YourABA: April 2014
YourABA April 2014 Masthead

Finding your voice as a new lawyer

As lawyers, the ability to deliver a persuasive oral argument is critical to success. 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. Jaqualine McMillan, an associate at Norton Rose Fulbright in Houston, offers this perspective from a recent article in TYL.

Know yourself

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. People can tell when you aren’t being genuine, and the same style that works for one lawyer could be a disaster for another. Part of perfecting your personal speaking style is knowing yourself. If you think it sounds strange coming out of your mouth, then 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 it applies equally to persuasive speaking. 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

Sometimes your goal can be different from what a process originally intends. 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. McMillan offers this advice:

Always be concise

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.

“At my law school, when students were gearing up for moot court tournaments, we had a professor who would make every single one of us ‘soundbite’ our arguments,” McMillan said. “His theory was that for each case we intended to cite, we needed a 30-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. Of course, it also plays into the general rule that a well-thought-out argument is a more persuasive argument.

Always be organized

If you want people to side with you, they have to understand your argument. You can’t just throw darts at the wall and hope some arguments will stick. Organization is key.    

Always have confidence

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,” McMillan said. “In the end, a smooth and confident delivery will win out every time.”

TYL is a publication of the ABA Young Lawyers Division.

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