More than Able Cooley law students shine in moot court competition

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 By Paul Janczewski

Legal News
What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas?
Not this time.
When two students at Thomas M. Cooley Law School advanced recently through the regional of the American Bar Association’s National Appellate Advocacy Competition into the finals in April, the last thing anyone wants is for that information to remain in the glitzy Nevada town.
Anyone involved in the law knows that the ABA’s NAAC is one of the premier contests nationwide. Cooley Adjunct Professor Kelly McDoniel, who led the coaching effort and prepared the pair for the rigors of this contest, called it “one of the elite competitions” around. McDoniel, who teaches a moot court class at Cooley, selected the two students from her class, based on their participation in an interschool competition.
Derek W. Levinsky and Lowell D. Johnson, both third-year law students scheduled to graduate this spring, advanced through the ABA’s regional competition in late February, winning all five of their matches, and will now compete in the national finals April 8-10 in Chicago.
Along the way, the two beat teams from law school powerhouses such as Stetson, Chicago-Kent, Thomas Jefferson, and UCLA. To put their win in perspective, teams that were unable to advance through the Las Vegas regional included Northwestern, Penn State, Boston University, and others.
“It was pure excitement, and very gratifying,” Levinsky said when he learned he and Johnson were advancing. “You had to do your best to advance, because you’re facing the very best from all these schools,” Johnson said.
Besides arguing a very complex legal issue against some of the best law students in the nation, Johnson faced another challenge just hours before the Saturday elimination rounds. He learned a massive earthquake had rocked Chile – the very place his wife was visiting her parents.
“Of course, I was frightened,” Johnson said. “You think terrible thoughts, but I had to force myself to believe she was safe, and I just had to focus on the competition, because there was nothing I could do.”
Fortunately, just after the pair’s final round, Johnson learned his wife was safe. 
“It was a tremendous relief,” he said.
Deborah Weixl, a spokesperson for the Chicago-based ABA, said the competition was created “to emphasize the development of oral advocacy skills” through a realistic experience – a simulation of arguing a hypothetical appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Students are required to write a 35-page brief as either respondent or petitioner, and then argue the case before a mock court, comprised of attorneys and judges.
This is the 32nd competition, and 201 teams from 119 schools entered, competing in six regional competitions. The Las Vegas competition was held at the federal courthouse there. Levinsky and Johnson will be one of 24 teams in the finals. The past list of winners reads like a Who’s Who of prestigious law schools. South Texas College of Law has practically owned this competition, winning multiple times over the years. Law schools from Harvard, Yale, William & Mary, and BYU have also done well.
Cooley Dean John Nussbaumer said judges score the competition without knowing what school teams are from to avoid reputation bias. 
“Judged on that basis, our students rose to the top,” he said.
The problem teams faced this year was a mouthful just to say, let alone understand, decipher and argue. It involved two questions – whether the New York Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards is an act of Congress subject to reverse preemption under the McCarran-Ferguson Act and whether the McCarran-Ferguson Act applies to arbitration agreements between U.S. insureds and foreign insurers. 
Got that. Now, discuss.
It’s enough to make law school professors and deans develop a migraine.
“What made this win more impressive to me was the degree of difficulty of the problem,” said Nussbaumer. “It was part constitutional law, part insurance law, and part international law, and many of the judges commented on how difficult it was for them to understand the issues.”
But Levinsky and Johnson were not intimidated. And despite their differences, Nussbaumer said they merged into a dynamic team. 
“Both of them demonstrated a combination of intellectual ability, competitive intensity and grace under fire that some lawyers never achieve,” he said.
Levinsky, 26, of Windsor, commutes to the Auburn Hills Cooley campus. After graduating from the University of Windsor in 2007 with a bachelor’s of commerce degree with honors in business administration, he obtained a scholarship to Cooley.
He also worked part-time for his parent’s floor covering business while attending law school. Levinsky said he’s wanted to be an attorney for years because he “enjoys public speaking and arguing.” And he said law “touches on so many areas of life.”
Johnson, of Rochester Hills, is middle-aged and came to Cooley in a roundabout way. After graduating from Eastern Michigan University with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, he remained there and received his master’s degree and later became a certified public accountant, working for an international accounting firm.
After that, Johnson became a controller and later chief financial officer for a high-tech pharmaceutical manufacturer. But because of mergers and acquisitions of the company, Johnson was forced to move several times, to California, Toledo and Chicago.
“I had enough of that and wanted some stability, “ Johnson said, so he opened his own financial consulting and executive search firm back in Michigan. 
Once he gained that flexibility, Johnson said he entered law school, due to a long interest in the law. 
“And I found it intellectually challenging working with lawyers over the years,” he said.
While his business took him to points around the United States, Europe and South America, Johnson found time to attend Cooley on nights and weekends. He said with his business background and law degree, he will be able to provide many services to future clients.
Levinsky and Johnson had classes together at Cooley, and were both in McDoniel’s moot court class. They partnered up for particular problem, and Levinsky said McDoniel selected them for the ABA competition. 
“Our styles complement each other,” Levinsky said, adding that the differences in their ages and styles “adds diversity” to any problem they tackled.
Johnson said it “was a pleasure” to work with Levinsky, who he called “very mature, poised and smart,” and also echoed Levinsky, saying their styles were complementary. 
“He’s a serious competitor, and so am I.”
After presenting their briefs, the pair had about six weeks to hone and practice their presentations. The two practiced several times a week, and presented their cases to Nussbaumer, McDoniel and other Cooley professors in mock practices.
“Professor McDoniel was always available, and she prepared us well by giving us an environment that simulated the competition,” Levinsky said.
“She knew what it takes to write and put together a good oral argument,” Johnson said.
Nussbaumer said Professor Evelyn K. Calogero played a large role in their brief placing second among the teams for a boot camp she conducted.
Calogero said she was proud of Levinsky and Johnson, who researched and wrote their pre-competition brief during term break. She said at the competition, depending on the flip of a coin, the team could either argue the problem as respondents or petitioner, so the team must know and be able to argue both sides.
“By the time of the competition, these students knew the applicable law and the facts inside and out, backwards and forwards,” Calogero said. 
She credited the faculty and students at Cooley who aided Levinsky and Johnson in those efforts. 
“It was just another example of our Cooley community coming together to fulfill Cooley’s mission; helping our students to develop the knowledge, skills and ethics that they need to become productive, responsible citizens of their towns and their legal communities,” she said.
Other assistance came from the team’s bailiff, Matthew Cohn, and the other team Cooley sent, Joshua Hershberger and Michael Marcum, who argued against Levinsky and Johnson in practice rounds and will do so again before the national competition..
Levinsky argued part one of the problem, while Johnson attacked the second half. Levinsky said they were comfortable arguing either as petitioner or respondent their part of the problem.
One of the most stressful moments for either was when Johnson learned of the earthquake in Chile, and was unable to communicate with his wife. 
“I heard him say, ‘Oh, my God!’ when he was on the computer that morning,” Levinsky said. He said he tried to reassure Johnson throughout the day, and said it did not seem to affect his performance during the competition.
“He seemed pretty much on his game,” Levinsky said. “He’s a strong guy.”
Johnson said Kathia, his wife, was on spring break from nursing school and visiting her parents in Santiago, Chile. He said he tried to believe she and her family were safe, because they lived several hundred miles from the coast, where most of the damages from the earthquake occurred.
After each round Saturday, he would check his cell phone for a message from her, and then return to the competition. 
“It probably affected me more than I realized,” Johnson said, noting that the competition likely helped him take his mind off the disaster.
Levinsky said all the teams they faced were prepared, and knew the problem. But when the teams fell, one by one, and lost, “they all lost with grace.”
“There were a lot of good teams, and it had to be a difficult choice for the judges,” Levinsky said.
Johnson said it was only after he and Levinsky returned to school that the enormity of their accomplishment hit home. That’s when congratulatory e-mails poured in from staff, students and faculty.
He said advancing to the finals placed his team, and the school, into “rarified air.” 
Now, with the final competition looming, both want to not only do their best, but win it all.
“The whole reason I went there is to win,” Levinsky said. Teams in the finals will face the same problem, and will have a month to tweak their presentations.
“I believe we’ll stick with what we have,” Levinsky said. “It’s been pretty successful, and I’m pretty comfortable with our arguments.”
“We want to prepare some more,” Johnson said. But he added they are pretty confident. “And you get a little better each time you present your case,” he said. “We’ll just be ready and do the best we can.”
Johnson said the advancement to the finals puts Cooley Law School in a class with the best. 
“It shows that the best from Cooley can compete with the best from any law school,” Johnson said. “We don’t have to take a back seat to anyone.”
McDoniel said the students and school receive a plaque for advancing, and believed the perhaps the same if they win it all. It also looks good on a resume, she said, and give Cooley great recognition.
Levinsky is unsure what branch of law he will enter after law school. He was leaning towards criminal law, or corporate law. But whatever it is, he wants to litigate.
Johnson is leaning to commercial litigation, but adds “in this economy, you need to be flexible.”
As far as having traditional fun in Vegas, neither was willing or able to partake in Sin City’s pleasures. The two basically stayed in their rooms, going over their work and concentrating on the competition.
After it was over, Johnson said he wandered into a casino, lost $5 in a slot machine and called it a night. That was enough for me,” he said.
But neither wanted what happened in Vegas to stay there. 
“This is something we want to be known,” Levinsky said.

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