Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Confessions of a Former High School Debater

In my first year of law school (on the first day), I met the man I ultimately married. We were already dating by the time we had to do oral arguments for our legal writing class and our TA’s thought it would be good ‘ole nifty fun to make us argue against each other. We both agree that I won (did I mention that he is a very smart man?).

Our first year students will be doing their oral arguments for their legal research and writing classes over the next weeks. Now, for me, oral arguments were always the fun part of the class, but then again I was a (geek alert!!) high school debater (and on the math team, too!) and I thought oral arguments were just peachy. Sadly, most of our students are not as excited by the prospect of this activity as I was.

I have seen a number of panic-stricken, yet well dressed, students this week who have come to me for advice and to answer the age old question, “why do we need to do this?” My answer is always this, “because I said so.”  Oops, actually, that would be my answer for my kids, for students I say, “Because the ultimate weapon in a lawyer’s arsenal is the courtroom and being comfortable there means you have the edge over your adversary.”

It is that simple. “I’ll see you in court,” is often considered a threat (at least on TV and in movies) but if you cannot make good on that threat, you will not be the most effective lawyer you can—and you have an ethical obligation to be a zealous advocate for your clients, not someone who makes empty threats. Oral arguments are the first step in finding a comfort level in court.

Granted, there are attorneys who don’t see the inside of a courtroom after their bar swearing-in ceremony. I know a lot of lawyers who would rather never go to the courthouse and not just because parking is a nightmare (which it is). But I really believe that being able to navigate a courtroom is an essential skill for lawyering. In fact, I often recommend that my probationary students take a trial practice class or a clinic to get some courtroom (or courtroom-like) experience. 

I have found that students who lack confidence in their exam-taking abilities really thrive in a more practical lawyering-skills kind of class. I think some of these students are more hands-on learners who need to see the way the rules of evidence operate in court rather than manipulate them on paper only. Not only that, but a practical kind of class (especially a clinic) can help a student rediscover their initial reasons for wanting to come to law school. It can be an epiphany to remember why you wanted to be a lawyer in the first place. I have found (anecdotally) that this will improve a student’s grades across the board and not just in that class or clinic.

As for my nervous first year students, I tell them my old courtroom stories of embarrassing situations I lived through. My favorite: the judge who figured out that I did not know to stand up whenever addressing the court, so he signaled me to stand when I did. Well, since I did not know why I was standing, I didn’t know when to sit down either, so he gave me another signal to sit. That judge had me randomly jumping up and down for an entire proceeding using hand signals. In the end, I caught on that he was having fun at my expense and we all had a good laugh. Which taught me the most valuable lesson about oral arguments, “Never, never, never, take yourself too seriously.” Thanks, Judge Lauria! (ezs)

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