Something Worth Doing. The Jessup.
“I think about the Jessup six months before the event, and digest what has happened in it for six months afterwards” Sergey Usoskin of St. Petersburg State University.
Final Round Judgs His Excellency Judge Anatoly Kovler, Madame Justice Claire L’Heureux-Dube and Mr. Roger Bilodeau QC listen to Perm’s Maria Popova
From the 1st to the 4th of February, the Russian Jessup Competition, a moot court competition where students argue a legal case in front of judges in tournament style, took place in the People’s Friendship University of Russia (RUDN), Moscow. One hundred and sixty students from 31 Russian universities from as far away as Tyumen and Arkhangelsk participated.
The Philip C. Jessup International Law Moot Court Competition, named after Judge Philip C. Jessup of the International Court of Justice (1961-1970), started in 1960, and is now the biggest international moot competition in the world, operating in almost 100 countries with some 500 teams and 2,000 students participating this year. The event is administered globally by the International Law Students Association, a non-profit organization based in Chicago.
International law firm White & Case started up the Jessup in Russia in 2002, with 14 teams participating in the first year. Five years later, the Russian Jessup is the second largest regional competition in the world, with 31 universities sending teams this year. Madame Justice Claire L’Heureux-Dube, former Judge at the Supreme Court of Canada and judge on the final bench of the Russian Jessup, commented: “Jessup is probably the most difficult moot competition, but I can tell you that what I have seen today in the Russian students tells me that they are as good as any other team in any other part of the world, and I have judged a lot of these competitions in different countries.”
Russian students argue the same case as their counterparts across the world to an independent body of volunteer judges, almost half of whom are foreign. Participating universities are sent a packet of materials, consisting of a description of a legal problem (called a compromis) and references to international statutes, jurisprudence and doctrine.
Since each team is asked to argue for both the Applicant country and the Respondent country, the teams prepare a case for and against the issues concerned. Shifting between both sides of an argument can be difficult for many students, particularly when the issues concerned are complex, as they are in every Jessup. As Canadian Ambassador Christopher Westdal, who gave an introductory speech at the competition lightheartedly put it, the questions posed by the Jessup are “much too difficult for me.”
Students submit written legal arguments, or briefs, to the competition organizers in Moscow and Chicago before the national tournament begins. Each brief is then assessed by three volunteer judges, based in different countries. In the oral tournament, which takes place in Moscow, each team pleads four times and each trial is presided over by three volunteer judges. Scores received for briefs and oral rounds make up the team’s final score.
Preparing for and delivering oral arguments is quite a challenge for Russian law students, whose legal education emphasizes the more theoretical aspects of the law. However, some 30 lawyers from the ‘Friends of Jessup’ network worldwide volunteered as absentee coaches to help to bridge the tangible gap in knowledge of international law, and guide students through the essence of the Jessup project – research, brainstorming, exchanging ideas and finding solutions. In some cases, according to Magali Veneau, Jessup National Administrator for Russia, this went beyond the Russian students’ expectations, who thought the coaches would simply proofread their papers and help improve their English.
To ensure impartiality, great efforts are made so that the judges do not know any of the students. Students were strictly forbidden to name their university, until after the final results were announced. Each team becomes a three-digit number for the duration of the contest, used by the judges themselves when discussing different teams. Talking and passing notes between students is strictly forbidden. The organizers pick up things from each year’s Jessup, I gathered, and tweak the rules accordingly.
The Moscow office of White & Case has been organizing the Russian Jessup for the past five years in cooperation with ILSA; the International Law Students’ Association. Magali Veneau, the 2005 and 2006 National Administrator, commented: “At first it was really difficult explaining to Russian universities the importance of this event. Now that students have come and gone back to their universities, it is much less of an effort, and now new universities are applying.” Despite the voluntary nature of the project, some aspects — namely preparing materials, providing meals, buying tickets and providing accommodation for the winning teams in Washington, all require support. White & Case is the sole sponsor this year, and the Embassy of the United States of America, the Embassy of Canada, Garant, Cambridge University Press and Golden Telecom offered English language legal books as prizes and institutional support to the event. “Without their help, the event could not have been pulled off,” said Magali.
Judges John Place, Maria Issaeva and Melanie Davies discuss their decision at the preliminary round pleadings
In March the winners of each national competition travel to Washington, where the final battle is won… or lost. Nobody wins or loses according to which side of the argument they took; teams win or lose because of their ability to persuade, think on their feet, and the logic of their arguments. The competition is an intense and difficult experience; there were tears in some of the students’ eyes after a couple of the rounds; however Jessup is respected by every Russian student I spoke to.
Not all students had the confidence to stand up to the judge’s tough questioning. There was a tangible difference in confidence level between newcomers to the Jessup and those who had been through it before, be it last year or the day before. At the end of each round, before the judges announced the winning team, they gave the teams feedback on performances, something probably extremely useful for their future careers. At the rounds I attended, judges openly discussed such matters as maintaining eye contact, body language, presentation, making sure that the judge didn’t lose interest and other points. For example, one English judge, Peter Neenan, mentioned that there seemed to be two groups among the students: “One which did not look you in the eye, but somewhere else in the room, which was extremely off-putting, and another, which got so engrossed in their notes that they found it really difficult to think about the questions.”
If Russian students lack experience, they certainly seem to make up for this in how quickly they learn. “The first time that they get up, it’s true that they are scared. By the semi-finals, the teams that make it that far, they are very confident. In a two-three day competition, it’s amazing the transformation some students go through. I judge here in exactly the same way as I would anywhere else in the world,” commented William W. Burke-White, Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania.
The MGIMO team prepares its Final Round arguments
This opinion was supported by Ekaterina Aristova, one of the oralists in the team that won this year’s competition, from Perm State University: “Now I am not afraid of any judge, of any court.”
Most judges in this year’s competition and from what I understood by talking to the organizers, in previous events, were very impressed with the high level of the students’ English. A subtle balance is maintained here. While a student’s English language ability is definitely not the sole criterion used by judges in reaching a decision at the rounds that I attended, a solid language ability did help. As Madame Justice Claire L’Heureux-Dube, former Judge at the Supreme Court of Canada, pointed out, at the final round advocacy is all about persuasion – in this instance, in English.
Civil Law Versus Common Law
The Russian legal system is a civil-law system, as opposed to the common-law systems of England and the United States. I found it difficult to imagine that Russian students could compete on an equal footing with their western counterparts when their legal conceptual base differs so significantly. The beauty of the Jessup, it was explained to me, is that it is based on public international law, which no single country employs as being the law of the land, and yet which each country should in theory understand.
Hugh Verrier, executive partner of the Moscow office of White & Case, put it like this: “Public international law is a body of law that stands above civil and common law. This competition trains students in public international law. It is not as if people are coming to learn western ways of thinking; it’s above that, and this is what gives the Jessup its international dimension.”
Ah, but surely students who live in countries with a common-law legal system will have an advantage? I put this question to William Burke-White, who answered: “If you think about it, every country has one kind of disadvantage or another, no country uses international law in their own home state. You gain one thing and lose another in this same country. Overall, it balances out.”
What Next for Mooters?
There are two main benefits for the students who participate in the Jessup. The first is that it helps them in their job search after they graduate. “Jessup is very well respected in the legal systems of many countries. Today we live in a small world; you cannot just neglect international law,” said Madame Justice Claire L’Heureux-Dube. In the West, Jessup alumni can be found in the highest levels of government, judiciary, law firms and non-governmental organizations in dozens of countries around the world. However, in Russia at least, the competition is mostly about gaining invaluable experience in developing oral advocacy skills, prodding a student’s ability to think on his or her feet, to construct arguments logically, and last but not least to work in a team. Sergey Usoskin, best oralist in the 2006 Russian National Competition, commented: “Before, I never thought I would be a trial lawyer, but having gone through this, I think that this is what I will do in my future career.” As Natalia Makarova, a student in the 2004 Russian Jessup, and now a lawyer at Capital Legal Services in St. Petersburg, who judged this year’s Jessup, mentioned: “Jessup will remain in my heart forever. It changed my life. We lost our contest, although we got to the semi-final round. It seemed like the end of the world. Only months later did I realize that in fact I had won, because I realized all sorts of things, such as how to write legal documents in a way acceptable by western companies, how to present myself, how to answer questions, how to work in a team. My team mates are still my friends.”
The Jessup Addiction
The competition seems to have a life of its own. “Students keep coming back. This is something that feeds on itself. Previous students become judges’ it’s self-perpetuating, and because it’s mostly voluntary, it doesn’t require a lot of finance,” commented William Burke-White.
Jessup organizers make last preparations before the rounds
World champions in recent years have come from the Philippines, Australia and South Africa. Russia so far has struck up an impressive record at the World Championships – Mari State University took second place in 2003 and MGIMO had the 7th and 18th best speakers in 2005.
There are, of course, some problems. A few students complained that some Russian universities had better internet connections, and more material on international law. One student doubted the objectivity of the Russian judges. The fact that this year’s competition was won by a team from Perm, which is not a large city, some 1500 kilometers from Moscow, would seem to refute both theories. I detected a genuine effort on the part of the organizers in Moscow to ensure that every team had a fair run.
When asked what he'd like to see from the Jessup in the future, final bench judge Anatoly Kovler, a judge at the European Court of Human Rights, elected on behalf of the Russian Federation, said, "My grandson (presently two months old) as a participant in the Jessup in 2025-30." I'm just sorry it's too late for me to change careers and do some mooting myself.