The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on law schools and the broader university sector. And it is likely to continue next year. While I am the first to admit that online learning is less than ideal, especially for group work, there are some positives to have come out of the ‘zoom shift’. One critical benefit to law students this year was the wide adoption of online mooting. Online mooting should be here to stay.
Extracurricular activities such as mooting provide law students with the ability to apply their learning outside the classroom. They are one of the key things that prospective employers look to when making hiring decisions. This is especially the case in sought-after associate/tipstaff positions, where mooting is almost a prerequisite.
Mooting, especially at an intervarsity level, is out of reach for many students. The cost of travel involved and the time needed to travel to compete in traditional face-to-face moots create significant barriers. The fact that few law schools offer financial assistance to student mooters compounds the problem. Most intervarsity competitions in Australia are based along the east coast of Australia. This effectively shuts out universities based in Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania, and Queensland.
Issues of accessibility and equity with in-person mooting
Before the pandemic, almost all Australian intervarsity mooting competitions were held face-to-face. One notable exception is the HSF International Computational Law e-Moot that the Singapore Management University and the Australian National University organise in partnership.
Traditional face-to-face mooting requires many teams to travel interstate to compete. While some law student societies and law schools provide funding to students, this is not always the case. Many teams have to bear their own costs of travel and accommodation. Combined with lost income when moots clash with work schedules, this places mooting out of the reach of rural/regional students, students with extensive work or caring commitments and students from low-SES backgrounds.
It also has a disproportionate impact on students further from the ‘mooting centre’ of Sydney and Melbourne where most intervarsity competitions are based. Intervarsity competitions rarely see teams based in Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania. The Jessup Moot and Australia Law Student Association competitions are exceptions. Law schools or law student societies tend to provide financial support to teams in those competitions.
Given the emphasis placed on mooting by some employers, especially judges, this raises significant accessibility and equity concerns.
Access to funding
Even for the universities that do financially support mooting, there are significant questions about whether they will be able to continue to offer financial support in 2021. The university sector has seen significant cuts to revenue due to the loss of international students. This is especially the case at public universities who were repeatedly excluded from the JobKeeper scheme. Given job losses and more on the horizon, universities might face staff pushback if they continue to offer financial support to extracurricular activities in 2021. The ability for student societies to continue to fund themselves through lucrative sponsorship deals with corporate firms may also be impacted.
Broader benefits offered by online mooting
Online mooting not only addresses accessibility and equity issues. It also offers significant benefits to student competitors and competition co-ordinators/administrators.
In addition to reduced costs, competitors can attend more competitions. They can attend moots with a higher standard of competition. Online moots accommodate more teams from more universities. They ease the burden on local judges. This improves the quality of competitions in both the short and long-term. By giving more students the ability to compete, online mooting helps more students improve their advocacy skills and improves the standard of mooting overall.
Online competitions also create the possibility for more overseas law schools to compete in locally organised competitions. For example, New Zealand-based law schools competed in (and won) the inaugural ANU Gender Identity+Sexuality Law Moot. This creates opportunities for local students to learn from different mooting styles, and to meet like-minded overseas students.
Online mooting helps students develop a particular type of advocacy skills: the ability to persuade in a video call. This skill will become more critical if trends in online dispute resolution and online hearings continue.
For co-ordinators, online competitions also offer benefits in terms of the organisation required. A critical limitation on the delivery of competitions is sourcing judges. Academics are time-poor and might be even more so given funding cuts in the sector. For intervarsity competitions, relying on current students poses challenges given potential perceived bias issues. Online mooting allows organisers to draw on a wider array of judges, including serving or former judicial officers, practitioners, academics, former mooters from around Australia or even internationally.
Further, online mooting can also reduce scheduling issues. Competitions don’t need to hold all the rounds over a single weekend to account for travel needs. Organisers can spread a competition out over several evenings or weeks. This helps reduce the amount of work needed in a short period and makes competition management less burdensome and less stressful. It also allows students who need to work to compete. Alongside the improvements to access and equity, these benefits suggest that online mooting should be preferred to in-person competitions.
Some face-to-face competitions should be retained. But universities and student societies should continue to focus on delivering online competitions. Face-to-face mooting should be reserved for competitions that attract funding from universities or law student societies. This allows for more (and better) competitions. And it provides more opportunities for low-SES or rural/regional students to compete. It will also help students develop online advocacy skills which will better prepare them for future work.