Tag: Moot Court

AdvocacyLaw practiceLegal communicationLegal skillsLitigation

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).

ditch-the-pitch-cover-150

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?

 

 

Law schoolLegal educationLegal skillsLitigation

Listening the first time

Do you remember the first oral argument you ever saw? The first real trial? First mediation? First negotiation? First plea deal? First closing?

These firsts are hard to forget. They can be pure sensory overloads: the defendant comes in wearing orange, the state puts on its case and the defense tries to poke holes and humanize the defendant, the jury decides, the judge speaks, and then the bailiffs take the defendant away, or not. That’s how I felt years ago as a young journalist on the courthouse beat, watching the power of the state.

Courtesy Flickr/Jeffrey Beale

Courtesy Flickr/Jeffrey Beale

But there is another approach–preparing to listen, to see, to notice. Building a tentative framework for comprehending the event. What should an observer expect to see? To hear? What does a mentor advise an observer to pay special attention to? If an observer has never seen a trial before, how should that observer filter and evaluate the first one?

Just as one example, here is a set of “listening guidelines” for observing one’s first oral argument. Where I teach legal writing, we share these guidelines with students before they watch an oral-argument demonstration. This is not a formal assessment rubric; it’s more an intuitive list of how and what to notice. And it’s not really just a “listening” framework; it’s a learning framework for an experience that demands and rewards effective listening.

  • How did counsel begin the argument?
  • Did counsel clearly state what they wanted the court to do?
  • Did counsel make the facts of the case clear?
  • Was counsel concise in describing the facts?
  • Did counsel set out a roadmap of the argument to follow?
  • What kinds of arguments did counsel focus on (legal, factual, policy, emotional, other)?
  • How did counsel use authority to support the argument?
  • Did the argument begin with strong, favorable points?
  • How did counsel handle counter-arguments?
  • What role did the record play in the argument?
  • What kind of questions did the court ask (e.g. clarifying, hostile, or friendly questions; questions about the record or about the legal support for the argument)?
  • How effectively did counsel answer those questions? What made the answers effective or ineffective?
  • How did counsel conclude the argument?
  • Did counsel do anything distracting to you?
  • What demeanor did counsel adopt (e.g. combative, conciliatory, matter-of-fact, impassioned, etc.)?

Feedback is welcome, both on the specific guidelines and the general concept. How have you prepared yourself, if at all, before seeing a type of lawyering event for the first time? How do you advise others to prepare themselves?

Clinical legal educationLaw practiceLaw schoolLegal communicationLegal skills

Listening to yourself speak

With the beginning of the new Supreme Court term and the opening of moot court season in law schools, this is an opportune time to study techniques for listening to yourself. By recording yourself giving a practice speech or oral argument and then studying the tape, you can greatly improve your effectiveness as a speaker.

But watching yourself speak can be challenging. First, there is the hurdle of . . . just watching yourself speak. For many, it’s a painful experience. If you can get past the discomfort, forcing yourself to watch tape can reveal distracting unconscious behaviors that you can then begin to curb.

The analytical content of a presentation may be more difficult to deconstruct by watching tape. Seeing your nonverbal behaviors on tape may prevent you from focusing on the content. And hearing your own speech again may actually reinforce the content in your mind, rather than helping you recognize gaps and weaknesses.

To listen to yourself and engage deeply with your own content, you need to listen specifically and critically. One innovative and powerful method for doing so is demonstrated in a wonderful Brain Pickings post here. In the post and embedded video, presentation guru Nancy Duarte breaks down Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Her visual analysis deconstructs the speech’s rhythm and rhetorical components. The post and Duarte’s embedded videos are well worth your time for so many reasons.

For lawyers working on a particular speech or oral argument or presentation, Duarte’s methods could be extremely useful. To listen to yourself using Duarte’s method, consider using audio as she does. This eliminates the distraction of seeing yourself. And it frees up your brain to think about the key issues she is focusing on: the segments and breaks in the speech, and the type of content delivered at different times.

Listening to yourself speak

1. First, find the natural breaks in your presentation.

Working from the transcript of your practice presentation, insert hard returns where you paused. This technique reveals the shape of what you are saying. Duarte organizes Dr. King’s speech on a timeline running across the page and inserts the breaks vertically. But you could do it horizontally on a regular typed page to obtain many of the same benefits.

This method by itself can help you hear whether the speech on paper is actually appropriate in spoken form. If you have an overwhelming eight-sentence paragraph in your draft speech, you’re going to have to insert more breaks. This method also can help you hear whether the pauses are coinciding with what you want to emphasize—or, as is sometimes the case, you are hesitating to pause at all.

2. Code your content, and examine proportions and patterns.

The second step in Duarte’s method is to color-code the material to show its proportions and patterns. Duarte uses a coding system appropriate for studying Dr. King’s speech within the rhetorical context of the civil rights movement. Lawyers using Duarte’s method to work on an oral argument or CLE presentation would obviously want to modify the color-coding system to fit the situation. The content you would code for varies by context, but here is a possible idea for coding a practice opening statement:

  • Duarte coded repetition in light blue. In listening to an opening statement, a lawyer might use light blue to code the theme of the case. (Ideally there would be some repetition of the theme. This method would reveal how often and when the theme cropped up.)
  • She coded metaphors and visual words in pink. A lawyer might use pink to code vivid descriptions of the testimony to follow.
  • She coded songs, scriptures, and literature in green. A lawyer might use green for cultural references (although whether to even use cultural references in a jury setting is a topic for another blog).
  • She coded political references in orange. A lawyer might use orange for legal standards and references to the role of the jury.

Duarte appears to have used some sophisticated software to generate the timeline and graphic components of the speech. But with a transcript and a simple word-processing program that allows text highlighting, lawyers could apply the same method. Speech-to-text applications such as Dragon Dictation could make this process even easier.

The benefits of Duarte’s method are not limited to speeches and formal presentations. Lawyers and law students practicing for oral argument could apply the same method to break down the way they are answering questions and managing the argument:

  • Are your answers transitioning from defensive content into more positive, affirmative arguments? [Color-code red for defensive statements and green for affirmative statements.]
  • Are your answers bringing in legal support? [Color-code yellow for facts and green for law.]
  • Are your answers lingering too long on answers or, conversely, are they so concise as to seem clipped or not fully supported? [Color-code orange for the answer to the question and purple for the return to the main argument.]

[Aside on the topic of writing: Breaking down your writing through color-coding for specific content is just as effective when the writing is intended to be read, rather than spoken. Mary Beth Beazley popularized this method for teaching legal writing in The Self-Graded Draft: Teaching Students to Revise Using Guided Self-Critique, available from the Journal of the Legal Writing Institute here. Duarte’s presentation on “I Have a Dream” shows this type of method is not just for beginners confronting a new genre such as “IRAC.” It is revealing and productive for the most sophisticated writers and speakers among us.]

Of course only the rare and gifted orators can even come close to the achievement of “I Have a Dream.” But everyone who prepares and delivers speeches and oral arguments can benefit from practicing and really listening to what that practice reveals. We can then critically examine what we are doing and how to make it better.