Finding – and refining – your voice as a new lawyer in the courtroom

July 2015 | Around the ABA

The power to persuade – and effectively communicate in general – is critical to the success of lawyers. And like most things, it takes practice, again and again, so that it becomes second nature. Jaqualine McMillan, an associate at Norton Rose Fulbright in Houston, writes about the process of finding your voice in a recent issue of TYL.

McMillan writes that before you can refine your speaking style, you need to know what it is.

“Great trial lawyers are the best versions of themselves in front of a judge or jury,” she writes, summarizing the oft-repeated advice to young lawyers looking to be successful in court. It means that some speak with big gestures and a folksy tone while others are formal and calm. “The way you speak with your family and friends is your genuine speaking style,” she writes. “And when lawyers try to use a style that doesn’t fit their personality, it shows.”

Her advice for zeroing in on your personal style is to “think about how you would explain a case to a friend over drinks at happy hour.” You will default to your style and use the words, diction and tone that you’re most comfortable with.

Equally important to knowing your personal style is knowing your audience.  Whether it’s speaking before a jury that is unfamiliar with legal terms or a client sophisticated in the ways of the business world, “your audience influences your natural speaking style and puts into focus what parts of the argument are important,” McMillan writes.

The next factor to add to the mix is being aware of your end goal and how that should shape your argument.

Once you are comfortable knowing your style, audience and goal, you’re ready to move on to really shaping your argument. First up is to keep it short and sweet. “It is much easier to give a twenty-minute argument than a five-minute one,” McMillan writes. “Yet the best and most persuasive lawyers can distill their arguments down to concise and clear points, making their message shorter and more powerful.”

McMillan recalls a law school exercise where students had to make a ” sound bite” of their arguments, and pare their main point down to two sentences. “We could then immediately identify what a case stood for and how it bolstered our position,” she writes. McMillan recommends the exercise 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,” she writes.

Even better is practicing an “elevator pitch” for your cases. That is, being able to reduce their essence and importance to 30 seconds, or the average length of an elevator ride. McMillan likes to follow up her summary to colleagues by asking, “So, do we have a good case?” Having to say that “forces me to constantly go through my cases and consider the most persuasive way to explain the facts and legal analysis,” she writes.

The companions to conciseness are organization and confidence, she writes. Organization is key to making sure your argument is understood, and belief in your argument is essential to convincing anyone else of it.

Although finding your style takes time and diligence, McMillan assures that “taking the time to edit and craft your personal persuasive style early in your career will pay dividends in the future.”

TYL is a publication of the Young Lawyers Division.