I have the opportunity to witness many great and not-so-great attorneys in court. As a new lawyer, I endeavor to watch as many hearings as possible to take notes on what works and what doesn’t. I never took trial advocacy in law school because I never really planned on doing much litigation. However, I’ve come to find the thrill of the courtroom exhilarating. I’ve also realized that even if you don’t plan on litigating much, it’s inevitable that you will have to appear in court at some point, so every attorney should be prepared to be an effective advocate in court. Here are some tips from my observations:
1. Speak with confidence. Sounding unsure about what you are asking for or presenting about in court can affect how your message is received. Self-confidence goes a long way into persuading others. It’s more about how you say it than what you say. For new lawyers, beaten down by law school and the bar exam, our self-confidence is sometimes on the wane. Fake it! Even if you aren’t totally confident, give the appearance that you are.
Follow the lead of platinum-selling artist Beyoncé, who developed her Sasha Fierce alter ego to overcome shyness. Later, she told Oprah that after some time she wasn’t shy anymore and “Sasha Fierce” had become just another facet of her personality. Developing an alter “court” ego to overcome stage fright is a great tactic to “fake it until you make it.” Judge White (ret.), an adjunct law professor at Gonzaga University, once told me, “You have a great legal voice. You may discover it tomorrow, or 20 years from now. But it is there.” Judge White’s observation is important because new attorneys have a misconception that they have to come right out of the gate and be the next great Orator (a.k.a., the legal version of American Idol). It’s not realistic. What is realistic is to keep working on it until we find our own legal voices. If you’re shy about public speaking, channel your inner courtroom Beyoncé, or Bruce Springsteen, or Gerry Spence, or whomever. Don’t go overboard — the most important thing is to still be true to you.
2. Avoid clichéd phrases. My co-workers and I know that if we hear an attorney say, “This will be brief,” or “I’ll be brief,” it almost always means that the argument is actually going to be long and drawn-out. Other clichéd phrases and colloquialisms should likewise be avoided. Others have blogged about common clichéd “lawyer” phrases, but I really enjoyed this post. A few of my favorites:
- I’m pretty sure the judge will be inclined to split the baby.
- You could drive a Mack truck through the hole in that argument. (I, for one, have no clue what a Mack Truck is.)
- We really can’t risk throwing out the baby with the bathwater, if you know what I mean. (Why are we killing/endangering so many babies?)
3. Arrive early. It should go without saying that timeliness is crucial to developing a good reputation in the legal community. All the best attorneys I’ve witnessed arrive early. Running late? Give Chambers a courtesy call. These calls go a long way in building goodwill with the office. Plus, starting an argument when you’re late increases the likelihood that you will be flustered, unclear, and ill-prepared.