Nation’s Premier Bankruptcy Moot Court Competition Innovates and Succeeds Virtually


Last week, over three days, law students on 34 teams came together from homespun courtrooms across the country and, along with 90 preliminary round judges and brief graders and 25 U.S. federal judges presiding over the advanced rounds, participated in the Duberstein Bankruptcy Moot Court Competition.

Looking back on the virtual event as one of its organizers, Professor Christine Lazaro credits the longtime collaboration between St. John’s Law and the American Bankruptcy Institute (ABI) on the nation’s premier bankruptcy moot court competition with its success in this challenging pandemic year. “It was important to find a way to continue the Competition, and ABI, under the leadership of Executive Director Amy Quackenboss, was a true partner as we navigated the transition from an in-person to a virtual format,” she says. “With their help, we were able to innovate in ways that will benefit the Competition for years to come.”

Named for distinguished St. John’s alumnus and former ABI Director Hon. Conrad B. Duberstein ’41, ’91HON, who passed away in 2005 at the age of 90, the annual Competition addresses two sophisticated, cutting-edge issues of bankruptcy law. The first issue this year was whether the debtor’s pre-bankruptcy arbitration agreement required submission of an automatic stay dispute to an arbitrator instead of the Bankruptcy Judge. The second issue focused on whether the stay termination provision for successive consumer filings applied only to property of the debtor or also terminated the stay with respect to estate property.

View the Competition photo gallery

As the competitors explored the issues and developed their arguments, St. John’s and the ABI were hard at work reframing the Competition for its virtual debut on Zoom. They scaled the field back from 60 teams and eliminated some argument rounds to create a schedule that would work across time zones. They also converted to a fully electronic scoring system, anchored by an ABI-developed platform and Competition website, and set up virtual “lobbies” where competitors and judges could meet and interact between rounds.

“There is no way we could have pulled this off without the ABI’s staff and resources,” Professor Lazaro says. “They hosted each of the Zoom competition rooms, which also meant we had tech support in each room, while St. John’s Law ran the virtual lobbies.” Students from the American Bankruptcy Institute Law Review (ABILR) and Moot Court Honor Society (MCHS), as well as Moot Court adviser Laura Schwartz and Professor G. Ray Warner, were also key members of the Law School’s Competition support team. Rounding out the all-hands-on effort was Paul R. Hage ‘07LL.M., an alumnus of the Law School’s acclaimed Bankruptcy LL.M. program, who wrote this year’s Competition problem with Hon. John T. Gregg of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, W.D. Mich. Along with Hage, a number of other St. John’s Law alumni volunteered their time generously as Competition judges and graders.

“It was inspiring to work behind the scenes as the Competition was reimagined and see it play out in virtual time so successfully,” says Emily Gault ’21, the ABILR Executive Research Editor who prepared the judges’ bench memo and worked closely with them throughout the Competition. “I also appreciate the introduction I got to virtual lawyering, which will continue even after the pandemic subsides.”

Justin Henderson ’21, the MCHS’s Senior Director of the Duberstein Competition and an ABILR senior staff member, agrees that working on the virtual Competition was a formative experience. “I teamed with Dallas Park ‘21, the MCHS’s Associate Duberstein Director, to revamp the Competition rules, create matchups for the Competition, and train and assign the virtual courtroom bailiffs,” he shares. “The entire MCHS really stepped up to give the competitors the same experience as prior, in person, competitions. And the competitors did an amazing job with their arguments and courtroom demeanor.”

For the final Competition round, the presiding panel of distinguished federal jurists included:

  • Hon. Bernice B. Donald, U.S. Court of Appeals, 6th Cir.
  • Hon. Barbara J. Houser, Chief Judge, U.S. Bankruptcy Court, N.D. Tex.
  • Hon. Cecilia Morris, Chief Judge, U.S. Bankruptcy Court, S.D.N.Y.
  • Hon. Alan F. Trust, Chief Judge, U.S. Bankruptcy Court, E.D.N.Y.

Baylor Law School edged out University of Texas School of Law to win the overall Competition. The winning team received a $5000 prize from the ABI Endowment Fund, which also provided the second-place team with a $3000 prize. The teams that tied for third place, Emory University School of Law and Mississippi College School of Law, split a $3000 prize. At the post-Competition awards reception, some competitors received special recognition for their outstanding performance:

Best Brief 
Emory University School of Law

Outstanding Briefs
Case Western Reserve University School of Law
Howard University School of Law
Michigan State University College of Law
University of Michigan Law School
University of Texas School of Law

Best Advocate
Abigail Emery, University of Texas School of Law

Outstanding Advocacy
Erin McManus, Mississippi College School of Law
Ronald Espinal, Stetson University College of Law
Brenna Scully, University of California at Los Angeles School of Law
Leandra Lopez, University of Miami School of Law

“The Duberstein Competition is a wonderful opportunity for law students to be exposed to an area of the law that they may never have considered but for their participation this year,” says Judge Houser, who also serves as president of the ABI. “As someone who has now been involved in this field of law for over 40 years, first as a private practitioner and now as a judge, it requires the perfect blend of stand-up lawyer and sit-down lawyer skills. To have the opportunity to learn about it through this Competition and to meet many professionals who work in it while in law school is an extraordinarily unique experience.”

For more information on the annual Duberstein Bankruptcy Moot Court Competition, please visit the competition website.