June 01, 2015

Competitive Debate and the Development of Legal Reasoning

Hal Shimkoski
Editor's Note: The following article was written at my request by a college student who makes a cogent argument of how becoming proficient in debate can help by shaping your thinking analytically and organizing your thoughts for presentation to a court or otherwise. I am impressed by his skills and look forward to his continuing to use those skills in his future career, may it be as an attorney or otherwise.

In both high school and college, competitive debate is an activity for highly motivated and intelligent students. I will argue that many of the skills that students who are drawn to debate bring to the activity and later develop through competition and practice will help them succeed in law. Dedicated debaters grow to become persuasive speakers, analytical thinkers, and proficient researchers. Not only do debaters learn to write well-reasoned and persuasive arguments, but they also learn to love researching and writing. Debate work becomes a satisfying competitive outlet for a student’s creativity and intellect. Moreover, both debate and legal work involve applying relevant theory and precedent to the specific text of a codified law or resolution. Given the nature of competitive debate, law schools and firms should recognize that debaters are capable of and passionate about producing the type of work needed to be successful.

There are many forms of debate: from evidence-centric, fast-speaking (“spreading”) styles such as Policy Debate, in which students debate one topic for the entire year, to the more rhetorically persuasive forms like American Parliamentary Debate, where specific knowledge and empirics are not allowed and one side introduces the topic for debate at the beginning of each round. In the middle of the spectrum lies Public Forum Debate: the newest of the high school events, designed to promote discourse on current events through a monthly topic, in a format designed to be accessible to any lay-person judge. Events that allow for evidence-based preparation on a national topic—Policy, Lincoln-Douglas, and Public Forum—are the most applicable to law. Events like American Parliamentary debate require less preparation, but allow debaters to practice making persuasive extemporaneous speeches as well as to think quickly and critically.

This piece is focused on the way that debaters learn to understand and love arguments through preparation in competitive, evidence-based events. In such events, each debater is responsible for arguing for both sides of a topic. Thus, like law, debaters do not necessarily choose their side. Every tournament competitor (comprised of one or two students) has at least one prepared case per side, which details the empirical and normative arguments that comprise their advocacy. Empirical claims must be well warranted and supported by evidence that is properly cited and available for review. With limited preparation time during the round, debaters must also prepare for extemporaneous rebuttal speeches. Successful debaters enter a tournament prepared to answer arguments with thoughtful, evidence-based responses. They do so by preemptively constructing answers to their opponents’ rebuttals and their opponents’ rebuttals to those answers.

The best debaters will become experts on the topic—they will know what the topic literature says, in addition to what makes a study or a reasoned argument more or less valid than another. However, the key to success in debate is strategy: debaters should understand how to win with their position before the round begins. In order to do so, debaters must tell a compelling story about why their arguments entail that the judge ought to affirm or negate the resolution—why they “outweigh” their opponents’ arguments. They also must understand the proper way to adjudicate a round. This step is essential, because judges are not supposed to consider analyses that are not introduced in a speech when they determine which arguments are the most accurate or the most important. Moreover, as with law, the application and interpretation of burdens of proof in debate are central to decision making. Thus, great debaters will have a plethora of information on which to draw on, but will win by connecting that information to larger arguments for why their position and their sorts of arguments should be preferred to those of their opponents.

When developing strategy, the first step is to prepare in light of a thoughtful interpretation of the resolution. Debaters must use theory, history, and empirical research to develop creative and persuasive arguments that are tied closely to the meanings of terms and propositions in the resolution, with a similar attention to detail and context that lawyers and judges use when interpreting and applying codified laws. For the debater, the semantic content of every word of the resolution is relevant in the round. From a word’s dictionary definition and its intended use by the framers, to its use in current events and relevant literature as a “term of art,” semantic arguments are important tools in the debater’s arsenal. One well-planned argument for a particular usage of a term can make an opponents’ entire position irrelevant—or “nontopical.” As a result, most teams will use dictionary or industry-standard definitions to explicate the resolution in a way that most benefits their side.

Debaters also realize that there are persuasive philosophical arguments to make and borrow concerning the meaning of terms like “should” and “ought.” Such philosophical debates are often the basis for a “framework”: a theoretical or practical concern to the effect of “even if both of our arguments are valid, our arguments still prove or disprove the resolution given x.” In Lincoln-Douglas Debate, this sort of framework (called a “value”) is a philosophical argument for evaluating the round that is a component of every debater’s case. However, debaters in any event can use frameworks as general overviews, or to impose additional burdens of proof (the affirmative traditionally has the burden of proof) on their opponents. Sophisticated debaters will engage in clash between competing frameworks and argue for why the judge should prefer their framework to that of their opponents. Alternatively, they might concede their opposition’s framework if they think that their position is more compatible with it.

A framework might be tied directly to the resolution via sematic arguments like those mentioned above in cases of “should” or “ought.” For instance, one might use a Rawlsian theory of justice and equality to define the “just actions of liberal democracies” as “those actions that benefit the least-well off.” Moreover, resolutions that specify a certain “actor,” or “the entity that carries out the action in the resolution,” lend themselves to frameworks with the explicit goals of that organization as the criteria for weighing arguments in the round, like the official charter of the NSA or the US Constitution. Similar to the attorney who tailors his or her arguments according to the facts of the case, debaters choose frameworks based on what sorts of weighing mechanism would make the empirical arguments available for their side more persuasive than those available to the opposing side.

Preparation is a necessary but not sufficient condition for success in competitive debate. Being persuasive is another important key to success. Not only does rhetorical eloquence earn debaters extra points, but word economy and speech organization are also necessary in order to fit one’s arguments into a time constrained, extemporaneous speech. While some are talented speakers before entering the activity, debate also attracts students with speech impediments and phobias. Continued success and participation in the activity indicates that a debater is able to express his or her ideas in a clear and persuasive way. Even if speaking well in debate events that require speaking quickly does not equate to speaking well in court, successful debaters in “spreading” events are at least proficient in speaking about complicated arguments with clarity.

Thus, sustained commitment to the activity is evidence that debaters are poised to become successful law students and sharp legal minds. With practice, competitors almost always acquire the skills to become persuasive speakers. If not, then successful debaters make up for their speaking deficiencies with intelligence and hard work. Finally, there are those who (despite their sustained hard work and dedication) participate frequently without much success—most fall under this category for their first few years of competition. These students find motivation through their love of debate preparation and competition. Therefore, in a highly competitive academic event like debate, sustained participation indicates that the debater is some combination of hardworking, intelligent, rhetorically eloquent, and motivated. The motivation that compels the debater to persevere and succeed is a product of the same competitive spirit that drives him or her to academic and career success; the type of research, writing, and thinking that a debater loves is the same sort involved in practicing law.


Hal Shimkoski

Hal Shimkoski is a rising senior at Hamilton College, where he majors in philosophy and public policy. Hal has been active in competitive debate since high school and is currently the president of the Hamilton College Debate Society.