Advocacy is the skill of persuading other people to agree with your point of view.
If you want to be a great lawyer, you need to become a skilled advocate. Not only is advocacy important if you find yourself stood in court, but it is also crucial to be able to communicate and explain your ideas to clients and other professionals outside of court.
Here are some key tips on how to hone your advocacy skills so that you’re ready to have a go yourself, or to improve the abilities you already have.
There are many different aspects to being a good advocate, from preparation to delivery. This article will focus on the ways a student at school, college or university can practise and improve their advocacy, in order to be ready for the next stage of legal education or professional practise.
There are four main things you’ll need to know in order to hone your skills. These are:
1) Finding ways to practise
3) Writing the speech
1) Finding ways to practise
The first step to becoming an advocate is finding opportunities to practise the skills you need. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways you can do this.
In order to practise advocacy, you’ll need an audience, something to argue about, and preferably an opponent.
Mooting: The best place to find all three of these things is in a ‘mooting’ competition. A moot is an imaginary court case, involving invented facts, and usually on a point of law that hasn’t yet been established by the courts.
For a moot, you’ll have to read the case documents, get to know (and possibly research) the law on the matter, and prepare and deliver a speech in front of a moot judge.
There are plenty of moots open to students at different stages of education. Plenty of them are run by law firms or barristers’ chambers, so the judges will almost certainly be qualified lawyers or even judges. If you can’t find a moot to enter, you could always organise one yourself and ask your Law tutor to write the problem for you.
Debating: If you can’t find a moot near you or don’t want to wait for applications to open, debating is a good substitute. Most schools and universities have debating societies, in which you can practise speaking in front of other people, trying to convince others and thinking on your feet. Often the topics discussed involve some element of law or politics too, so debating is very similar to mooting.
Alternatives: If you aren’t able to try out mooting or debating for any reason, don’t worry! You can find other ways to practise the skills you need.
Before I knew I wanted to study Law, I wasn’t sure whether I’d be any good at public speaking at all. At school, I knew I’d be too nervous to join the debating society, so I took it one step at a time and started with recital competitions. All we had to do was read a text in front of an audience, but it was a great opportunity to practise projecting my voice and not getting nervous.
In the same way, you can practise each of the skills required in court one at a time. Try public speaking, work on talking audibly and concisely in everyday conversation, test the clarity of your written arguments when writing essays, or speak in front of the mirror and watch your body language. All of this is useful so there’s no reason not to practise.
2) Preparation for the speech
Once you’ve found somewhere to practise, the first stage of delivering any speech is to prepare for it.
For a moot, you’ll need to read the case through a lot of times. Go through it once to work out what it’s all about, without taking notes. Then a second time, making notes in the margins and underlining important things. Keep in mind the point of law that is being disputed. What side are you representing? What do you need to prove to win? Look at the case law you’ve been given (if any)- how is it similar to your case? How is it different? Make sure you are able to distinguish cases that aren’t favourable to your argument, and that you can use helpful cases to prove your point.
If you’re debating rather than mooting, you probably won’t have as much time to prepare. Often there will only be ten minutes to prepare your arguments, but the thought process is much the same. You need to understand the question being asked, know what side you are representing (surprisingly easy to forget sometimes) and write down three things you need to prove to win the argument. Then come up with the things your opponent might say, and work out how you will prove that they are either wrong or irrelevant.
3) Writing the speech
This applies to mooting more than debating, but it’s definitely an important skill for a lawyer to practise. No matter how good the delivery, you will never win (or score more than half marks in a competition) unless what you say makes sense.
A speech should have a good structure, so it’s easy to follow. If the judge doesn’t understand you, they can’t agree with you. A confusing speech will also be boring to listen to. For this reason you should start your speech, after the formalities, by ‘signposting’ the things you are going to say. Tell the judge what you will be arguing, for instance:
“My Lord, the claimant wishes to make three submissions on the matter of this appeal, namely-
- That she was a visitor rather than a trespasser;
- That the defendant did not do enough to discharge his duty of care to protect the claimant in any event, and;
That there was no contributory negligence on the part of the claimant.” .
Make as few submissions as you possibly can, and make sure they follow a logical order. Then all you have to do is go through the submissions, explaining why you are right. Each submission will simply involve stating what your side believes to be correct, slowly and simply explaining why this is true, and then moving on.
A nifty trick to win more points in a moot is to come up with two ways of reaching the same result and to ask the judge which they’d prefer to hear. You probably won’t have time to discuss both, but it makes you look like you really know your stuff. It also means you can change tack if they don’t like one of your arguments.
Once you’ve been through all your submissions, the end of the speech will be just like the beginning. Tell the judge what you’ve submitted to the court, and then tell them why this proves that the case must be resolved in your favour. If everything appears simple and logical, they can’t help but agree with you.
The final stage of the process is effectively delivering the speech you’ve prepared. Whether debating, mooting or public speaking, this is crucial to your success.
The first thing to get right is dealing with nervousness. Everyone gets nervous speaking in front of an audience or a judge for the first time. You’ll have to do this a lot of times before you stop getting nervous about it, so the best thing to do is to find ways of coping with the stress in the meantime. Every person deals with stress in different ways, but one thing I guarantee will work is learning your speech the best you possibly can. It isn’t as hard as you’d think (actors do it all the time) and it allows you to feel comfortable that you know what you’re going to say before you need to say it. You can almost always bring notes to a moot or debate, so feel free to use these as a prompt too, and you have all the tools you need.
Secondly, you need to be careful about your body language. Most people will feel more persuaded by someone who is planted firmly on the ground, stood up straight and making eye contact. Also, make sure to keep your hands behind your back. Waving your hands around is very distracting, so only do it to emphasise your strongest points.
Thirdly, think about how you are speaking. Talk loudly (lowering your voice helps make it resonant) and clearly, and vary the pitch to make it interesting.
Each of these elements is very important for delivering a speech convincingly. Again I recommend learning it as much as you can so that the speech flows nicely and you can concentrate on the way you sound.
Once you’ve practised these skills, you’re all set! Find an opportunity to speak in front of others, and then focus on the three skills you need to be a good speaker: preparation, the skill of writing a good speech, and the skill of delivering it well.
Alex is an undergraduate Law student at Somerville College, Oxford. He is particularly interested in taxation law and aspires to practise at the Revenue Bar. In his spare time he likes to keep fit and enjoys going to the gym.