By Cameron Kelly & Michael Carroll, Law Students, The University of Texas School of Law
I. Starting the Journey
Instead of starting class by cold-calling people, Professor Westbrook chose to suspend my terror briefly. While I was thankful for the reprieve from what would inevitably be a disappointing cold call, I was more thankful for what he had to say. Westbrook paused at the beginning of class that day to announce tryouts for the Duberstein Bankruptcy Moot Court Team. I began to pay attention closer than I normally did in Secured Credit. As Westbrook described the team, I started checking the boxes in my head. And Duberstein checked all the boxes any self-respecting law student would want it to: prestige, check; interactions with judges and practitioners, check; an opportunity to improve my oral advocacy, check. I turned in my application before class ended that day.
Frankly, I really didn’t know how moot court worked, or how bankruptcy worked for that matter. But I knew that I loved advocacy. So, when I got an ominous email telling me to show up for tryouts about a month later, I took my preparation seriously—relatively that is. Since I already had a full course load and was on a mock trial team, relatively meant I started reading my 1L brief again (the issue I argued for tryouts) that morning. Thankfully, I remembered my 1L oral argument well enough to put on a good enough show to be offered a spot on the team. Then, I realized the national competition conflicted with my girlfriend’s brother’s wedding, to which I had already been invited. But I wasn’t about to pass up an opportunity to be the best law student I could be, so I told my girlfriend “sorry” and accepted the offer. I literally had no idea what I had just gotten myself into.
A month later, I got another ominous email telling me to show up for oral argument practice and to be prepared to argue one of the “attached” issues from a previous year’s competition. I thought little of it, my tryout went well after all. Again, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I was about 45 seconds into reading the argument outline I had been given before practice when one of our more inquisitive coaches asked me a question. The coach’s question was challenging. It made it seem like the Court siding with my position would bring an end to the financial world as we know it. I stuttered and stammered while I searched for an answer. I couldn’t find it. So, I diverted and acted like the question had never been asked. And that was it, I was hooked on bankruptcy moot court.
Over the next three months, a new world began to open up before me. Every Tuesday and Wednesday night (our practice nights), that world grew a little more detailed. This is where things got interesting. Learning about the intricacies of applying the Bankruptcy Code, the federalism concerns that had to be balanced, and the real-life implications of bankruptcy decisions was one of the most intellectually rigorous and rewarding things I had ever done. I was changed. No longer was I hooked on just moot court—I found bankruptcy fascinating. I mean it, I really could not get enough. I would leave practice at 10:00 p.m., only to get home and start shotgun emailing questions to the coaches. I began to grasp the rawness of bankruptcy—how it affects people in profound and tangible ways—and I was enthralled.
But the experience was more than finding an area of the law I could be passionate about. The day I accepted my Duberstein offer, I thought I was just joining a team. Instead, I joined a family. My teammates became my best friends, my coaches became fierce mentors, and the bankruptcy community at-large seemed to take me in with open arms. I can say, unequivocally, that joining the Duberstein team is the best decision I have made in law school.
Of course, the fear of a National Competition still loomed over my head. Thankfully, our coaches knew what they were doing and so did the Texas Bankruptcy Bar. Neither was going to send an unprepared team to square off against the Nation’s finest. Our coaches demanded a lot of us, they set deadlines, they required us to show up to practice, they challenged us at every turn. But they also encouraged us and never missed an opportunity to remind us of our great potential. Our coaches pushed us to not only be great oralists, but also to understand bankruptcy from a legal and a practical standpoint. They made sure we left for New York not just prepared to hold our own, but to be successful. And for that, I cannot thank them enough.
II. The Regional Competition
The Texas Bankruptcy Bar made sure we left with for New York prepared for success too. Every year the Bar puts on a regional competition, using the same problem used in Duberstein to help prepare teams from the 5th Circuit for the National Competition. So, two weeks before the National Competition, we packed up our folders and got on a plane to Dallas for the Elliott Cup. This was my first moot court competition and it was an incredible experience. You can argue in classrooms with your teammates till three in the morning, but there is no substitute for the live fire you get in competition. And the Bankruptcy Bar made sure we had plenty of live fire. Our experience at Elliott Cup was essential to our success at the Duberstein National Competition. And for that, I cannot thank the Texas Bankruptcy Bar enough.
Elliott Cup was also the first time I started to realize just how much of a community the bankruptcy world is. The competition staff was at the ready to help with whatever the advocates needed. Practitioners offered their cards in case we had any questions. Judge Jernigan even gave me a signed copy of her novel. It was a fantastic experience.
Initially I did not know what I was getting myself into. But looking back on it, it wasn’t because it was more difficult than I expected (though it was), it wasn’t because it was absolutely overwhelming (at times it might have been), and it wasn’t because the pressure to succeed was too great (it really wasn’t—our coaches were proud no matter what). I didn’t know what I was getting into because I couldn’t have imagined how awesome it would turn out to be.
III. The Competition
Finally, it was time for the national competition. On Friday evening our team landed in New York. The bright lights of the big city were both inspiring and intimidating. After several months of tireless work researching, writing, and practicing, the competition now felt so close—and so real. Early on Saturday morning, our team made our way to the hotel lobby. It was easy to feel the intensity as teams from all over the country made their way to the front of the hotel to load the buses. While some advocates were busy reviewing the notes that took them months to compile, others were busy practicing arguments in their heads. The bus itself was filled with chatter as competitors from previous years were reuniting and new advocates were being introduced to law students from across the country.
When we finally made our way from Midtown to Queens, the bus pulled up in front of St. John’s University. We were welcomed by a nice breakfast and friendly competition staff. The teams quickly separated into their own tables as nervous advocates made final preparations while awaiting to hear which side of the case they would have to argue in the coming minutes. When the first-round bracket was posted on the walls around the cafeteria, members from each team raced over. Over the general chatter you could hear competitors calling out to the rest of their team: “Petitioner!” or “Respondent!” to varying reactions. Our team was excited to learn that we would be arguing against familiar faces—another team from the 5th Circuit that we met while at our regional competition. Despite being competitors, there was an instant feeling of comradery. Having a shared experience with law students you would otherwise never meet is an invaluable reality of a national competition.
As I stood up to make my first argument, the reality of the national competition finally hit me. Several months of practicing, arguing, writing, and shear hard work came down to this moment. Thankfully, that feeling quickly subsided and the judges began asking thoughtful and difficult questions. When I sat down and our competitors started to argue, I was amazed by how talented they were. After every round, I found myself taking away a new tactic or argument from a competitor. By our last preliminary round, our arguments had nearly completely changed from when we landed in New York. It was a humbling and inspiring experience to face such talented law students round after round.
On Sunday afternoon, we were relieved to find out that we had been chosen to advance to the final 16 teams. This meant we had two more arguments that afternoon, followed by a cocktail reception where the final 8 teams would be announced. Each round was becoming increasingly difficult as the judges were more experienced and the competitors were just as skilled. After our second round that afternoon, we attended the cocktail reception, trying not to think about the pending announcement regarding the final 8. The networking opportunities presented by the competition made the entire journey well worth it. Meeting attorneys, professors, and students who all have an interest in bankruptcy law’s challenging problems was an experience unlike any other.
After a few hours, a staff member for the competition made an announcement regarding the final 8. We were extremely excited to have made it. This meant that on Monday morning, we would be heading to the Duberstein Federal Courthouse to make our arguments in front of federal judges. This too was a humbling experience. The judges challenged our every argument and presented difficult hypotheticals we had never considered. It gave us a real appreciation for the practicing attorneys we had been meeting. Arguing in front of the experienced judiciary is hard! But doing so was a rewarding experience. We were fortunate enough to get to do so twice as we made the semi-finals. While this is where our months’ long journey with this difficult case ended, the experience of the Duberstein competition was far from over.
IV. The Gala and Continuing the Journey
On Monday evening, the American Bankruptcy Institute hosted an amazing gala at Gotham Hall in Manhattan. The gala was filled with experienced attorneys and federal judges from around the country. Having the opportunity to meet people who had previously competed in the competition and who now had successful practices was a great experience. The connections that were made that night surely lead to great opportunities and the beginnings of a life-long network. After several months of practicing late into the night, the gala proved that hard work pays off.
The best part of the experience was watching our team of six strangers turn into a group of friends with a shared purpose and common goal. The six of us went from knowing nothing about the practice of bankruptcy, to arguing granular issues of the Code in front of the finest attorneys and judges in the country. We went from knowing few people in the practice of bankruptcy, to having a national network made up of practitioners, students, professors, coaches, and even judges. Needless to say, the effects of the Duberstein National Moot Court Competition will last well beyond our years in law school. Indeed, Duberstein has impacted us for the rest of our lives—and for this, we cannot be thankful enough.
Cameron Kelly is a second-year law student at The University of Texas School of Law. This summer he will be clerking with Hunton Andrews Kurth in Houston, TX. He received his B.A. in Political Science from UC Davis.
Michael Carroll is a second-year law student at The University of Texas School of Law. This summer he will be interning at Vinson & Elkins in their Washington, D.C. office. He received his Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Calgary.