UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa.—Penn State won a world championship this spring. And while it took the same kind of practice, stamina, dedication, teamwork, strength of spirit and mental toughness you might expect with any collegiate victory, it didn’t happen on a field, a court, a rink or a mat.
It happened at the Olympics of private law on April 18 in Vienna, Austria, when a team of students from Penn State Law in University Park took top prize at the Willem C. Vis International Commercial Arbitration Moot: the Eric E. Bergsten Award. In addition, Alice Gyamfi won the Martin Domke Honorable Mention for Best Individual Oralist, placing sixth in the competition.
The “Vis Moot,”as it’s known to participants, fosters the study of international commercial law and arbitration through a competition revolving around a concrete, but fictitious, business dispute. Each year, the Vis Moot organizers create a new problem involving a legal dispute between businesses engaged in cross-border transactions governed by the United Nations Convention on Contracts for the International Sale of Goods. The competition has two phases. Starting in October, when the problem is released, students must submit written memoranda on behalf of both parties (the claimant and respondent). More than six months later, in Vienna, they must make oral arguments before three-arbitrator tribunals. Only the 64 best teams in the competition qualify for elimination rounds and are eligible to fight for the grand prize.
Taking on the 2019 challenge were a record-breaking 372 teams from 87 countries with 2,264 student participants, representing more than 110 different nationalities.
For the first time in 15 years, a U.S. team—Penn State Law—emerged victorious.
“I am incredibly proud of our team for this impressive accomplishment and for the way in which they achieved it,” said Hari M. Osofsky, dean of Penn State Law and the School of International Affairs. “This team represented our university to the world by modeling the values of Penn State—the values of inclusion, professional integrity, hard work, and a commitment to excellence.”
A unique characteristic of the Penn State Law team among competitors was its combination of J.D. and LL.M. students. The school’s LL.M. curriculum provides lawyers trained outside the United States with a high-level understanding of the U.S. legal system and prepares students for careers in law, government, academics, and non-governmental organizations.
“In 2014, we first added LL.M.s to our Vis team. I believe the LL.M.-J.D. combination was our ‘secret weapon’ in this year’s competition,” said Catherine Rogers, a scholar of international arbitration and professional ethics at Penn State Law, who served as one of two faculty advisers to the team. “Students earning an LL.M. enrich the program by bringing foreign and civil law perspectives, and our multicultural team not only makes us stronger in the moot, but also gives students a preview of what it is like to be on a real international arbitration team in a leading global law firm.”
Penn State Law team members were J.D. students Ashley Clasen, Alice Gyamfi, Yousra Jouglaf, and Adam Wage; and LL.M. students Augusto Garcia, Sanya Kishwar, and Muhamed Tulic. Clasen and Wage are also joint degree students, earning both a J.D. and Master of International Affairs from Penn State’s School of International Affairs.
“I love that J.D., LL.M. and MIA students all were involved in this incredible team effort; it represents that transnational, interdisciplinary model of our two schools,” Osofsky said. “We come from many countries and faith traditions at Penn State Law and the School of International Affairs, and we come together to form one Penn State family. What moved me so much in our celebration of their achievement was that person after person emphasized that the team’s diversity was one of its greatest strengths.”
Two former competitors in the Vis Moot served at team coaches: Will Sandman, a third-year J.D. who was an oralist on the Penn State Law 2018 team, and Cătălina Bîzîc, an LL.M. student at Penn State Law from Romania, who formerly served as coach for the University of Bucharest, which went to the Vis Moot semifinals in 2018, and who was also an individual award-winning oralist in prior years.
Penn State’s performance this year built on a track record of success established over a period of several years. In 2016, the team for the first time was one of the 64 teams to advance to elimination rounds and progressed to the round of 32. The following year, Penn State’s team received an honorable mention for one of its written submissions, and in 2018, the team again progressed to elimination rounds.
“It is very hard to succeed at the moot. To be part of the 64 best teams from around the world is an achievement on its own,” Bîzîc said. “One of the things that distinguished this year’s team was indeed teamwork. When it was announced that we would be in the finals—one of the top two teams in the world—the first thing the team did after they cheered was to shake the other team’s hands. That’s what Penn State is all about.”
Team members, advisors, and coaches were quick to point out that the victory was the result of more than just hours of study and preparation during the past academic year. It has taken broad support from the legal and academic communities, as well as help from experienced competitors, to get to this point. For example, the team from the University of Ottawa—a frequent Vis victor and the team in the final round against Penn State Law at this year’s moot—had again this year visited University Park to share ideas through a workshop and practice rounds.
Faculty Adviser Jud Mathews, who is associate dean for research and partnerships at Penn State Law, noted that hard work also is a hallmark of the Vis Moot.
“Preparing for the Vis is like having a full-time job on top of law school, except for those weeks when it’s like having two full-time jobs,” he said. “There are some weeks when it’s not quite like having a full-time job. But there are no weeks when it’s not at least like having a pretty demanding part-time job. This team has pulled together over the course of a year under pressure, and the way they have pulled together and stuck up for each other has been nothing short of inspiring.”
Mathews also pointed out that the spirit of the Vis Moot is about more than who wins or loses.
Teams that face off in competition are often, once the round ends, providing support for each other, sharing ideas on different ways to approach the problem, going out together, and even teaching each other their school cheers. Just seconds after Penn State was announced as the winner, the well-known “We Are” chant—led by other schools and competitors—could be heard throughout the large Vienna arena filled with thousands.
“Penn State’s team was a fan favorite this year, precisely because of how our students treat each other and how they treat other teams,” Mathews told an audience of Penn State students at a celebration to honor the team’s homecoming. “Representing (Penn State) on the world stage is a responsibility this year’s Vis team took very seriously, and you would all be very proud of how they represented you.”
Located on Penn State’s University Park campus, Penn State Law offers all of the resources of a world-class, public research institution while also featuring a student-centered academic environment. With a curriculum taught by renowned legal experts, interdisciplinary study opportunities across Penn State’s largest campus, ample clinical and experiential learning opportunities, exposure to emerging technology, and an individualized approach to career services that includes comprehensive mentoring, the Penn State Law J.D. Program is designed to give students the capacity to accomplish their professional goals.
Penn State’s School of International Affairs (SIA) offers an interdisciplinary graduate program drawing extensively from the intellectual resources of its world-renowned faculty of globally-focused scholars and practitioners as well as from faculty across the University. Offering a professional master’s degree in international affairs with several specialty areas of study, SIA’s mission is to prepare exceptional students for careers and leadership positions in both the private and public sectors of an increasingly interdependent world.