By Heidi K. Brown
As oral arguments approach, many 1Ls experience anxiety toward this “rite-of-passage.” For introverted students or others who prefer thinking and writing before speaking, the pressure for spontaneous verbal exchange is daunting. Some students assume that reticence toward this assignment indicates they are not cut out for the law. Not true! Quiet or anxious law students can become powerful advocates.
Three keys to navigating the oral argument with minimum trepidation are: (1) understanding the real roots of the anxiety; (2) being your authentic self rather “faking it till you make it”; and (3) adopting new mental and physical techniques to control negative thinking and channel excess energy.
Often, hesitant public speakers are pressed, “just do it!” But such catchy slogans are ineffective for the long-term. Rather, we first must consider the original sources of our anxiety. The oral argument likely is not the true culprit; it is fear of judgment reprised from earlier life experiences when criticism caused pain. Can you recollect past experiences that triggered similar fears (Athletic performances? Theater productions? Science fairs? Spelling bees?). What were the mental messages you absorbed then that replay in your mind now? Realize that those past messages are irrelevant today. You researched and analyzed the issues and law, and wrote a strong brief. You know the material. Your new message is: “I got this!”
Next, instead of “faking” an outspoken lawyer persona, be yourself. It’s okay to be a quiet, mild-mannered, or introverted lawyer. Acknowledge your gifts: did you write a beautiful theme sentence in your brief, or brainstorm a creative analogy? Do people compliment your calm voice or demeanor? Use your assets.
Finally, accept that anxiety will not disappear entirely but can lessen through mental and physical routines. For mental strength: pre-check the argument location and logistics: podium, microphone, etc.; prepare three substantive documents—argument outline plus case law and judges’ questions prompt sheets—and rehearse transitioning between them; and anticipate the flare-up of negative mental messages, substituting your new taglines: “My ideas are important.” To productively channel physical energy: adopt a balanced and open podium stance—like an athlete—so blood and oxygen can flow; take slow breaths; make eye contact; and speak in your natural voice to the person furthest away. Feel the rise and eventual fall of the anxiety symptoms.
Remember: the best oral arguments aren’t perfect; they’re real.
Heidi K. Brown is the incoming Director of the Legal Writing Program and Associate Professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School, and is a survivor of extreme public speaking anxiety as a law student and litigator.
Physical techniques adapted from Ivy Naistadt, Speak Without Fear (Harper Collins 2004).