Sunday, April 12, 2020
Given the unprecedented and challenging times that have arisen due to the coronavirus, many courts (and law schools) are now conducting oral arguments online (e.g., via Zoom). For many lawyers and most law students, this is likely the first time in which they have been required to deliver oral arguments online.
Below are several tips (some rather obvious) to help lawyers and law students deliver effective and persuasive online oral arguments.
1. Make sure that you are positioned correctly
When giving an oral argument – or any presentation – online, be sure to observe the following guidelines.
First, whether you are seated or standing, make sure that the camera on your computer is at eye level. Second, you should position yourself so that you are approximately at arm’s length from the camera. Third, to ensure that you are making eye contact with the judge (or professor) always look straight into the camera and avoid looking at the screen. Fourth, make sure that your volume is at the appropriate level so that you can be heard clearly.
2. Choose a professional background
Be sure to position your desk and computer in an area that includes a professional background and that omits any distracting images. Additionally, eliminate all excess noise.
Also, make sure that the lighting is properly set. For example, if there is too much light in the background, it can cast a glare on the screen and distract the person to whom you are speaking. Finally, be sure to dress professionally.
3. Avoid Unnecessary Physical Gestures
When presenting your argument, avoid unnecessary movements (e.g., hand gestures), particularly those that will take you out of the camera’s range. Unnecessary movements will distract your audience and detract attention from the substance of your argument.
4. Get to the point quickly – the judge (or professor, or anyone) may get more easily distracted in an online format
In an online oral argument, there is an increased possibility that a judge (or professor, or anyone) may get distracted more easily, particularly if the environment within which a judge or professor is hearing the argument is less than ideal (e.g., in a home where other family members are present in the immediate vicinity). As such, you should prepare a short, one-page outline that contains the strongest legal and factual arguments supporting the remedy you seek and state them at the beginning of your argument. Indeed, the most persuasive oral arguments include a powerful beginning where an attorney: (1) states clearly the outcome and remedy that the attorney seeks; and (2) explains why the law and facts support that outcome. In doing so, be sure to omit extraneous or irrelevant facts and legal authority.
5. Follow all of the rules regarding oral argument as if you were giving the argument in person
You should approach online and in-person oral arguments in the same way. For example:
- Have a powerful introduction and roadmap
- State clearly the outcome you seek and begin with the most favorable law and facts that support this outcome
- Address weaknesses in your case (e.g., unfavorable law and facts) and explain why they do not affect the outcome you seek
- Answer the judge’s questions directly
- Be prepared to adjust your argument strategy depending on the questions and concerns expressed by the judge (or judges)
- Always be honest – never mislead the court or attempt to hide unfavorable law or facts
- Don’t be a jerk – never attack your adversary and never use over-the-top words or unnecessary adjectives
6. Be prepared for technical issues
Technical issues sometimes arise when using online platforms such as Zoom or Skype. For example, when I was interviewed via Skype for a faculty position several years ago, my screen suddenly went black and I could not see the faculty members who were interviewing me (although they could still see me). If any technical issues arise, be sure to maintain your composure and go with it. Indeed, in the interview where my screen went black, I still got the job.
7. Remember that this is new for everyone
Don’t be intimidated or overly concerned about performing an effective online oral argument. This is a new experience for many judges and law professors. At the end of the day, just be yourself – speak conversationally and remember that the skills needed to deliver excellent in-person oral arguments are largely the same as those needed to deliver excellent online oral arguments. And appreciate that, in delivering an online oral argument, you are learning a new skill that may prove valuable in the future.