Finding Your Voice as a New Lawyer

Jaqualine McMillan is an associate at Norton Rose Fulbright in Houston, Texas. She may be reached at jaqualine.mcmillan@nortonrosefulbright.com.

As lawyers, the ability to deliver a persuasive oral argument is critical to our success. Whether we are trying to convince a client that one strategy is best, convince the court to side with our position, or convince a partner that we are ready to take that contentious deposition, every day we use our voice to captivate, persuade, and command attention. But oral advocacy, and effective communication in general, is not something that can simply be taught in a classroom. It has to be practiced and refined, over and over again. And before you can fine-tune your persuasive speaking style, you have to know what yours is.

Know Yourself

It seems as though nearly every trial lawyer inevitably gives the same variation of the following advice when asked how young lawyers can be successful in court: Great trial lawyers are the best versions of themselves in front of a judge or jury. Your speaking style should reflect your personality, not just at trial, but any time you’re attempting to use your oral advocacy skills to persuade. If you watched 100 of the best oral advocates, you would find 100 different speaking styles. Some are formal, some are casual, some gesture with their hands, and some use regional language.

I was once told the best way to learn your personal style is to think of how you would explain a case to a friend over drinks at happy hour. (When you’re one drink in, not five.) Whether it’s expressive and boisterous or calm and collected, the way you speak with your friends and family is your genuine speaking style. And when lawyers try to use a style that doesn’t fit their personality, it shows.

The truth is that people can tell when you aren’t being genuine, and the same style that works for one lawyer could be a disaster for another. When I was in law school, I watched a prominent Houston defense attorney give a closing statement. His argument was calm, articulate, and logical. He used informal Southern colloquialisms like “folks” and “y’all,” and his tone was soft, but serious. By the time he was finished, I was ready to find in favor of his client, and you can bet that’s exactly what every person on the jury found, too. But if I got up to give the same closing statement, calling everyone “folks” and trying to mimic his style, it wouldn’t work. Not because I’m not a gray-haired, seasoned vet, but because the jury would see right through me. My style is much more animated and aggressive, and I’m not naturally soft-spoken. Part of perfecting your personal speaking style is knowing yourself. If you think it sounds strange coming out of your mouth, the person you’re trying to persuade probably will too.

Know Your Audience

Once you know your speaking style you can begin to tailor each argument to your specific situation. In doing so, you have to know who you are trying to persuade. Knowing your audience is often the first rule in persuasive writing but applies equally to persuasive speaking. Are you speaking with a sophisticated client who knows the ins and outs of the factual background? Are you arguing to a jury who doesn’t have the first clue what legal terms mean? Or are you addressing an appellate court well versed in legal nuances?

Your audience influences your natural speaking style and puts into focus what parts of the argument are important. Being mindful of who you are trying to persuade will keep the emphasis on the material points you want to advance.

Know Your Goal

Once you know who you are trying to persuade, you need to be cognizant of your end goal. Sometimes your goal can be something completely different from what a process originally intends. For example, throughout law school I was always under the impression that negotiation had one goal—to come to a compromise in a way that makes everyone happy. (I later learned such a feat rarely occurs.) Within the first few months at my firm, a partner let me know that negotiations can occur for any number of reasons, and he generally has a different goal each time. His argument adjusts based on what he’s is trying to accomplish from the process. So as you go into each experience, whether it’s a client meeting, hearing, or negotiation, be mindful of your ideal end result and consider how that should shape your argument.

Once you know your style, your intended audience, and your goal, you can get into the nuts and bolts of putting together a persuasive argument.

Always be concise. Blaise Pascal once said, “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.” So is true with argument. It is much easier to give a twenty-minute argument than a five-minute one. Yet the best and most persuasive lawyers can distill their arguments down to concise and clear points, making their message shorter and more powerful. When arguments are long, people lose attention and interest. After all, when you see a Facebook status that’s a few paragraphs long, how likely are you to just scroll on past that mess?

At my law school, when students were gearing up for moot court tournaments, we had a professor that would make every single one of us “soundbite” our arguments. His theory was that for each case we intended to cite, we needed a thirty-second phrase that we could use to describe the case. It was the perfect method, because it forced advocates to wade through all the facts, procedural background, and holdings, and pare our main point down to two sentences. We could then immediately identify what a case stood for and how it bolstered our position.

Soundbiting your arguments works equally well for negotiations, mediations, and client-strategy meetings. As with cases, you are forced to think about the nuances of your argument and distill all your facts and legal analysis down to a clear concept. And of course, it also plays into the general rule that a well-thought-out argument is a more persuasive argument.

Soundbiting, similar to the often-referenced “elevator pitch,” has the same appeal as a Twitter message. The idea is that carefully chosen words can make a difference. And you can use your soundbite more than you may think: It could be a stroll to the parking garage after work, a chat while getting coffee in the break room, or the few minutes of small talk right before a meeting begins when you suddenly have a chance to show your stuff.

But for me, the actual elevator pitch has been put to good use. When I step into an elevator at work with another associate or partner, inevitably the first question asked is, “How is everything going? Working on anything interesting?” I have to be ready with a short one-liner that not only explains what I’m working on but does so in an interesting way that makes the person remember my cases and hopefully, want to know more. Usually my one-liner is followed up with the question, “Well, do we have a good case?” And again, it’s my job to effectively and quickly state our position in a positive light. Doing so forces me to constantly go through my cases and consider the most persuasive way to explain the facts and legal analysis.

Always be organized. If you want someone to side with you, he or she has to understand your argument. You can’t just throw darts at the wall and hope some arguments stick. If you meander through your argument without having a structure, you’ll sound like a bumbling nut. Organization is key. Recently I was in a very complex hearing that involved an array of different legal issues. The senior associate I was working for had meticulously thought out the best way to organize the argument, and it paid off. At the end, our judge remarked at how impressive the senior associate’s speaking style was and how well organized the arguments were. The judge said it really helped him get to the meat of what was at issue and gave him a clear idea of how the statutes at play worked together.

Always have confidence. Certainty is compelling. If you wilt like a flower in the middle of your argument, no one is going to buy what you are selling. And if you don’t believe in your own argument, no one else will either.

Confidence often comes from preparation, because preparation can keep your nerves in check. You should be so comfortable with the ins and outs of your talking points that nothing can throw a wrench in your argument. The more comfortable you are with your words, the smoother your delivery.

Overall, finding your persuasive voice takes time and diligence. Be yourself, prepare a well-thought-out analysis, and take the time to tailor your argument to the specific circumstances. In the end, a smooth and confident delivery will win out every time. Taking the time to edit and craft your personal persuasive style early in your career will pay dividends in the future. Good luck, and happy persuading.

Advertisement

TYL In Focus: Intellectual Property

  

  • Inside TYL

 

YLD Fall Conference, Portland, OR

 

  • Subscribe to TYL

  • More Information

  • Contact Us

YLD Specialty Groups