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Participation Panic? 10 Tips for Authentically Amplifying Your Voice in the Law School Classroom

Heidi Brown

Participation Panic? 10 Tips for Authentically Amplifying Your Voice in the Law School Classroom

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Are you feeling a bit nervous about speaking in class? Or getting cold-called by a professor?

I was nervous too.

When I walked into my first law school classroom at The University of Virginia, my heart was banging so ferociously against my rib cage, I was certain everyone around me could hear it. Even though I had completed all the assigned reading, and had made checklists and flowcharts of the unfamiliar legal concepts, I worried I wouldn’t understand the professors’ questions … or my mind would go blank … or I’d turn beet red (I have a robust blushing response when I’m anxious) … or I’d end up looking totally incompetent in front of my peers. My classmates all seemed to know what was going on already; they dropped Latin phrases like res ipsa loquitur into casual hallway convos.

A couple weeks into my 1L year, it happened. My Civil Procedure professor cold-called me. I had studied the concept of diversity jurisdiction the previous night and knew the rule like the back of my hand: the parties in the lawsuit needed to be citizens of different states and the amount in controversy needed to exceed a particular dollar threshold for the federal court to assume jurisdiction over the case.

But the moment my teacher called my name, my blush fired up. My class notes swirled before my eyes like brushstrokes in a Van Gogh painting. My brain left the building. Somehow I mumbled an answer to the professor’s question, mistakenly suggesting Seattle and Portland were located in the same state and thus, the hypothetical court lacked diversity jurisdiction.

Classmates chuckled. My professor briskly moved on to someone else. I slunk into my seat, enveloped in a cloud of mortification.

I wish I could go back to that moment (and many others) and have a complete do-over, knowing what I know now about how to wrangle my physical, mental, and emotional stress responses.

Having grappled with public speaking anxiety throughout law school, a 15+-year career as a litigator in the construction industry, and in the early years of my law teaching job, I’ve devoted the past decade to understanding the mechanics of my performance fears so I can help law students avoid some (hopefully all!) of the angst I experienced. I’ve compiled some tips that might help you settle into your new academic adventure, practice amplifying your voice authentically, and ultimately thrive and flourish throughout your law school experience. Our profession needs your voice.

Tip #1: Ditch the Fake Bravado Messages

Before we even get started, I give you permission to reject all catchy performance-oriented slogans like “fake it till you make it!” or “just do it!” or “feel the fear and do it anyway!” Just, no. I tried for years to fake confidence—in the law classroom and the courtroom. Faking bravado never helped me get to the root of what was going on in my body, brain, and mind when I was nervous. Plus, it was impossible to hide my blush, which at the time felt like a neon sign broadcasting my fright.

Instead, I finally decided to dig into the science behind my physical manifestations of fear and learn how to overwrite my accompanying negative mental soundtrack—a process which ultimately helped me tap into my authentic voice. As you step into your first semester of law school, please give yourself permission to reject any cliché messages that push inauthenticity. (Sometimes when well-meaning people foist the “fake it till you make it” advice on me, I smile and politely respond, “Thanks, but that’s not part of my process.”)

Tip #2: Cultivate Your Space in the Classroom

In the first week of the semester, try to get to each classroom early and choose a seat location that makes you feel most comfortable. Think about how close to or far away you want to be from the teacher and physical objects like the doorway and windows; whether you prefer having most of your classmates in front of you or behind you; and whether you’d prefer sitting on the end of a row so at least one side next to you feels pretty open.

My personal preference as an introvert in a packed room is to be close to the front of a room (so I can’t see the eyes of a bunch of people behind me). I also like to sit close to one edge of the room so ideally there is no one on one side of me. (Similarly, in exercise classes, I grab mats or stationary bikes in the front side corner!)

If your professor uses a seating chart and requires students to select a seat and stick with it for the semester, try to choose a seat that maximizes your calmness (although it’s certainly not the end of the world if you don’t get your preferred choice). You might experiment with a variety of seating choices in different classes in your first semester and make adjustments in second semester based on what location makes you feel most at ease.

Tip #3: Rewrite Your Mental Soundtrack

If you’re like me, when you anticipate how things might go if you’re called on in class, you might hear a less-than-helpful internal soundtrack. Let’s halt these negative mental messages starting on Day One of law school.

When I finally decided to dissect my public speaking anxiety to figure it out once-and-for-all, I first needed to listen to, and actually transcribe, my negative mental soundtrack. Every time I anticipated or stepped into a public speaking scenario, my brain replayed unhelpful messages like, “You’re going to look stupid…You’re going to turn red…Everyone is going to wonder what you are doing here…What are you even doing here?!”

I finally did a mental reboot: I decided that those negative messages were completely tired and outdated. I replaced them with accurate messages about my current preparedness and worthiness: “You’ve done the hard work. You deserve to be here. Our profession needs your voice. If you reach one person with your message, you’ve done your job today. And that one person can be you. Amplify your authentic voice. You don’t need to sound like everyone else.”

The old negative messages may still sneak into our psyche. They’re persistent! But we can start noticing when they do; then we simply press pause and activate our new accurate soundtrack.

Tip #4: Acknowledge that the Law is a New Language

It’s important to realize that the law is a new language and you don’t speak it yet. That’s okay. No one would expect us to speak fluent French, Italian, or Spanish on our first day of a language class.

The same thing goes for complex legal concepts and terminology. Look up every word you don’t recognize; keep a glossary in your class notes. (When I was a 21-year-old 1L law student, my classmates kept tossing words around like “notwithstanding,” “ostensibly,” and “normatively,” and most of the time, I literally had no idea what they were talking about.) As you experiment with unfamiliar phrasing, remind yourself that any new language takes time to learn. Break complex concepts into plain English; your legal vocabulary will grow over time.

Tip #5: If You’re A Fellow Introvert, Let’s Own Our Quiet Power

When I started studying the science behind my need for quiet processing of complex subjects, I finally understood that I’m an introvert (which is different from being shy or socially anxious). Introverts naturally like to vet and test ideas internally before sharing them aloud, while extroverts tend to work their ideas out through engaged dialogue. Thus, extroverted law students likely will leap into classroom conversation more quickly and energetically than introverts.

That’s fine; we introverts bring tremendous assets to the legal profession. (If you want to learn more about being an introverted law student or lawyer, please check out my deep-dive into the gifts we bring to the profession in The Introverted Lawyer: A Seven Step Journey Toward Authentically Empowered Advocacy.) As an introvert, I use the gift of writing to prepare me for situations in which I need to accelerate my normal pace of conversing about complex topics.

In the first few days (and weeks) of class, try to discern patterns of questioning by each of your professors. Write down the questions they ask other students in class. Do your professors repeat particular words or phrasing? If you don’t know those words or phrases, that’s totally fine; look them up and put them in your growing glossary.

As you prepare for each class, try organizing your notes around each professor’s unique questioning pattern. Do they ask about the facts of a precedent case? Do they want students to identify the legal issues posed in a case? Do they inquire about the elements or components of legal rules? Do they press further to explore different public policies (societal concerns) behind each rule? I routinely rely on preparatory notes to accelerate my thought processing time in scenarios where I’m expected to respond faster than I would normally like.

You can do the same in the law school classroom. You can even say out loud, “I need to check my notes for a sec. Ok yes, the elements of the rule for negligence are…” or “There seem to be two competing public policies at play here…” Consider color-coding or tabbing your class-prep and in-class notes with different colors or tabs for facts, legal issues, rules, policies, themes, etc. You’ll get faster at retrieving answers to questions by using designations that make sense to you.

Tip #6: Conduct a Physical Inventory and…Channel Your Inner Athlete/Performer

For me, the physical manifestations of performance anxiety have always been tougher to deal with than the mental or emotional aspects. As you anticipate participating in class, take some time to notice what is happening in your body.

It took me a long while to realize that when public speaking anxiety swoops in and begins to envelop me, my body immediately reacts by trying to get small. My shoulders cave inward; I cross my arms and legs. It’s as if my body is trying to curl up in a ball and roll right out of the room unnoticed. My body is just doing what it is biologically programmed to do: protect me from what it perceives as a threat.

But my natural physical reaction is not-at-all helpful in performance moments. By collapsing my physical frame inward, I am cutting off optimal oxygen, blood, and energy flow. I had to train myself to notice when this happens.

Now, when I realize my body is reacting to stress by trying to get small, I make a concerted effort to open my frame back up. I shift my shoulders back and stand or sit in a balanced stance—like an athlete. Both feet on the ground, shoulders back, arms and hands open, spine tall. This is a super-quick recalibration we can do—in the moment—when we are called on in class. We can make this swift physical adjustment, mentally reboot, activate our new soundtrack, refer to our preparatory notes, and start speaking!

(Oh, and if you’re an epic blusher like me…I read the best description ever about blushing in author Erika Hilliard’s book, Living Fully With Shyness and Social Anxiety: “To see a blush is to celebrate life’s living…Think of your blush as footprints left by the blood surging into the blood vessels under your skin. They symbolize the fact that life is coursing through you.” Now when I feel a blush coming on (which is often!), I pause and remind myself, “I’m alive! Yay me!” And the blush goes away faster than ever before. Be the blush.)

Tip #7: Make a Human Connection with Your Professors

I literally am a law professor, and yet I’m often intimidated by law professors. To amplify our voice authentically in the law school classroom, it helps to realize our professors (and peers) are simply fellow human beings. (And they’re human beings who, like all of us, have been starved of normal human contact over the past 18 months!)

Your professors likely have been champing at the bit to get back into the live classroom; they’ve been working on their syllabi, class plans, and assignments all summer; they are excited to meet you. Go to your professors’ office hours.

In my opinion, it’s okay for you to say to them—out loud—that you’re a bit nervous to speak in class, but you are fervently doing the reading, and you really want to learn and contribute. I try to encourage law professors to not move on too quickly to someone else if the student they called on is struggling, but instead to help the student stay in the dialogue, focusing on what the student knows and understands from doing the reading. Try talking to your professors about how you can stay in a Socratic dialogue even if you appear nervous in class.

And if they follow up and indeed help you through a challenging classroom moment, email or talk to them later, say thank you, and explain how their guidance helped! We are all learning how to be better educators and learners.

(Caveat: Some professors who have never experienced public speaking anxiety of this sort, or who heavily default to traditional teaching methods, might well-meaningly give you the “fake it till you make it” advice, or say that classroom dynamics are meant to “mirror the courtroom” so you need to get used to it (or some other less-than-helpful explanation). No worries. If that professor calls on you, do your mental reboot and physical recalibration, and show that you have done the reading, even if that means saying—out loud—“I’m a little nervous but I think you are asking about the history of the rule. According to the Andreas case …”)

Tip #8: Experiment with Amplifying Your Voice…Authentically

Our favorite athletes and performers develop step-by-step routines and rituals for practicing sequential tasks in training so when they enter the performance arena, they can activate the same sequence, and let their training take over. We can do the same.

Let’s develop a sequence of actions we can practice in environments like non-intimidating classes taught by compassionate educators. You’re going to spend a ton of time doing your assigned reading, so you’re absolutely going to know the answers to some (probably many) of the questions posed in class.

Establish a training routine/ritual that you can practice in classroom environments led by approachable professors:

  1. Do your substantive class prep
  2. Activate your mental reboot
  3. Recalibrate your physical frame
  4. Raise your hand!

Afterward, reflect on what worked great and what you could adjust a bit for next time. Then celebrate your authentic fortitude. (And please consider thanking those teachers for fostering a classroom culture in which all students can work on amplifying their voices).

Tip #9: Activate Other Class Participation Channels

One silver lining to teaching on Zoom during the 2020-2021 academic year was learning about different channels of classroom participation that afforded quiet students more time to think before being put on the spot (i.e., the “chat” feature”). Even if you are attending in-person classes this year, note all the different participation channels your professors are making available, and use them. Online discussion boards? After-class podium chats? In-class or outside-of-class polls?

I obviously don’t want you to over-exhaust yourself, but consider amplifying your voice using different modes of communication. By conversing about legal concepts in writing, you will inevitably gain confidence in eventually speaking about those subjects.

Tip #10: Help One Another

Even though people in law school might act like they have it all together, many students are feeling the exact same way you are. Help one another.

If you see a student struggling to get through a Socratic dialogue in class, consider (bravely) raising your hand and saying, “[name] made a great point about X. It got me thinking about …” If someone had a hard time in a class dialogue, reach out to them and perhaps talk about working through some of these tips together. If someone awesomely navigated a cold call, reach out and cheer them on.

Help create a community of care. In doing so, you are amplifying your authentic advocacy voice and modeling how to make our profession better.

Speaking Up

I know law school can be scary; I’m proud of you and I know you can do it. I absolutely want to know how it’s going and how you’re doing! If you need advice regarding untangling your public speaking anxiety in the law classroom, or you want to share a classroom moment that went really well, I’m all ears. Please feel free to email me at [email protected]. Be you this year. I’m rooting for you.