Legal English Online - Building a successful Law Career: The Ability to speak in Public

Building a successful Law Career - Part 3

Essential skills – The Ability to speak in Public

After the first articles dealing with general matters, I want to begin to look a specific areas of skill and ability that a lawyer will need to be successful in his or her career. The first skill that gets a lawyer noticed is the ability to use words to explain and persuade, so let’s look at some basic rules about improving your public speaking skills.

At some stage in your legal career you will find it necessary to speak in public, it may be a presentation to clients or it may be in a courtroom. Being able to address a courtroom full of people and argue a case, or merely to speak in front of an audience, clients, or shareholders, is a skill that all lawyers should possess. Most of the people that we think of as good public speakers were probably very awkward and shy when they first spoke in public. Their skilful performances are something that they have learned to do and something you can learn also.

The first rule is to know your subject. This means read the case papers, or the subject of presentation, and read, and re-read again, until you know all the main points that you are going to speak about. You must know the law relating to the case as well as the facts. It is the unexpected question to which you do not know the answer, because you didn't prepare, that will put you on the defensive – making you look nervous and stammering. The client will never forgive you, and will never recommend you, if you show you did not prepare properly before walking into the courtroom. Knowing the subject really thoroughly gives you a tremendous feeling of confidence, and it is this confidence that will enable you to stop worrying about the audience and start showing your real personality.

The second rule is almost as simple as the first and this is to practice. Practice in front of the mirror, in front of friends, in front of your relatives. The more you practice the easier it will become. If you are shy about speaking to a large number of people then just imagine you are speaking to one person in the audience. Choose one person in the audience and, even though you will look around the room – to take in all the other people that are there – pretend you are speaking to just that one person. It seems to take away the nervousness and you will feel more natural, so your words flow as if you were having an ordinary conversation with that one person.

In order to help you become more relaxed, try and visit the room where you are going to speak before the hearing, or the event. Walk around the room, perhaps moving one or two chairs. Become familiar with the room so that you feel comfortable to be there. The next time you walk into the room it will not seem a strange and intimidating place. It will be somewhere you have been before and where you feel comfortable. This will help your confidence and it is confidence that makes a great public speaker.

When you speak in a courtroom, you will usually be the only person speaking at that instant. In court, one lawyer speaks and then another lawyer replies and so on. For this reason, because you have all the time in the world to explain your case, do not be afraid to speak slowly. This will have two advantages:
1. It will give you time to think ahead about what you are going to say in the next sentence or part of your presentation.
2. It will give each word greater power and will force the audience to listen to you. Listen to speeches of Winston Churchill. He was a powerful orator and you will notice that his words are slow and deliberate, but they are mesmerising and you feel compelled to listen to what he is saying.

Remember that the people listening to you, want you to speak well. They want you to say something in an interesting manner to keep their attention. They all want you to succeed in keeping them interested. They are on your side even if they are the opponents in the same court case. Never apologise for being nervous. The audience will not be interested in the apology, and they may not have even noticed that you were nervous to begin with. It is much better to cover your nervousness by speaking more loudly. This they will remember, not the nervousness.

Remember also your body language. This is part of the way in which we communicate with each other. Great public speakers use their body language to reinforce their message. Their gestures and facial expressions serve to confirm the truth of what they had just said, even if they know that they are not telling the entire truth. For people who are beginners at public speaking is better not to try and learn sufficient body language gestures to help explain the message but rather to leave this until they have become practised public speakers. It is best for beginners to try and avoid doing anything by way of gestures or facial expressions which distracts people from the words and the message that the speaker wants to give.

Do not waive or flutter your hands. If you see that you have a problem in keeping your hands still, then hold a book! This keeps your hands still. Try to keep your feet planted in the same place during your speech. Do not shuffle from foot to foot. When you stand up, put your left foot down into the position you wish it to stay in, and then do the same with your right foot, as if you had just planted two trees! You will find that it is easier now to stand still whilst you speak to your audience. If you still have a problem, then hold on to the chair or table with one hand – This has the effect of anchoring you in one spot – Now the audience doesn’t have to keep changing their position to see you.

The reason why you are speaking is to convey a message or a piece of information, and it is essential that you concentrate on this message, or piece of information, rather than your own worries and insecurity at how you might sound, or what sort of performance you are giving. A simple rule of giving a message to the audience is the rule of three. It works in sales and in political speeches, and also in legal arguments. First tell the audience what they are about to listen to, e.g. ‘I am going to explain why my client should win this case’. Second, tell the audience your message or the information. Third, tell the audience what it is you have just told them, e.g. ‘So you can see that because of X and Y and Z, which I have just explained, my client's claim should be upheld and he should win this case’.

The last point about appearing in court, or making any public speech, is that the more often you do it, the easier it becomes and the better you become at doing it. If you really want to become an effective court advocate, you must do 3 things. Go to the local courthouse and watch other lawyers speaking there. Notice the difference between the good speakers and the poor ones. Remember the phrases and the style of the good speakers – at some stage you will find a moment when you can use one of the memorable phrases in your case, and you will look as good as they did when you first heard it. Next, take every opportunity to speak in a public setting – whether it is making a speech at a friend’s celebration dinner, or a debating club. The more often you speak in front of an audience, the better you will become. Third, never ever pass up the chance to speak in open court. This is what you want to become great at – How can you do that if you hide when the opportunity occurs?

There are many other tips and little tricks which clever, experienced, confident public speakers use in court, or in meetings. If you practice law, and become confident, you will pick up your own little tricks and phrases. Soon people will start to say that they wish they were as good at speaking in court as you are. When someone else says it then you will feel all your work and practice was worth the effort you made.

Part 1 - Some general basics
Part 2 - Growing  your own professional client base – Networking Events
Part 3 - Essential skills – The Ability to speak in Public
Part 4 - Writing a successful CV
Part 5 - Giving a successful Interview – What to do and what not to do
Part 6 - Letter writing skills
Part 7 - Deciding which area of law to work in
Part 8 - Seven skills that will land you work experience at a law firm
Part 9 - How to move your career into top gear – Winning quick promotions
Part 10 - The Key to moving ahead in your career – Mastering Legal English!