How to prepare for your first graded oral argument

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First, come research projects, then memos, and finally you’ll reach the oral argument stage of your law school career. For most, this is a stressful time. It is especially so for those who get anxious about speaking in front of others.

Even if you have a lot of public speaking experience, it’s not uncommon to be nervous. However, you can combat those nerves by taking the time to prepare. Preparation is the single most important component of a great oral argument. Here are some tips to help you gear up for your first graded argument.

Handle the nerves

Even experienced attorneys with decades of experience admit they may feel their heart racing before an oral argument. The “good part” of nerves is that they keep you on your toes. The “bad part” is that they may impact your performance if not managed.

Find a coping mechanism that you can channel to help you quiet your nerves and relax your mind. For some, this will mean using meditation such as silently repeating a mantra. For others, it will be a visualization technique that produces a picture in the mind of how the performance will go and its ultimate success. Others will wear a favorite outfit that helps boost their confidence or have something in their hand to fidget with. Whatever your coping mechanism, find what works best for you to help keep you focused and calm.

Exude confidence

This may be easier said than done but remember that no one is perfect. However, if you deliver your arguments with poise and confidence, it can make a great deal of difference. Channel what you know, stay focused, listen carefully to the questions presented, and give yourself time to think before you answer.

Make a list of questions

Often in class, you’ll make a list of questions you might be asked during an oral argument. If you haven’t done this before, this can be a helpful tool. To make your own list, think of three questions you want to be asked, three questions you assume you will be asked and three questions you think may challenge you. You can then use these questions to practice your oral argument and shore up any weaknesses.

It’s often the anticipation of judges’ interruptions with questions that make the oral argument scenario feel very daunting. Look at this as an invitation for dialogue and something you can plan for. The judges will be prepared with counterarguments and weaknesses in both arguments. They will test your ability to take questions and criticism and pick back up where you left off after answering their inquiry. Having written the brief, you will intimately know the facts, the legal issues, the case law and the argument.

Create an outline

While some students write a full script of what they plan to say during their oral argument, an outline can be just as effective and helpful. Rather than create a flowing presentation of the issues, use an outline to prepare short discussions of the major issues, including bullet points to emphasize your most important arguments and counterarguments.

Bullet information you know is a weakness in your case, as the judges are guaranteed to ask about those fissures. Though you’re intimately familiar with the information, the pressure is on during the simulation in front of your classmates (opposing counsel) and judges. You’ll want to clearly state information as bullets just in case you draw a blank. You also know the weaknesses of your party’s position, so be sure to include those as well. This process of outlining will better prepare you for questions that will jump from topic to topic and make it easier to return to your key points after answering.

Map out an organizational flow that works for you

There are many different methods to use during your oral argument to help you stay organized, and they usually involve some folder system. Some recommend multiple folders, others a single folder system with tabbed materials.

Practice with a couple of systems to see what works best for you. Just keep in mind that multiple folders may distract the judges and yourself on simulation day. Try one folder and input the bulleted information from your outline in a font and text size that you can view from standing if it’s on the podium below you. As a general rule, you should be able to reference (if asked) the facts, history and legal resources that impact your case. Having access to this basic information will greatly improve your presentation if needed.

Practice and present your argument

As the old saying goes, practice makes perfect. Take the time to “moot” your case by practicing it in front of other people. Consider working with a classmate who is familiar with all of the facts and can ask some tough questions. You might also consider working with your opponent or someone in your class who has their position on the issue. Just note that not all schools allow this type of practice, so be sure to check before doing so.

If you are unable to moot your case with a fellow student or friend, consider recording your argument and reviewing it. During your practice period, make note of your posture. If you tend to fidget, this would be the time to adjust as needed for a more poised presentation on simulation day.

Simulation day

This is probably a given, but make sure on simulation day that you arrive on time and dress to impress (think professional business attire). Take a deep breath, stay focused, and don’t let the judge’s comments throw you off-course; keep to the hard-hitting points you’ve so diligently practiced.

Even if you are a naturally quiet and introverted law student, you can be an impactful lawyer. The legal profession needs active listeners, deep thinkers, eloquent writers and creative problem-solvers. You’ve got this!

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