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Federal judge: 'Don't sacrifice your integrity'

For the Hon. Albert Diaz, who serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, the best lawyers know how to write concise briefs, keep their arguments simple and - as he explained at an awards banquet for Elon Law’s Seventh Annual Billings, Exum & Frye National Moot Court Competition - don’t take themselves too seriously.

The Hon. Albert Diaz to competitors in Elon Law's Seventh Annual Billings,Exum & Frye National Moot Court Competition: "There's absolutely no reason why you can't be the most honest lawyer in any courtroom that you walk into."

The job of any lawyer who finds herself arguing before the Hon. Albert Diaz is simple: “Don’t make me work too hard to understand you, and make it easy for me to agree with you.”

That isn’t what some attorneys do. Diaz said he often reads briefs that are too unfocused, too long, or submitted with too many mistakes to instill a sense of confidence in the legal arguments themselves. Such attorneys aren’t doing their clients any favors.

Diaz, a judge on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, would rather attorneys pay attention to details and be concise in their writing, since 90 percent of the cases that make their way to the Fourth Circuit are decided on written submissions. And the suggestions Diaz offered to dozens of law students visiting Elon Law for the Seventh Annual Billings, Exum & Frye National Moot Court Competition included advice unrelated to writing.

Florida Coastal School of Law's Stephania Gournaris and Vivian Gonzalez.

“Don’t sacrifice your integrity,” Diaz said in keynote remarks during the spring 2017 competition’s awards banquet at Elon Law. “Cases are going to come and go over the course of your career, and your reputation is too important to compromise for any case. You may not always be the smartest or best writer in a courtroom, but there’s absolutely no reason why you can’t be the most honest lawyer in any courtroom that you in walk into.

“That doesn’t take any special effort other than an insistence on being true to yourself and your values.”

Elon Law’s national moot court competition culminated on April 8 when Stephania Gournaris, Vivian Gonzalez and Robert Kennedy of Florida Coastal School of Law were crowned tournament champions in a closely contested final round against a team from Regent University.

Regent, however, captured individual honors, with law student Adam Burton winning Best Oral Advocate in the final round. The best brief awards in the competition were received by Stafford Brantley, Jessica Junek and Randall Towns from South Texas College of Law Houston and Adam Burton, Trayce Hockstad and Lucille Wall from Regent.

The final round of Elon Law's national moot court competition was held in the law school's courtroom, which is where the North Carolina Business Court will also hear arguments throughout the year.

Thirty-four teams from 21 law schools across the country competed in this year’s Billings, Exum & Frye National Moot Court Competition, making it one of the country’s largest competitions. More than 100 attorneys and judges participated in the event, grading briefs and judging oral arguments during the event.

The moot court competition involved legal arguments surrounding the fictional case of a church denied state grant money for its community garden, which provides fresh produce for the church-run soup kitchen, because the state feared that funding the church’s garden would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and because of an anti-LGBTQ sermon from the church’s pastor.

The church had argued that state denial of grant funds violated the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Florida Coastal and Regent University teams argued in the final round before a panel of four judges including Diaz, and retired North Carolina Supreme Court justices Henry E. Frye, Sarah Parker, and Willis P. Whichard.

Final round judges (from left): the Hon. Sarah Parker, the Hon. Henry E. Frye, and the Hon. Albert Diaz. Not pictured: the Hon. Willis P. Whichard.

The first-place team received a replica of Elon Law’s Chief Justices’ Cup and has its school name engraved on the permanent trophy that resides at Elon Law. Each individual member of the first-place team also receives a plaque.

The Billings, Exum & Frye National Moot Court Competition honors three former North Carolina Supreme Court chief justices – Rhoda Bryan Billings, James Exum, and Henry E. Frye, all founding members of Elon Law’s Advisory Board – and each year focuses on constitutional law issues.

Moot court teams participated in three preliminary rounds of oral argument, after which the field was narrowed for octofinal, quarterfinal, semifinal and championship rounds. Teams submitted briefs in advance of the competition, representing either the petitioner or the respondent in the hypothetical case before the United States Supreme Court. Competitors were judged on the quality of their appellate brief and oral arguments.

Elon Law student Russell Michalec (right) presents Regent University School of Law's Adam Burton with the award for the Best Oral Advocate in the final round of the Seventh Annual Billings, Exum & Frye National Moot Court Competition.

The most recent competition is the last time the tournament will be held during the spring. The eighth competition is scheduled for October 19-21, 2017, as Elon Law fully transitions to its new 2.5-year curriculum, thus leaving in place an experienced Moot Court Board that organizes each event. 

“Our Moot Court Board did an exceptional job organizing this year’s event and making it a great learning experience for the competitors,” said Alan Woodlief Jr, senior associate dean and director of the Moot Court Program. “The Board, with the assistance of dozens of current Elon Law students and over 30 alumni, put on a top-notch competition and are to be commended on their leadership.”

Diaz ended his talk with an observation about those attorneys who have been most successful in their careers. “Please don’t take yourself too seriously,” he said. “In my experience, the most effective lawyers are the ones, whether in or out of the courtroom, trial lawyers or others, who are self effacing, who are courteous, and who are down to earth.”

Eric Townsend,
4/12/2017 11:20 AM