Talk It Out – The Importance of Practicing Oral Advocacy

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By: Hanna J. Ciechanowski

When I first started law school, my dad strongly encouraged me to take as many writing classes as possible.  “It’s the most important skill,” he argued, “since effective legal writing is needed for every position you’ll apply for.”  At first I thought this was the best advice I had received—I was a strong writer, so naturally I wanted to hear that writing is an integral part of being a lawyer.  But, almost three years of law school and multiple legal writing classes later, I have to disagree.

Don’t get me wrong, legal writing is incredibly important.  Judicial interns report findings through bench memoranda.  Law clerks provide partners with inter-office memoranda regarding specific client matters.  Attorneys at all levels produce briefs to file with the court.  There is no denying that effective writing is a crucial skill for law students to master before entering practice.  Our basic job as lawyers will be to fight for our clients as zealously as we can, and writing can be an incredibly efficient way to do that.  So we study the law, we learn how to analyze problems under the law, and we practice advocating the conclusion of those problems through final exams and graded papers.  We advocate on paper.  But written words can only go so far.

Oral advocacy receives less attention than writing even though it is just as crucial for competent legal representation.  Of course, classes like trial advocacy or appellate practice help students refine those skills.  Moot court competitions and mock trials provide simulation-based practice opportunities for students.  But these classes and competitions tend to simulate only one type of oral advocacy:  a formal courtroom setting.

We tend to forget that oral advocacy happens outside of the courtroom, too.  Judicial interns may recite case law and research findings in chamber meetings rather than through bench memoranda.  Associates in big firms may need to explain important client matters during office conferences.  Settlements reached to avoid courtroom proceedings occur in meetings with counsel for both parties present.  Lawyers in negotiations who cannot agree on one tough point may pick up the phone instead of exchanging numerous emails.  Whether it be a formal setting or not, all lawyers need strong oral advocacy skills for instances when they cannot hide behind ink and paper.

There are ways to perfect writing skills inherently tied to law school curriculum.  1Ls have an entire class devoted to learning that skill throughout their first full year of school.  Written exams are designed to force students to write clearly and concisely in a compressed amount of time.  With these practices built into our curriculum, it is easy to refine writing skills.  But the chance to practice oral advocacy, though equally as important, isn’t as frequent and is much more daunting.  Suffolk 1Ls practice oral communication during their 1L Fall in a simulated partner briefing and through a client interview.  Then, in the 1L Spring, they complete a simulated status briefing and a mock motion argument at the end of the LPS class.

Personally, I was terrified for the oral argument, and I don’t think I was alone in harboring that fear.  So, to get over it, I talked to everyone who was willing to give me advice on how to prepare.  And I practiced . . .  a lot.  Once I finished my argument, I realized that it is so much more natural to argue your case through spoken rather than written words.

After finishing my 1L year, opportunities to practice oral advocacy often presented themselves.  During my First Year Summer Internship at Superior Court, my Judge liked to discuss my findings before I drafted memoranda or orders.  My supervisors at my corporate internship would walk over to my desk to discuss an email I had just sent them regarding upcoming negotiation strategies.  I learned first-hand that even though writing was very important, being able to articulate arguments and articulate them well was just as important.  So I joined moot court teams and took any opportunity I could to practice my oral advocacy.  Where I used to hide behind the strength of being able to express myself through writing, I now crave the ability to stand at the podium and discuss my case with a judge or talk with a supervisor about the conclusion of my research.

So I’m modifying my dad’s advice.  Yes, writing is important; take the writing classes.  But don’t neglect the fact that you will have to vocalize your thinking during your career.  Practice and reflect on your simulated partner briefing, status, and client interview.  And, of course, take every chance you get prepare your LPS oral argument.  Then, don’t stop there, join the moot court team.  Enroll in trial advocacy.  Talk through different legal issues with your classmates.  The more you talk, the more you practice articulating issues and analysis out loud, the more comfortable you become and the more natural it feels.  Lawyers need to be able to advocate out loud.  Take advantage of the resources available now and get talking.