We’ve all heard the stories – the time the water bottle spilled all over the competitor’s notes; the fire alarm that decided to go off mid-argument. The time the internet blinked and kicked everyone out of the Zoom room; the question the judge asked about a case the student had never heard of. What’s a moot court competitor to do when the unexpected happens? How do we survive podium disasters with grace? The tips that follow are designed to allay your nerves and give some practical advice as to how to handle the most common scenarios.
Your best defense against the unexpected is, of course, preparation, but there will always be aspects of the competition that are beyond your control. Understand that the ability to remain calm is your ally. When bad luck strikes, take a deep breath and remember that most of the people around you have been doing this for a long time. There’s almost nothing the judges and the coaches haven’t seen. Keep your wits about you and don’t forget to bring your sense of humor, and you’ll be fine.
1. Technical difficulties.
This is the most common problem students have, especially in the age of Zoom and recorded arguments. If you’re live and your microphone does not work, don’t waste time fiddling with it. Simply advise the judges of the problem and keep going. “Your Honors, my microphone does not seem to be working, so I’ll make an effort to speak up. Please let me know if you can’t hear me well.”
If your argument will be on Zoom, always do a test run before the round begins, and make sure everything is working properly. If technical difficulties interrupt your argument, type a note to the bailiff in the chat box, and then try to solve the problem the best you can. Make sure you’re not muted and that your settings are correct. If it’s your camera, check that you’ve selected the correct one, that it’s not covered, and that your video settings are on. Follow any advice the bailiff gives you to get you up and running again as soon as possible. Thank everyone who waited for you, and proceed.
If you freeze or get kicked out of the Zoom room, quickly place a checkmark in your notes to mark your place and rejoin as soon as you can. Apologize and politely ask permission to pick up where you left off.
2. Physical messes.
Physical messes – papers flying off the podium or water spilling – are embarrassing, but they’re easy to fix and can provide a lighthearted moment or even an opportunity, if you handle them well. Remember that the judges have seen this before and are likely interested more in the way you recover than the fact that it happened. Score points by good-naturedly laughing it off and staying on track.
Prevent messes by making sure your water bottle is securely capped, and keep your papers clipped and organized so that if they fall, they’re easy to pick up. If the unthinkable happens, stay calm and apologize. “My apologies, your Honors – let me take a moment to reorganize here.” Try to keep the interruption to a minimum and to maintain your professionalism. Reorder your papers, shake the water off, and keep going. At the end of your argument, a teammate or coach can run for paper towels and help you gather your notes.
Handle fire alarms, organizational pauses, and other interruptions much the same way you would handle a Zoom malfunction. Stay as calm as possible. Stop arguing, put a checkmark in your notes where you were interrupted, to keep your place, and follow any instructions from the people running the competition. If and when you are able to continue your argument, ask for permission to begin from the place where you left off. If the interruption was substantial or if you had just begun arguing, ask for permission to start again from the beginning.
4. Mishaps in delivering your argument
a. Blanking and panic attacks
It’s not fun, but it happens, and you won’t be the first person ever to experience it. If you draw a blank or lose your place, stay calm, pause briefly, and let the judges know what’s going on. “I beg your pardon, Your Honors, but I seem to have lost my train of thought. Would you mind repeating the last question?” There’s no shame in asking for a jump-start when you need it; it can humanize you if you do it with humility and a smile.
If you panic or freeze up, take a moment to take a deep breath. This argument is just fifteen minutes or so of your life, and it will be over soon. Ask the judges for a moment if you need it. I have seen advocates successfully say things like, “May I have a moment to calm my nerves?” or “My apologies, I just need a moment to collect myself.” Take a sip of water, smile, and carry on as soon as you can.
b. Arguing the wrong side
In competition, you will usually be asked to switch sides and sometimes even issues. It is not uncommon for competitors to become momentarily confused. I have even seen people begin to argue the wrong side or issue, only to realize their mistake a few minutes in.
The mistake, however, is nowhere near as grave as it seems. You are far less likely to be judged for making a mistake than for how you correct it. With that in mind, as soon as you realize what has happened, stop, apologize, explain, and ask for permission to start again. “I beg your pardon, Your Honors, I have been mistakenly arguing for the wrong side. May I begin again?” Keeping it short and matter-of-fact minimizes the damage and demonstrates your professionalism.
5. Questions you can’t answer
Perhaps a judge asks you a question that you cannot answer. Do not panic, and do not guess. If it is a case or statute you are unfamiliar with, say so. Some professors advise offering to write a supplemental brief, but I do not recommend doing that; we all know you will not be submitting a supplemental brief in an oral argument competition. The judges are scoring you on your advocacy skills, so they are watching to see how you will handle the situation on your feet.
With that in mind, confess your lack of familiarity with the material you’re being asked about and see whether you can still answer the question. I recommend saying something like, “Your Honor, I am unfamiliar with that case, but if you can give me the basics of its holding, I’ll see if I can address your concerns.”
A student in a recent competition was asked about a pop-culture reference with which he was not familiar. He used a similar approach: “I’m not familiar with that film, Your Honor. If you can elaborate a little, I will try my best to answer your question.” The judge was impressed and said so.
6. Hostility from the bench and the bar
Finally, you may occasionally run into adversaries or judges who are less than pleasant. If a judge badgers you or raises his or her voice, try to remain calm and handle the situation as professionally as you can. Try not to react in kind – sometimes judges are just plain unpleasant, but sometimes they are testing your ability to handle the pressure. In either case, it’s not about you, so don’t make it about you. If a judge or adversary remarks about your clothing or appearance or says something else inappropriate, remember that you are a professional, arguing on behalf of a client. Finish your job, and then complain formally to the people running the competition. These situations are rare; you can do your part in making them rarer by calling out the misbehavior after the competition is over and your score is no longer at risk.
The best approach to dealing with the unexpected is calm professionalism combined with a sense of humor and a little bit of perspective. Pack these tools in your bag along with your notes and your water bottle, and you’ll have everything you need to excel in your competition. Best of luck!
Adjunct Professor of Law at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University. Professor Arlin teaches Legal Skills and Advanced Appellate Advocacy; she also teaches legal writing and coaches Pace’s teams in the annual National Moot Court Competition.
“The best approach to dealing with the unexpected is calm professionalism combined with a sense of humor and a little bit of perspective” – couldn’t agree more. Great article from one of Pace’s best professors.