Ames matters


Just before Thanksgiving break, I had the pleasure of seeing a group of my 1L section-mates win the Ames Moot Court Competition. Putting aside any specific prizes, frankly I think everyone involved on both sides should get something for having stared down an avuncular Justice Ginsburg – my stomach for such confrontations peters out at about the Socratic Method level. Fundamentally, though, I’m a grouchy old cynic when it comes to competitions without tangible awards. I can just about rouse myself for the occasional grade, and more often for money, but the self-immolation the Ames participants went through to immortalize themselves on a plaque in Langdell initially seemed excessive to me. If law school is about convincing yourself that trivialities matter, then it appeared to me like my friends had become masters of a dubious art.

But all that was before I really looked at the plaques of winners adorning the walls of our library. If you haven’t done so before, I really recommend it – some of names you’ll find are rather striking. Kathleen Sullivan, former Dean of Stanford Law School, won Ames in the 1980s – before clerking for the Supreme Court and heading off to greater things. The super-eminent Chicago law Professor Cass R. Sunstein is up there as well – clearly, winning the competition was only one in a line of successes. But even the names that the average law student doesn’t immediately recognize turn out to mask a record of startling excellence. On just one of the plaques, I found law professors at Georgetown, George Washington, and Northwestern, in addition to the two scholars I mention above. There are partners at firms across the country and around the world, prominent members of the government, and CEOs of completely unrelated enterprises. I won’t even try to get into the number of people who’ve clerked for the Supreme Court that also happen to have won Ames. I even found a senior partner at a plaintiff’s side law firm up there; never let it be said that all Harvard students end up representing large corporations – some of us try to run off with their money too.

Of course, it’s not obvious that being an Ames finalist has anything to do with later success. It may well be that any random sampling of our students would turn up roughly a similar record. But after thinking about it for a while, I’m not sure that’s right. No, I don’t think that Ames teaches you very much of use about law, or brief writing, or appellate practice – as impressive as it is to argue before a Supreme Court Justice, the controlled arena of a moot court and the rough and tumble of actual litigation seem fundamentally dissimilar to me. Participating in a Moot Court at a level high enough to reach the finals, though, betrays a real sense that the participants care about what we do here. Amid an environment of jaded apathy, of 3Ls who would rather plan their next trip as far away from Cambridge as possible than do anything to enhance this place, the twelve people who fought it out in a great competition a couple of weeks ago dedicated enormous quantities of time to something that has nothing to do with any kind of graduation requirement. I won’t dare speak for anyone else, but presented with the same opportunity I would have cobbled together something pathetic and hit the road. In fact, that’s precisely what I did in my mandatory first-year moot court. What I suspect unites the people on the wall and our classmates this year is the sense of noble effort they displayed in doing a superlative job. Someone writing this article fifteen years from now won’t have to change it very much, I think. So, three cheers for the finalists and the winners. As for next year’s crop: get to work – you’ve got some impressive shoes to fill.

Raffi Melkonian didn’t even try to win Ames.