From Mock Oral Argument to Real-World Jury Trial: Getting Over My Phobia of Public Speaking

by: Anya Richard

Coming into law school, I knew that legal writing and oral advocacy were two key aspects to being a well-rounded lawyer. It was not until I had to face my fear of public speaking during my Legal Practice Skills oral argument assignment, however, that I realized that it is impossible to truly master one without the other. As an English major, writing had always come easily to me, public speaking, on the other hand, had always been a source of dread. As I began preparing for my oral argument, I realized that transitioning from written word to spoken argument in the legal field would prove most challenging for me. In an attempt to combat my nerves, I tried to prepare for any foreseeable twist or turn that could occur during my oral argument. Unfortunately, no level of preparation was enough to overcome my nerves on the day I was set to argue. As I took the podium with sweaty palms, a dry throat, and my entire body shaking, I told myself I just needed to get through the next fifteen minutes and everything would be OK. I could hear my voice shake as I made my argument, and no matter how certain I was that my notes contained an answer for any question that was posed, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of momentary panic whenever my professor would stop me to ask a question.

Ultimately, I got through my oral argument, and at the end I was given some of the best advice I’ve received throughout law school. My professor commended my level of preparation, but suggested that I take all available opportunities to practice public speaking to overcome my fear. I knew the only way I could overcome what, to me, was such a paralyzing phobia, was to jump in with both feet, and that’s exactly what I did.

The next fall, while interviewing for internships for my 2L summer, I accepted a position as a 3:03 student prosecutor with the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office. I knew I would be terrified when my day to stand in court came, but I also realized I needed the push of a professional obligation to force me to face my fear. The day my certification came in, my supervisor pulled me aside, advised me of this, and handed me a stack of arraignments to handle. Needless to say, my stomach shot to the floor. However, I was able to make it through my first day standing in front of the court without incident. In fact, my second appearance before the court (a guilty plea) went so smoothly that it provided me with the confidence boost I would need to get through the summer.

The Monday of the last week of my internship I received an email from my supervisor assigning me a trial for the next day. Once again, I felt the familiar panic only public speaking could evoke in me, and attempted to prepare for every possible contingency. The morning of trial I sat in the courtroom, answered “ready for trial” when my case was called, and foolishly hoped that another trial would be chosen to go forward instead of mine. Eventually it was decided that my case would go forward, and it would be a jury trial (the worst possible outcome, in my mind). Knowing I had no choice, I assured myself that everything would be alright, and proceeded to trial. While I’m sure there were moments where I made a mistake, or my nerves showed through, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride and accomplishment (and obviously relief) when I concluded my closing argument. As I waited for the jury to deliberate, I felt a sense of excitement that, not only had I gotten through a jury trial on my own, but that this experience had proven to me that I was capable of overcoming my fear. The feeling that the experience would serve as the foundation of my confidence for all public speaking I did going forward was further confirmed when the jury returned a guilty verdict (!).

After reflecting on my journey from my 1L oral advocacy assignment to trying a real-world jury trial, I now realize how overcoming my fear of public speaking has invaluably contributed to my proficiency as a legal writer. Trying to convince a jury of a defendant’s guilt through the facts I introduced at trial uniquely enhanced my persuasive writing abilities. Further, the experiences of making arguments and counterarguments before a court, and watching the court rule have enhanced my ability to understand and even foresee judicial rationale in a way I never would have had I only ever focused my efforts on writing.

Overcoming my fear of public speaking has been a long, and very nerve wracking journey, but the experiences I gained from facing my fears have made me into an adept oral advocate, and a much stronger legal writer than I could have thought possible.