Oral argument as an improvised conversation

Oral argument — is it really a “conversation”? How can it be an authentic conversation when the power dynamics are so skewed toward the judges and when the attorney is ethically bound to advocate for the client? A recent incident with Judge Richard Posner is just one example of the inherent challenges of oral argument. Advocates may err on the side of scripted arguments and default answer structures as defense mechanisms to survive in this environment. Conversely, great advocates argue with flexibility, maintaining their basic persuasive agenda but effectively listening and responding to the judges’ questions.

I was thinking of the challenges of oral argument when I came across about a new book, Ditch the Pitch: The Art of Improvised Persuasion by Steve Yastrow (SelectBooks 2014).

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Yastrow seeks to replace the scripted, one-size-fits all business “pitch” with the art of “improvised persuasion.” This book is most directly relevant to lawyers interested in marketing, and I highly recommend it for that reason. But for this post, the focus is on making oral argument more responsive and conversational using Yastrow’s improvisational techniques. The rest of the post substitutes [advocates] for salespeople, and [judges] for customers.

The basic truth is harsh and hard to accept. Yastrow begins by attacking the belief that anyone — customer, judge, anyone at all — is actually interested in someone else’s scripted pitch/argument.

“[H]ere’s the unadorned truth: Your [judge] doesn’t really care what you have to say about yourself or what you are trying to [argue.] Your story is not all that interesting to him. He cares much more about his own story.” 

This underlying lack of interest (in what the advocate has to say) informs everything else Yastrow recommends:

“The first thing you have to do if you want [judges] to listen to you, is to earn the right to be heard. Contrary to the most fundamental beliefs about [advocacy], you do not earn the right to be heard just be delivering the right message to the right [judge] at the right time. You earn the right to be heard once you have engaged your [judge] in a dialogue that is meaningful to him.”

Conversations that are meaningful to the other person (the customer or judge) arise out of a “diagnostic” mindset. This means finding out what the other conversation partner wants, needs, and is concerned about. A diagnostic conversation stands in opposition to a prescriptive conversation where you just tell the other person what he or she needs. (This would be oral arguments consisting entirely of scripted arguments and scripted answers to questions.)

How does one create a diagnostic conversation? An advocate cannot turn the table on a panel of judges and say, “Your honors, I’d like to start by learning more about your needs in handling the challenges of deciding this case. What are your sticking points with my client’s position?” But advocates *can* use oral argument as the opportunity to learn how the judges are thinking about the case.

In this sense, many techniques from the book seem applicable:

  • “Think input before output.” Perceive and comprehend the input conveyed through the judges’ questions and even at times their facial expressions and body language.
  • “Say less to notice more.” Speak slowly enough that judges have a chance to think and ask questions as they arise. Make points thoroughly but concisely.
  • “Turn down your analytic brain.” This doesn’t mean abandoning legal analysis. It means trying to turn down the overly critical self-judging that comes from worrying about how things are going as they happen. If an advocate is berating him- or herself for bungling a question, the advocate is not open to the new cues being offered and how to keep the focus on the judges’ needs.
  • “Listen for the game.” Oral argument isn’t a game, but this language, drawn from theater improvisation, means finding the common ground of the improvised conversation: “What are we really doing? What are we really talking about? What’s going on here?” If an advocate is emphasizing the substantive legal question but the judges are asking technical questions about procedure or the effect on future cases, then there is no common ground — and no shared game to play.
  • “Ensure your [judge] keeps saying yes.” In Yastrow’s words, “If your [judge] says ‘no’ to something you say or disagrees with a statement you make, you will immediately feel the conversation stall.” Indeed. To try to minimize these stalled moments, focus on areas of “mutual affirmation and agreement.” It seems that mutual agreement may come many sources: taking reasonable positions that the court might actually adopt; using binding precedent in skillful way; invoking shared understandings such as canons of construction; and possibly invoking shared imagery that is meaningful to the court.

And one final interesting approach: “Keep 95 percent of the conversation about the [judge].” When selling, Yastrow continually monitors his own performance in the conversation and asks, “Are we still talking about them?” Phrased in terms of oral argument, “[the judge] wants to hear about himself. If you notice that the conversation is about you, change it! Focus the conversation on your [judge].

There are some other interesting points from the book to be explored in later posts, but let me end this post on the 95 percent point. How can advocates actually advocate for their clients while also keeping 95 percent of the focus on the judges? I have a few ideas, such as highlighting what the opinion will mean for the court as precedent going forward. What do you think? For oral advocates, have you explicitly tried to keep the focus on the court, and if so — how?

And more generally: does the analogy of a sales pitch correspond to oral argument? How can advocates listen and improvise more effectively at oral argument?

 

 

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