copy of a bench brief in addition to the podcast, the feedback from our volunteer judges has been that they overwhelmingly prefer the podcast format.

Tip 8:  Create a bloopers video to teach students Zoom oral-argument etiquette.

Hosting a Zoom competition presents legal writing programs with the opportunity to teach the professionalism always taught through oral arguments with a new twist. Capitalize on the excitement of the new and make sure to explicitly include Zoom etiquette into your teaching and evaluation of students during the competition.  And, why not teach those Zoom oral argument etiquette skills also using an online platform? Consider asking former students (possibly those who participated in your online competition in spring 2020) to create a video tutorial that presents tips for online argument and features some common missteps (bloopers). Below are some highlighted lessons you might consider including in a video tutorial. 

- Make eye contact with the video camera on your computer, not the picture on your screen.  If you look at the screen, you appear to be looking down while you are arguing which may give judges the impression that you are reading instead of speaking to them.  As a fix, consider highlighting your camera so you remember to look into it.

Ensure you have an appropriate and professional background. While there are many different backgrounds that can pass professional muster, it is important to teach your students that backgrounds matter because what you select to display behind you can affect how the judges’ view you.  Some backgrounds that judges respond well to include a white wall, an organized bookcase (but be mindful of the books that fall within the visual field), a green screen, or a Zoom virtual background imitating a courtroom.  Some backgrounds to avoid include a bed, a bookcase with distasteful books or lots of tchotchkes, a messy room, a window (its  backlight can make it difficult to see your face in Zoom), a kitchen, or a wall with distracting art or pictures. Last spring, we decided to hold an open Zoom session the night before our competition to allow students to self-assess the background they were planning to use the following day.  Students and professors critiqued each other’s set ups and professors added some advice on angles and lighting.

Wear professional attire.  Just as with an in-person oral argument competition, professional attire and professional appearance are an important part of one’s oral argument.  In the world of Zoom, one only needs to dress professionally on the top half because that is all that can be seen on Zoom. Although we have all likely succumbed to this temptation and donned a suit on the top and yoga or sweatpants on the bottom, this approach is not without risks and students should know the risks when deciding how to dress. For example, what if a student’s visual field moves or is wider than one thinks during the argument, what if a student needs to stand up during his or her argument, what if a student spills during the lunch session and needs reach up/over to grab a napkin?  The possibility for embarrassment if wearing only sweatpants on the bottom is not minimal.  Plus, as we tell students, in a high-stakes environment, feeling professional from top to bottom tends to yield a more professional demeanor overall. This is why we advise them to dress fully for success. 

Tip 7: Have food delivered online to participants’ homes and create a Zoom lunchroom.

Let’s face it, one of the best parts of the oral argument competition when held in person was the free food. When we had to move the competition to Zoom, we didn’t want to lose this perk so we offered to have free lunch delivered to our competitors, the judges, and the students and professors helping run the competition. To do this, we picked a popular chain restaurant and then had everyone select either a vegetarian or non-vegetarian option and send us their addresses. Our assistant then set up the orders via UberEats or Favor to be delivered to everyone’s individual homes. Because of the smaller size of the competition compared to years’ past, the cost of individually delivering meals was comparable to what we spend normally on catering.

In addition to having lunch delivered, consider also setting up a Zoom lunchroom designed specifically for everyone to eat lunch in. Doing this will allow the outside judges and student competitors to socialize with one another in a casual environment much like happens in an in-person competition.

Tip 6:  Livestream the final round on YouTube.

In a normal year, the final round of our competition was held in the law school’s courtroom in front a full audience of students, families, friends, and other supporters. With the competition on Zoom, we initially feared that we would lose the audience. Allowing audience members into the Zoom round would have been a distraction to the competitors, so we were excited when our head of IT came up with the idea to livestream the final round on YouTube. This high-tech (but easy-to-implement) approach allowed members of the law school community and families/friends of the competitors to watch the competition and cheer remotely without being a distraction.

Tip 5: Do not forget to take pictures for posterity.

In the time of Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, and Twitter, photo opportunities are a must.  While you move from round to round, make sure to pre-plan and carve out time to take pictures of the competitors and document the different stages of the competition. Make sure to include pictures that are professional (which, let’s be honest, is a bit awkward on Zoom) and fun. In addition, assign bailiffs the task of taking pictures during their rounds of each competitor arguing with the judges intently participating. 

Competition Photos

Competition Photos

Tip 4: Add excitement with virtual spin-the-wheel matchups and app- or virtual-based coin flips.

There is something special about the feeling of calling heads or tails while the coin spins mid-air. In normal years, we matched up competitors for the first round via ranking system behind closed doors and then randomly assigned them sides of movant or non-movant. This year, we decided to do all of this on Zoom live for the competitors. First, we put all their names on the wheel and spun the wheel to do matchups. There are numerous free websites that allow you to put students’ names on a wheel that will spin (all while making a spinning noise and flashing virtual confetti for the “winner”). With the students in Zoom, you can share your screen of the wheel spins live. Then, once we had the matchups, we did a virtual coin flip for them to pick sides. Again, there are tons of free coin-flip websites and you can share your screen for the toss. During the competition itself, as we progressed through the brackets, we continued to use a virtual coin toss to assign sides.

While these add-ons may seem like small things, they actually added a lot of excitement and fun to the competition.

Tip 3: Create a Competition Map to help judges, competitors, and volunteers easily navigate your virtual competition and when creating the map make sure to include a command center, break/results room, and a lunchroom.

It is important to have an organized and well-planned structure for creating and managing any Zoom event, but especially a multi-day, multi-room online event like an oral argument competition.  Any online competition requires multiple users (with varying licensing rights) to serve as hosts, which results in multiple links to keep track of as the competition unfolds (and multiple ways things can go wrong if people run late, get sick, or do not show up to help when they signed up to be there). Using a Competition Map like the one below can keep the competition running smoothly and reduce competitor, judge, and volunteer stress. It also ensures each competition room has multiple virtual hosts, which provides backup if one of the hosts is running behind or has an emergency.

Competition Room Map Example

Competition Room Map Example

In addition to including the ever-important courtrooms on your map, consider adding some central and ongoing logistical/meeting rooms for competitors, judges, and volunteers to use.  The sample above includes three such rooms: a Command Center, a Results Room, and a lunchroom. 

- The Command Center Zoom room is where volunteer bailiffs and score totalers meet up just as they would have in person. As the volunteers are forced to engage in math (and math rechecking) and assign new brackets based on seeding and prior sides-argued, the Command Center Zoom room gives the upper-level volunteer students a private place to do these tasks together.  Equally important, the Command Center Zoom room facilitates substantive conversations about style of various arguments, the rigor of certain judges’ questions, and the caliber of various rounds watched. This ensures some of the “magic” learning can still occur in a virtual environment for the non-competitor volunteer students. As a side benefit, a Command Center Zoom room also allows those in charge of running the competition to have a private space to deal with any technical issues, participant complaints, or other curveballs that arise during the competition.

- The Results Room is where we announced the winners of each round and did the virtual coin flip (see Tip #4) to determine which side the participants would argue. During the semi-finals and finals, we also used the Results Room to allow the judges to provide the competitors with feedback. Having a separate Results Room was especially important for the final round, which was livestreamed on YouTube (see Tip #6), because it allowed the participants to receive feedback and react to the results in privacy. 

- The lunchroom, discussed in Tip #7, was important to ensure informal networking and socializing opportunities between judges, professors, and students.

Tip 2: Assign upper level students the task of hyping the competition on social media through posts, giveaways, and live tweets.

The buzz and air of excitement about the competition among the law school community comes naturally on a normal year. However, when the doors to the law school are closed and the community is isolated at home, getting the community excited was tricky. One of our upper level students had the wonderful idea of taking over the law school social media accounts, such as the Student Bar Association Instagram and Twitter, and using those channels to hype the competition through engaging posts, complete with t-shirt giveaways. Additionally, on the day of the competition, we posted round winners in real time so that even those who were not watching could stay in the loop. All of this (in addition to the YouTube live stream from Tip # 6) allowed the entire law school community to feel connected to the competition and to create a virtual pep rally of sorts.

Tip 1: Free t-shirts for participants are “so 2019”; order logoed masks and hand sanitizer instead.

Let’s be honest, all law students—in fact, even all lawyers—love a free gift. Westlaw, Lexis, and other vendors have primed students to covet free gifts, such as branded water bottles, t-shirts, pens, and even pads of paper. Taking advantage of this fact, we build buzz around the competition by creating competition t-shirts and awarding them to the students who are invited to participate.  In addition, after the competition is over, the t-shirts give students a sense of pride and recognition, and, as the next set of 1Ls enter the school, seeing the t-shirts around school helps to build competition lore from year to year. In short, we have always found that we get bang for our buck by investing in competition t-shirts. But, t-shirts can feel very 2019, especially when living on Zoom where we rarely notice the t-shirts people are wearing. Given this reality, maybe it is time to rethink the gifts we handout.  2021 gifts could include: competition-logoed masks, competition-logoed bottle of hand-sanitizer, or maybe competition logoed toilet paper for a truly special prize.