By Tanya Rutledge
For the Houston Chronicle
HOUSTON — Jim Lawrence, head organizer of one of the highest-profile moot-court programs in the country, likes to push buttons.
With hydraulic fracturing at the center of this year’s problem in the Andrews Kurth Moot Court National Championship, he is ready to watch the heated arguments fly.
The nation’s 16 best moot-court programs are preparing to face off at the federal courthouse in Houston this month to debate a problem that is focused on fracturing and the National Environmental Policy Act. The three-day event kicks off Jan. 23 with a symposium that is open to the energy industry and is expected to catch the attention of some of the nation’s most active energy companies.
Lawrence, director of the Blakely Advocacy Institute at the University of Houston Law Center, which hosts the annual event along with sponsor Andrews Kurth, sat down recently to talk about the art of creating problems that raise the best arguments. Edited excerpts follow.
Q: How did hydraulic fracturing become the topic for this year’s problem?
A: When the committee meets in April to start discussing the problem, we look at two things: What topics are hot in the general legal field, and we look at our own programs at the law school and how we can tie in and highlight those programs. This year, we started talking about fracturing, and we have an incredible energy program at the law center. We met and talked with the energy experts at the school, and they helped us narrow down how this problem would work. Since we are working on this so far in advance, we wanted to make sure that we were designing something that will still be of consideration when the competition happens. The energy area ties in so perfectly with Houston, which is how this topic evolved for this year.
Q: It seems that students in Houston would readily understand the importance of the fracking topic because of Houston’s place in the energy industry, but do you expect this to be a new topic for students from other parts of the country?
A: We expect that most of them will already have a grasp on its significance. Fracking is a hot topic in the energy industry, but if you are from the Northeast or Pennsylvania or the Upper Midwest, where they are actually doing the fracking, you are also familiar with it.
Q: Do you expect it to generate heated arguments?
A: What we expect is that, to some degree, since this is such an unsettled and hot topic, we will be getting some good arguments from the students. This gives them a chance to put together some really creative arguments. We release the problem around Oct. 15, and they have to submit their briefs in early December. They spend the rest of the time preparing oral arguments. We will have many energy experts in terms of lawyers and practitioners in oil companies serving as judges. So we anticipate that the questioning is to be lively.
Q: Guest judges for last year’s final round included some 5th and 8th U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals judges and even a former Supreme Court justice. Is it difficult to recruit these high-level people?
A: The competition is definitely gaining steam. We also have a very strong supporter of our program, Jennifer Elrod, who is on the 5th Circuit, so that helps as well. And we’ve built relationships with many judges over the years, which is helpful. We attempt to get in judges from other circuits where the topic is prominent.
Q: What kind of advantages will participating in, and winning, this competition provide to the teams?
A: On a personal level, the students and coaches that come to this competition will tell you it’s one of the most difficult that students go to. … So there is a sense of personal accomplishment when you come out the winner because you’ve beaten the best in law schools around the country. The winner and second-place team get cash scholarships, so that’s also a nice thing from a personal level.
Q: Because of the topic, do you expect this year’s competition to grab the attention of the energy industry?
A: We certainly hope so. Our symposium speakers come from around the country, so we get a lot of exposure from that standpoint. I do think the energy industry would have an ear to this, and that would be an added bonus.
The 2014 Andrews Kurth Moot Court National Championship will feature 16 teams from U.S. law schools debating the issue of hydraulic fracturing. The two-day competition will be preceded by a kickoff symposium on the topic.
Symposium: 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Jan. 23 at the Doubletree Hotel downtown. Cost is $75, with CLE credit; $35 otherwise.
Competition: Starts at 9 a.m. Jan. 24 at the Bob Casey Federal Courthouse downtown. Winning team announced Jan. 25.
Competition judges: Judge James Graves Jr. of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals; Justices John Devine, Jeff Brown and Jeffrey Boyd of the Texas Supreme Court; and former Texas Supreme Court Justice Scott Brister.
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