Minnesota Law Students Win the Jeffrey Miller National Environmental Law Moot Court Competition

Three 2024 Minnesota Law graduates capped their law school experience with a first-place finish in a prestigious national moot-court competition.

Maria Pfister ’24, Poojan Thakrar ’24, and Hanna Weil ’24 were members of the Minnesota Law team that took away top honors at the Jeffrey G. Miller National Environmental Law Moot Court Competition at Pace University in New York. The team competed against 53 other teams in the largest event of its type in the U.S.

The students agree there were broad benefits from the experience, beyond a boost to their careers.

“This was just so much fun, despite all of the work,” Weil says. “I think I can speak for all of us, and hopefully the coaches, too, when I say we just had a blast working with each other. Winning was just the icing on the cake.”

Rachel Kitze-Collins ’14, a partner at Lockridge Grindal Nauen PLLP, and Emily Polachek, an assistant U.S. attorney who serves as the environmental crimes coordinator in the Major Crimes Division of the U.S. Attorney’s Minneapolis office, served as coaches for the team. Both have coached Minnesota Law’s Environmental Moot Court competition teams for several years, with notable successes in their last three visits to the National Environmental Law Moot Court Competition.

A Focus on Teamwork

Kitze-Collins points to two primary factors that helped this year’s team excel: excellent preparation and a strong commitment to teamwork.

“I think this team in particular succeeded because they worked extraordinarily well together,” Kitze-Collins says. “They were a unit, they coordinated arguments, and worked outside of class.”

In addition, she says, the team possessed one particular skill that may have made all the difference: the ability to effectively rebut.

“Rebuttal is kind of the key to oral argument because you want to make the strongest final point that you can make,” Kitze-Collins says. “These three would sit at their table and write notes to each other to coordinate their rebuttal on the fly, in the moment. A couple of judges said their rebuttals were the best they’ve heard, so I think that probably sealed the deal.”

The Procedure

As is pro forma in most moot-court competitions, teams are assigned the same fact pattern. In this case, the fictional matter of The Holy Order of Mother Earth v. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) involved a dispute over a proposed gas line over land owned by a religious organization.

The Minnesota Law team began working on its legal brief during fall semester and submitted it in November 2023. Although they wrote the mock brief for the U.S. government (FERC), they argued for all three parties—the landowner, the gas company, and FERC—during the competition.

Team members split up responsibilities based on the six issues that the problem represented – two each for each of the three parties. In addition, the teams were charged with addressing several questions, such as whether there was a demonstrated public need for the pipeline, whether the agency had properly considered its environmental impacts, and whether the proposed project was barred by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

At the end of the first three rounds, half of the original 54 teams were eliminated. The Minnesota Law team persevered through the quarter- and semi-finals. At that point, Kitze-Collins says, the team’s confidence had grown.

“From our first practice to the final round, it was really stunning,” Weil says. “I remember standing at the podium in the final round, with the judges raised above you so you’re kind of looking up at them, and I remember just feeling shockingly calm, and feeling surprised by feeling calm. I was like, ‘Nobody knows this topic better than I do, and nobody can argue this topic as well as I can.’”

Pfister says the experience built her confidence in public speaking. “Now I know I can deliver an oral argument before a panel of judges,” she says.

Looking to the future

Pfister is still contemplating her first career steps and says she now has a “litigating bug” that may not have been there a few months ago.

Weil has taken a job with a local law firm where she will be doing real-estate work and litigation. “One of my pet interests is renewable energy, specifically wind-energy proliferation, so I’d love to do some legal work in that space,” she says. “Also, I saw myself as more of a transactional lawyer before this experience, but I’m definitely a lot more interested in litigation now.”

Thakrar is heading straight into environmental law this spring as an attorney with FERC. “I’ll be working for the very government agency we pretended to be for those moot court rounds,” he says. Like Weil, he had considered himself more of a transactional lawyer. “I was scared of oral argument,” he says. “But after the moot court experience, I think I actually really like it. So, I think down the road I may focus my career a little bit more on litigation because I’ve shown to myself that I can do well in that environment.”

Kitze-Collins is looking forward to coaching the Minnesota Law Environmental Moot Court team again next year. “The reason I keep coming back is that it is so incredible to see the progress the students make from day one of practice to the final round where they’re going toe to toe with circuit-court federal judges and see their confidence build,” she says. “That is very fulfilling.”

Randall Ryder ’09

Assistant Professor of Appellate Advocacy
Director of Moot Court Program
Director of Law in Practice

Rachel Kitze Collins ’14

Adjunct: Moot Court