The SMU Dedman School of Law team of Matthew Mussalli (3L), Jordon B.V. Smith (3L), and Johanna Pang (2L) won the American Bar Association’s 2024 National Appellate Advocacy Competition held April 7 in Philadelphia.

The team, coached by SMU Adjunct Professors Lance Caughfield and Haleigh Jones, a 2015 graduate of SMU Law and former student of Caughfield’s, captured the regional title out of a field of 31 teams in February in Brooklyn, New York, to advance to the championship round. SMU’s second team of Bronwyn Tuff, Alan Cuff, and Rachael Briner also progressed to the final round of the regional competition.

The NAAC is the largest moot court competition in the country, and over 178 teams competed in this year’s event, according to an SMU press release. The competition emphasizes the development of oral advocacy skills and techniques through the experience of realistic appellate advocacy. Teams from each law school take part in a hypothetical appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court and write a mock brief as either a respondent or a petitioner before arguing their case before the mock court.

Caughfield said his team’s preparation process was thorough and intense, beginning in November 2023 when the competition’s problem was released to all competing teams. The problem dealt with “snap removal” to federal court, which allows resident defendants, if able, to remove a case from state court to federal court before being served, despite the prohibition against doing so in the forum-defendant rule (28 U.S.C. 1441(b)(2)). The problem also highlighted the issue of whether misappropriation of one’s name and likeness (a right of publicity) is subject to immunity for the provider (such as Facebook) under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which generally waives immunity for “intellectual property” claims.

“They researched and drafted a full appellate brief on their own and submitted it over Christmas break. Then we began to meet with them and practice their oral arguments,” Caughfield told the Texas Bar Journal. “Each week, they spent four to six hours during the week with Haleigh, and four to six hours on the weekends with me at my house. And, of course, plenty of time on their own. We gave the team a week off, then it was back to prep—this time with an even harder schedule so they could see several guest judges. Our second team jumped in to help, as did several former students. We texted and talked sometimes into late evening, trying to figure out the perfect way to address a difficult problem. The preparation was intense, but it’s easy to work hard with students like these.”

Even when not in the thick of preparation or directly in front of judges, the team battled adversity at every turn. Caughfield said Philadelphia was also hosting WrestleMania at the convention center directly neighboring the team’s hotel. In addition, the city felt the aftershock of a 4.8-magnitude earthquake that centered in New Jersey on April 5, and then a dry cleaner lost Mussalli’s suits, forcing the group into an unexpected scramble.

But the team handled each curveball—including the field of challenging competitors—with plenty of poise and remained hungry to take home a title. Caughfield said Jones, who competed in this event previously and lost in the national round, brought an added level of experience and insight.

“The teams we faced were all excellent,” Caughfield said. “Many of our wins were very close. But between each round we huddled up, learned from mistakes, researched better responses, and steadily improved. There was no sightseeing until after we won—they knew the only thing they could control was their own effort and they put their all into it.”

Pang, participating in just her second moot court competition, praised her coaches’ commitment throughout SMU’s road to victory. She said both Caughfield and Jones provided daily, step-by-step support and guidance to help bring out the best in the group’s performance.

“Lance and Haleigh are the most dedicated coaches I have ever met. They do everything in their power to support their teams,” Pang told the Texas Bar Journal. “When I was still feeling shaky about my arguments, they offered to hold extra practice sessions. When our arguments needed some fine-tuning, they would be there right alongside us, scouring the far corners of the internet. And every weekend, the Caughfields fed us the breakfast of champions—shoutout to Lance’s wife, Adrienne! Their dedication infuses the entire team with a drive to do our best in all that we can control. I have learned so much from their feedback and from watching my seasoned teammates argue in rounds. When working with a group of this caliber and competing against equally skilled teams, it’s a truly fun experience.”


Photo: The SMU Law team celebrates with the American Bar Association’s 2024 National Appellate Advocacy Competition championship trophy. (Front, from left) Matthew Mussalli, Johanna Pang, Jordon B.V. Smith, and coach Haleigh Jones (far right); (Back, center) coach Lance Caughfield. Photo courtesy of Lance Caughfield.