The tension in the room was thick as two sides sat around a table negotiating the terms of a complex deal involving the sale of a private, family-owned company in a $2 billion cash-and-stock deal to Chinese private equity.
As the minutes ticked by, S.J. Quinney College of Law students Andrew Steiner, Elena Todorova and Jason Perry carefully challenged escrow, foreign regulatory and purchase price issues, among others.
Eventually the parties agreed to a deal they could bring back to their clients and each party walked away happy with the compromise reached so far.
The scenario was as real as any future negotiation the students will face as corporate attorneys — a reason law schools, including the University of Utah, encourage students to participate in competitions that allow them to put their skills to the test in real-world legal situations.
The team of Steiner, Todorova and Perry perfected their contract-drafting and negotiating skills for weeks leading up to the 2018 Transactional LawMeet, a competition where judges complimented them on their professionalism, ability to reach creative compromises and their mastery of challenging legal and regulatory issues related to transactional lawyering.
Their experience is emblematic of what faculty members hope students learn from participating in competitions: a meaningful opportunity to practice what it truly means to be an attorney.
“LawMeet is a like capstone course. Students pull together the substance that they’ve learned throughout law school and tie that knowledge together in a tangible transaction,” said Cathy Hwang, an associate professor who coached the U’s LawMeet students along with first-year co-coach Spencer Romney of Parr Brown. “They’re pulling in knowledge not just from business law classes, but also from environmental law, administrative law, civil procedure, ethics, and other areas in order to meet their clients’ needs.
“And, of course, the best way to get better at writing is to have someone offering you feedback — and students get that, through the many rounds of drafting and comments. For a competition like this, they do at least three to five full drafts, plus a lot of smaller-provision drafting in between, and coaches review and provide detailed feedback on all of that,” Hwang added.
In addition to learning opportunities, students also receive great networking opportunities through participating in competitions and working with mentors who donate many hours of their time to help students prepare for meets. Besides paid coaches, many former students and friends from the legal community give their time to help students succeed. For those involved, watching students develop their lawyering skills is a rewarding part of the experience.
Judge Richard McKelvie, a 1981 alumnus of the College of Law who currently serves on the Third District Court bench, became a moot court coach when he took on the role of director of S.J. Quinney’s trial advocacy program in 2008. Serving as a coach presented an opportunity to take a handful of students and give them the advanced training and experience that could launch them into careers as trial lawyers if they decided to pursue that path, said McKelvie.
“I have continued doing it these past 10 years because I see the growth and accomplishments that can be achieved through a relatively modest investment of time and energy. Being in the company of young, bright minds is invigorating and restorative,” said McKelvie.
“The program is successful because it presents a learning dynamic that is very different from the standard classroom setting,” he said. “It forces students to learn to think on their feet, speak spontaneously, and navigate the complexities of the real world of the practice of law. There are some skills, like shooting a basketball, driving a car, or presenting a closing argument that can only be learned and mastered by practice.”
Troy Booher, an adjunct faculty member at S.J. Quinney, has also continued to serve as a coach for several years and said he enjoys watching students’ progress.
“What motivates me is the chance to work with amazing students and watch them develop practical skills. Moot courts provide students an opportunity to acquire practical skills they will need to be attorneys,” Booher said. “It is enjoyable to watch them grow in law school and after law school once they begin practicing law and using the skills they acquired in moot court.”
Above all, according to Hwang and other coaches, participating in competitions gives both students and their mentors a chance to have fun.
“I love to see how much students grow from the experience,” Hwang said. “In December, students get this complicated 90-page acquisition agreement for a $2 billion deal, and it’s chock full of stuff they’ve never seen before, from complicated contractual language to weird substantive regulatory issues that they need to learn.
“From a student’s perspective, I bet it feels a little bit like standing at the base of Everest, realizing that you’re going to have to climb it. But then, by the end of eight weeks, they miraculously know everything about the document, all the ins and outs — and they really know what’s important to a client, and how to advocate for it.”
Hwang said she loves watching the process of confidence- and skill-building in her students.
“It’s also a treat to work with our students, because they are so diligent, thoughtful, and fun,” Hwang said. “I really get to relive my favorite thing about transactional practice — working with a team on a common goal.”