Almost every evening for half a year, six law students from the University of Prishtina (UP) gathered together around their textbooks and notes in the Faculty of Law, sometimes in an office, others in the Faculty’s courtroom.
For five nights per week — and sometimes on weekends too — come rain or shine, they would voluntarily get together to discuss and brainstorm ideas for something that they hoped would help to change the course of their future professional lives.
Yll Sadiku, Vlera Rexha, Zgjim Mikullovci, Donika Bunjaku, Gerta Ragipi and Levik Rashiti had all been selected to represent UP, and Kosovo, in the Willem C. VIS Moot competition, the largest and most well-known competition in the field of international commercial law and arbitration in the world.
Every spring, hundreds of top universities from around the world gather together in Vienna, Austria, to test their wits against other undergraduates in a series of simulation court cases, or ‘moots’ as they’re known in the trade.
UP has been represented in the competition since 2002, and their standards have been steadily increasing all the time as the university consistently punches above its weight.
This year, the students from UP finished in the top 15% of the 380 entries, leaving behind prestigious universities such as Yale, Harvard, Duke, Columbia, Stanford, Cornell, Oxford, Queen Mary University of London, King’s College London and the London School of Economics.
The VIS Moot pleadings are designed to test students’ knowledge and advocacy of two elements of international law, which are incorporated into a detailed hypothetical legal case studied and analyzed by students: procedural law, which tests their knowledge of commercial arbitration law, and a substantive law element, dealing with international contractual law.
The teams of students first work to produce a memo of around 50 pages on the hypothetical case between two companies from two fictional countries that have a dispute over a commercial contract, before presenting the case with advanced arguments.
Yll Sadiku, a third year student who was part of this year’s team, explains that the purpose of the VIS Moot competition is not necessarily to win or lose or to come to a decision.
“The idea of all this is how you present your case, how much you are a [good] orator, how much you can defend your position,” he says. “It’s not [to come to] a definitive answer or to a decision on how to solve the problem. It’s rather pretty balanced [between the claimant and the respondent].”
Yll Sadiku was part of the team of six University of Prishtina students that excelled in the prestigious Willem C. VIS Moot competition in Vienna, Austria, earlier this year. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.
As UP has fared increasingly well over the years, the standard of competition for places to represent the university has also risen.
The process traditionally includes three phases: an open call for sending CVs and cover letters, writing a short memo with legal analysis on a hypothetical case and taking part in a simulated oral pleading of a case and presenting it in both roles — that of the claimant and that of the respondent.
But last year, the qualification process had to be extended to include writing a second memo and pleading another case in order to further narrow down the shortlisted applicants.
In theory, the team should consist of a minimum of four students; however, more are needed for the research required for a competition of this scale. Other international universities have up to 10 people on their teams, in order for some of them to familiarize themselves with the experience before stepping up to compete the following year.
For UP, a special request to the dean of the University was needed to extend the number of students on the team to six.
Defying the circumstances
Indeed, the continued success of UP in the VIS Moot competition is in many ways against the odds.
The resources that the team has to contend with are significantly less than teams from other universities. Before the competition was held in Vienna, they participated in just one other competition with around 60 universities in Budapest, Hungary, to check out the competition and the skills of some of the teams from other countries.
A usual day of preparation included getting together in the afternoon, after their university obligations such as lectures and studying for exams had concluded, and preparing together until evening; during this time they would find arguments, conduct research, consult various authors and prepare for their presentation.
In the evening, they would meet with professors Donika Qerimi or Vjosa Osmani — their supervisors for the competition, who have both previously participated in it themselves as students — to discuss new issues, authors and arguments they could potentially use.
Vlera Rexha says the team were often working for 12 hours per day in preparation for April’s competition. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.
According to Vlera Rexha, a fourth-year student on the team, some other universities offer the opportunity for students to take a semester off in order to focus solely on preparing for the competition. However this was not the case for the UP students, who had to work simultaneously on both the competition and their ongoing studies. At times, she says, they had to work 12 hours a day.
“Every day it was faculty, lectures, work,” she says. “But this made us become closer as a group and it was much easier to work with each other… the only thing we knew during those months was the VIS competition.”
Besides the hard work, the team also had to deal with other practical disadvantages, varying from logistical and administrative challenges to financial ones.
Unlike UP teams from previous years, this year’s students did have access to a designated room in the university to use for the sole purpose of preparing for the competition. But other aspects, such as the lack of a university library or an established sustainable funding plan, continued to make their work extra challenging.
Qerimi and Osmani emphasize how the time spent going after funding could have been spent more effectively on training the students, especially given that this competition has proved itself to raise the profile of the university over the years. Qerimi says that they have had students approach them asking if there was any way they could guarantee to cover all the expenses, and when they couldn’t do that the students wouldn’t apply for a place on the team.
Due to a combination of lack of funding and only finding funding at the very last minute, students had to deal with basic problems of having their accommodation far from where the oral pleadings were being held in Vienna and their daily allowances being limited in terms of what they would cover.
But the biggest difficulty, say the professors, was a lack of adequate books, necessitating them to find alternative ways of providing suitable resources, such as buying them themselves to share with the students while at conferences or visiting international universities.
As with many of the faculties, there are also fundamental complaints from students about the quality of teaching within regular lectures in their legal studies at the university.
Rexha and Sadiku highlight that the faculty is crying out for new initiatives, approaches and teaching methods, since there is currently very little balance between theoretical and practical teaching.
Recent additions to the Faculty of Law’s teaching staff have tried to introduce new methods in seminar hours to make them more engaging, such as showing documentary films, planning visits to the forensic laboratory, bringing in new ways of assessing knowledge and encouraging new forms of communication.
“What I really wanted to do was simply offer students what I needed when I was a student,” says Furtuna Sheremeti, who says she has strived to bring fresh ideas to the classroom since being appointed as an assistant professor for the Criminology module in November 2018.
But such thinking still appears to be the exception, rather than the norm, with Qerimi saying that the shortcomings of the present system leaves students unprepared for professional life beyond the faculty. She says that with their voluntary work in coaching students for the VIS Moot competition, they are trying to fill these gaps.
Despite the barriers, through their hard work, UP students have begun to create a reputation for themselves by proving themselves in this global competition.
Osmani, who has been training students for this competition since 2003 — and who prior to that was part of the first generation of students to participate in this competition — says that the rigors of the competition and the preparation are excellent preparation for future careers.
She says she always tells her students: “If you can do this [VIS], you can do anything.”
Vjosa Osmani has helped to prepare University of Prishtina students for the annual VIS Moot competition for more than a decade and a half. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.
VIS has also helped to put UP on the map in this field, from its team’s written memorandum being selected in the top 10 in 2013, to its representatives twice in the past three years reaching the competition’s round of 64.
Ronald Brand, a professor at Pittsburgh University and one of the key authors in the field of arbitration and commercial law, hails the achievements of UP and Kosovo in such a significant event.
“University of Prishtina has done an excellent job by making it to the round of 64; it’s a huge accomplishment and they have done it twice — to do that from a small country with a different level of resources is an amazing accomplishment,” he says, adding that UP students have often tended to give back after competing themselves by becoming coaches and mentors for future generations.
The professor highlights the international significance of the VIS Moot competition, explaining that it has become a filtering event where the arbitration and commercial law community comes together.
“It is a platform for development of legal education in the field of arbitration and commercial law — it has also become a meeting point for arbitrators, for professors, for students,” he says. “It really gets the focus of the arbitration community around the world.”
Qerimi knows the potential benefits of this first hand, as she was offered an opportunity to do her Master’s studies at the University of Pittsburgh following her performance at the VIS competition a few years ago and now coaches the new generations.
Donika Qerimi knows the potential benefits of performing well in the VIS Moot competition, having secured a place on a Master’s course in the U.S. following her own strong showing. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.
She agrees that the competition has become virtually an industry in itself. “The fact that there is a lot of investment in it shows that it is taken very seriously by future employers and universities,” she says.
Both Rexha and Sadiku want to pursue their careers in the field of international and commercial law and also to give back to the next generations of students like their predecessors have done before them. They say that VIS has taught them how to do advanced legal research and analysis as well as enhance their verbal preparation and presentation skills, both saying that the competition experience has equipped them with crucial skills for becoming a good lawyer.
Sadiku says that one of the things he has achieved through the experience has been to advance his oratory to the extent of effortlessly defending two contrary lines of argumentation within the same day, something he initially struggled to do but that he eventually mastered during the competition.
Rexha believes being involved in the competition has “made personal shortcomings a little bit more noticeable and has helped to improve them a lot, making you a better professional.”
She reflects on how during the application phase and preparations for the competition she talked too quickly. But with practice she became so good at it that she was receiving compliments from the arbitrators regarding her pace.
“[This competition] has been a learning faculty in itself, so to speak,” she says.
However, with little work being done to combat the existing problems of limited resources in the Faculty, as well as deep-rooted problems in the way in which new generations of students are being left unprepared, the students now applying for next year’s VIS Moot competition look set to continue facing the same challenges as previous generations.
“I just hope that the support will continue to grow, both from the university and from the institutions… it seems that little is known about the importance of these competitions, especially outside the law community,” Qerimi says.
“They do not realize that VIS is called the justice olympiad because of the enormous relevance it has as there is no other competition in the world as large as this one in the field of international commercial law and arbitration law, which are areas of the future.”K
Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.