The music of advocacy

As a legal-writing professor for 14 years, I’ve attended countless conference workshops on various aspects of legal writing. The ones with music always stand out. There’s just something extra cool about a law professor who plays an instrument. Music speaks to the human ear in a way no law-school lecture ever can. Concert-trained pianist Allison Kort is also a legal-writing professor at UMKC. Today she shares this guest post on the piano sonata and oral advocacy.

IMG_5052“The Court below should be reversed for the following three reasons . . .”

The piano sonata form, particularly the Beethoven sonata (he wrote only 32), usually starts off with a bang. He gets the listener’s attention. The second movement—the slow movement—will bring in a second musical theme, weaving in finer, lighter musical points. The third sonata movement (or fourth) ends by tying together and resolving the development of the pieces, showing the listener how they must come together to a logical conclusion.

In college I sat in a square room in a row of square rooms in the Mosse building in Madison, Wisconsin, cursing the Waldstein, (No. 21, Op. 53). I continued learning the intricate patterns and movements, the difficult runs in the right hand, don’t rush it, don’t slow it, too much crescendo, not enough pedal. My father, who had been a music professor before he went to law school, said it was too technically difficult, just not worth the effort. Maybe, but I will not give it up. I have been practicing the Waldstein and its three movements, on and off, since 1993. It is 2014. Fortunately, during that time, I found something else to do. Like becoming a lawyer and a law professor.

In appellate advocacy, we encourage students to provide the listener with a theme. A theme may be unspoken—a general sense conveyed of why the judge should hold in the advocate’s favor—or it may be directly stated. Regardless, it will pervade the entire argument, be referred to in some way over and over again during the argument, interjected throughout the advocate’s answers to the judge’s questions, and appeal to the judge’s sense of fairness and morality.

Some of us coach advocacy as legal storytelling. Advocates begin the story with a protagonist, and then explain the relationship between the parties, the conflict brought about by that relationship, and the appropriate outcome that should result with the court’s assistance. While oral argument is often described as a “conversation with the court,” certain rules apply. Don’t speak too fast; don’t speak too slowly; never interrupt a judge, but stop talking when a judge interrupts you. Answer a question and always the question asked, but do not ask the court a question. (Since when does a conversation involve only one party asking the questions?)

Is advocacy more music than writing? An expected logical conclusion arrives only after the conflict is introduced, followed by the boldest arguments, the details, and the triumphant conclusion. The practiced storyteller anticipates the judge’s questions, moves at the correct pace, guides the judge effortlessly through the affirmative arguments and through the opposing drama. It may look like a novel, but to the classical pianist, “May it please the Court . . .” sounds like Ludwig.

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