Rushal Shah is at present, a fourth-year student at the Gujarat National Law University. His team won the Asia Pacific Rounds of the ELSA WTO Moot Court Competition last year and were World Quarter-Finalists. Rushal won the Best Speaker Finals, Asia Pacific Rounds and Best Speaker, Prelims, World Rounds, as his teammate Meera won the Best Speaker citation in Semi-Finals and was the second-best speaker in Prelims of the Asia Pacific Rounds.
I’ll never forget the 7th of September, 2016, when my team and I picked up the ELSA Moot Court Competition on Trade Law. With two teams from our college making it past the Asia Pacific rounds and qualifying for world rounds in the last two years and legions of seniors and alumni with backgrounds in trade law at our disposal, we had to qualify. There was no alternative.
15th September 2016, the problem releases. I spent hours reading a 4-page problem as many times as I could in order to comprehend it. With countless readings during the entire week and multiple brainstorming sessions, we finally got a basic idea of what the problem was. Little did we know that we had signed up for a problem dubbed by the trade law community as one of the trickiest problems in 15 years of ELSA history.
It was time to readjust all our priorities if we wanted a shot at winning this. Sleep was compromised, dinnertime conversation was replaced with heavy brainstorming and heated arguments, the library became home and long walks at night were replaced with lengthy research hours. Despite everything, the problem seemed to get the better of us.
Come November & December, an entirely new schedule took over. Not only was there moot research to be done but also internships to be handled. Those two months went by quicker than ever and suddenly we were one month away from memo submission. It was a terrifying prospect. With so much research left and so many loopholes to be plugged, we were nowhere near where we wanted to be at such a time.
21st January 2017, the day was finally here. With 12 hours left for memo submission, my co-speaker, Ms. Meera Manoj and I sat to rework an entire argument which would later form the crux of our submission. Seniors, juniors and batchmates offered to help. People I never even spoke to agreed to rework and review our citations just so that I could have a shot at fulfilling my ELSA dream. I was proud at how much this University had grown in terms of mooting and helping one another.
With 3 weeks in hand before Asia Pacific rounds, the real struggle was yet to begin. It started with speaking style. I had always been a national moot speaker- vociferous and aggressive. In a moot like ELSA, where style plays as big a role as content, my speaking style had to change quickly and completely. At this point, our tiny little ELSA community from GNLU came together. The oralists from the first team that made it to world rounds, worked tirelessly to ensure we were good enough to not only qualify at the Asia Pacific rounds but to win them altogether. These three weeks were nothing but gruelling for Meera and me. There were good days and then there were the bad ones. Carefully crafted structure sheets were thrown away, every argument was ripped apart while we painfully tried to mend it, 45-minute rounds turned into 3 hour long grilling sessions and every question possible was discussed, deliberated and decided upon.
I believe that in every moot struggle, there arises a turning point which determines how well a team does. With the benefit of hindsight, it had to be Meera’s decision to change the argument for an entire issue four hours before Asia Pacific preliminary rounds. I knew this was a girl that I had seen grow from strength to strength throughout this moot, I knew this was a girl who followed her gut and trusted her instinct and came out on top, more often than not but little did I know that her decision to change the argument would go on to majorly contribute to us winning Asia Pacific rounds.
19th-22nd February 2017, Asia Pacific Rounds, Singapore. After six months of spending every possible minute working on this moot, the day was finally here. It seemed unreal that at the end of the day, it all came down to a few 45-minute pleadings. GNLU makes it through preliminary rounds, GNLU makes it through semi-finals and just like that, we were in the final rounds. My dream of winning Asia Pacific rounds, just inches away from grasp. Yet there was one final hurdle to overcome. The final was by far the most satisfying pleading in my three-year mooting career. The panel was nothing short of outstanding, the questions were trickier than ever, suddenly a focus on law turned to a focus on real policy aspects of every argument we made. NLU Jodhpur proved to be a formidable opponent. Despite a pleasing round, we knew it was going to be close.
7:30 pm, 22nd February, 2017, “The winner of the South Asian region of the Asia Pacific Rounds of the 15th Annual ELSA Moot Court Competition on World Trade Law is the Gujarat National Law University”, “The best speaker award for the semi-final rounds goes to Ms Meera Manoj”, “The best speaker award for the final rounds goes to Mr.Rushal Shah”. We had done it. We made it to Geneva where five of the best teams from every continent would be pitted against each other to compete for that coveted victory. More than happiness, there was an overwhelming sense of relief. A sense of relief that GNLU’s love story with ELSA continues for the third year in a row and that I could be a part of it.
The world rounds were no cake walk. At this point, Meera and I made what would turn out to be one of the wisest decisions in our run up to worlds. We took a senior, the man who made GNLU believe that ELSA could be cracked, Mr Shivansh Jolly on board as our official coach. Shivansh was relentless and ruthless. Pushing us to better our arguments wherever we could. Every round with him lasted for hours. Every argument was broken and remade and broken again till it was watertight.
The run-up to worlds was eventful, to say the least. We were now competing in a league where GNLU had never made it beyond preliminary rounds and it was up to us to break that jinx. We followed a rigorous routine which included a healthy mix of brainstorming and oral sessions. In a moot like ELSA, which gives a good amount of importance to speaking style, we gave our oral rounds to everyone possible. From friends in the university, alumni, experts in the trade to people with zero knowledge of law just to master our speaking style and handle difficult questions under pressure.
6th June 2017- we land in Geneva and attend the opening ceremony. To be honest, I was more intimidated than ever. We were the youngest people there and more than half our competitors were pursuing either an LLM or PhD in trade law. To make things more difficult, their coaches were authorities that I intended to cite through the course of my oral pleadings. I somehow pushed everything to the back of my head and reassured myself that we would be okay.
7th-8th June 2017- The day was here. 9 months of work had led up to these two 90 minute rounds. We resorted to everything in our little arsenal. The preliminary rounds at ELSA were the hardest but just as satisfying. To not only argue in front of dignitaries in the trade community that I respected and idolised but also receive their validation was a dream come true. We resorted to everything in our little arsenal and hoped that it would somehow be enough.
I distinctly remember, two hours before the second preliminary rounds, I called up Shivansh and woke up Meera and told them I wanted to run a new argument on jurisdiction. Expecting both of them to tell me to stick to what I’d been working on since 9 months, I half-heartedly explained my rationale to them. At the world rounds, everyone has the same arguments that you do. This was a risk but if it paid off it could possibly be what we needed to tip us over the line. To my surprise, both of them agreed to my proposition. During times like these, you realise the importance of people who believe in you. These were two people who had invested as much into the moot as I had and were willing to risk it all because I woke up four hours before rounds and said I could pull off a new argument. To anyone who moots, I cannot emphasise the importance of a supporting teammate enough. Meera, at this point, let go of all her last minute preparation and helped me frame that argument.
Knowing that this preliminary round could possibly be the last time we argue, we gave it everything we had. Meera was nothing short of formidable. To pull off the most difficult arguments so calmly, with so much flair and passion was a delight to watch. All we could do now was wait.
The results were to be announced at the time of the launch of the annual WTO Appellate Body report. Every member of the trade community sat and watched the fortunes of all the teams unfurl. For 8 teams, the ELSA dream would live on. We clutched our hands and prayed to every God we knew. “GNLU advances to the quarterfinal rounds”. There was no jumping this time, no screaming. We just stood there and took it all in. It felt surreal that GNLU had finally advanced beyond preliminary rounds. Top of the table in the preliminary rounds, GNLU had not just broken the jinx but cracked it wide open.
At the end, although we didn’t advance beyond quarters, ELSA remains one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. Being the youngest team in the world rounds, ELSA taught me to believe in myself, it taught me that no matter how bad the odds may be there’s always a way to beat them but most importantly, it made me fall in love with International Trade Law and that, to me, is absolutely priceless.