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Face time with your supervisor: A formula for success in oral briefings

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It’s 6:30 p.m. and you are at your office desk, responding intently to emails.  You feel someone’s stare and look up. Your supervising attorney, briefcase in hand, has paused at your door.  “How’s the Martinez matter coming along?”  Before you can answer, you hear the dreaded invitation: “Walk with me.” Reluctantly, you push your chair back, stand, and begin walking with the attorney toward the parking garage.  Her expectations? In the seven-minute walk to her car, you will brief her orally on the results of your research in the Martinez case. Your delivery will be cogent and thorough.  And she will be equipped to update the client on a call during her drive home.

A supervisor’s request for an oral briefing may be prompted by pressure from a client, a looming filing deadline, or a desire to ensure a summer associate’s research is appropriately focused.  Indeed, the ability to converse about the applicable law and its potential impact on a client is an essential skill for practitioners, yet many law schools do little to help students develop fluency in oral communication.[1]  Instead, soon-to-be advocates are primarily exposed to written communication through office memoranda, appellate briefs, and seminar papers.  As a result, many law students go into summer jobs with minimal, if any, experience discussing the law efficiently and competently. And because most are not in the habit of conversing purposefully about the law, when asked to do so, their anxiety runs high.

Unlike written work, which benefits from a writer’s multiple drafts, revisions, and edits, oral communication provides an unforgivingly short window for the speaker to deliver.  The development of oral skills is further hindered by a new generation’s preference for communicating via digital devices.[2]

But hope should spring eternal, because oral fluency can be learned and honed.  Rather than joining society’s lament over the lost art of conversation, law students can be proactive about developing these critical skills. This article offers an introduction to the fundamentals of oral briefings, including the high stakes involved each time a summer associate or clerk orally reports to a supervisor; the time and place oral briefings may be requested; and a four-step blueprint for providing an effective oral report.  The article concludes with pointers for a successful delivery.

The Stakes: Relationships and Reputation

The stakes are high.  The ramifications of oral exchanges with supervising attorneys extend far beyond the specific legal issues discussed on a single occasion.  Each interaction is loaded with the potential for you to develop a rapport with another person that will enhance—or detract from—your credibility and reputation in the workplace.   A summer associate who provides an informed and well-organized oral briefing will be well on her way to earning the trust and confidence of a supervising attorney.  Conversely, a superficial or disorganized briefing may have the opposite effect.  And the effects of relationships cultivated over time permeate into future assignments and, eventually, careers. The upshot?  Consider any time you spend developing oral communication skills a worthwhile investment with high returns.

Timing: Scheduled or On Demand?

A supervising attorney may schedule a time to meet with you for an oral briefing on a case or a project.  In the more likely scenario, however, a supervisor will request a briefing without advance notice or planning.

  • Scheduled. [3] Having a set time offers you advantages; capitalize on them.  Organize relevant materials (e.g., a one-page synopsis, the relevant statute, and the most pertinent cases) and provide them to your supervisor before you meet so she has an opportunity to review your materials at her convenience.  Ideally, your supervising attorney will have received your materials the day before your scheduled briefing.  Signal your openness to her feedback by bringing a pen and memo pad to your meeting.  Conversely, avoid using a laptop, tablet, or phone during your meeting—such devices tend to create barriers and become crutches that hinder your ability to communicate face to face.
  • On Demand. In most cases, a supervising attorney will make an impromptu request for a briefing.   Expect to be approached by the Keurig machine, around the proverbial water cooler, in a hallway, or even in a lengthy elevator ride departing from the lobby of your office building.[4]   Knowing that unplanned meetings will inevitably occur should motivate you to keep your research organized—both in your head and in your files—as you make progress on a project.

A Four-Step Blueprint for Success

Ideally, an oral briefing includes (1) a short recap of the issue you are researching; (2) a straightforward answer; (3) the authorities that led you to that answer; and (4) strategic recommendations and next steps.  Sound familiar?  The structure of the office memorandum from your first year of law school lives on.

  • Recap of the Issue. Although you may be hyper-focused on the issue you’ve been researching, no one else is.  To the contrary, the professional and personal demands on attorneys are numerous, and your issue might not top anyone’s list.  Ground your audience and prime her for your briefing by offering a one- or two-sentence reminder about the case. “Our client, Ms. Jennings, has been charged with X.  You inquired whether she could successfully assert a claim of self-defense.” “We filed an employment discrimination case on behalf of our client, Mr. Michel.  His employer moved for summary judgment and I have been researching whether genuine issues of material fact preclude summary judgment.”  Such recaps are essential for your audience, even if you provided research materials to the supervising attorney in advance of your meeting.  Regardless of whether the attorney read your materials, the issue might not be fresh in her mind.  And do not feel slighted if no one reads your summary; the process of drafting it always aids your preparation.  Moreover, your supervising attorney may turn to it later for a refresher.
  • Straightforward Answer. As in written materials, lead your oral briefing with a succinct prediction.  Avoid keeping your supervising attorney in suspense.  Similarly, steer clear of evasive or non-committal opinions (e.g., “the law is unclear”), which help no one.  If you are optimistic or cautiously optimistic, say so.  Conversely, if your results aren’t what the client or the partner hoped, tell it like it is.  Do not dilute what you perceive to be “bad” news.  Have confidence that an informed and candid prediction will enable the stakeholders to consider viable solutions for the client.  And resist the urge to apologize or take the blame for your answer.  The state of the law is not your fault.
  • Research Summary.[5] Although you may have acquired encyclopedic knowledge about a subject, your task is to give your supervising attorney a succinct overview of the relevant results. When preparing a summary, be mindful of the hierarchy of your authorities. Does a statute govern? Are certain provisions of the statute not at issue or easily addressed?  Does the outcome hinge on the interpretation of a particular element, factor, or legal phrase?  Have courts in your jurisdiction addressed this issue, or a similar one? If not, what do other jurisdictions say on the subject?  In your summary, be sure to raise your adversary’s best arguments and show how they can be refuted.  Rookies may be tempted to conceal research that does not support a favorable outcome for the client.[6]   Don’t.
  • Strategic Recommendation and Next Steps. Above all, lawyers are problem solvers, so conclude your briefing by offering possible solutions.  Identify the course of action you recommend, consistent with your research results.  If time allows, briefly advise the supervising attorney of alternative paths that you considered and scrapped, and the reasons why.  End with clear next steps.  If you are nearing the end of the project, you might offer the following: “I will send you a summary/memo/email along with the statute and the key cases by tomorrow afternoon.”  If the supervisor raises new angles or suggests that you are on the wrong track, your offer may be “I’ll research the new issue you raised and include that analysis in the draft I’ll send you by Friday.”[7]

The Delivery

  • Be Brief. “If I’d had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”[8]  The same is true of oral briefings.  Being direct and concise is no easy task.   Although your supervising attorney may decide to turn a quick report into an hour-long discussion, start with the premise that she wants a five-minute summary.  If you are prone to rambling, train yourself to get to the point quickly.  Make a habit of practicing your report out loud as you leave the office to grab a bite for lunch or head to the metro at the end of the day.  Use your smart phone to record yourself and then listen to yourself critically (and forgivingly).  Over time, your delivery will improve.
  • Listen and Be Present. A recent study concludes that employers expect lawyers to be skilled at listening before they enter the workforce.[9]  Indeed, to communicate your answers and recommendations effectively, you must be able to listen and be present. Listening includes paying attention to both verbal and non-verbal messages that your supervising attorney is transmitting; it further requires that you be aware of the messages your own body language communicates to your audience.[10]

Let’s start with your supervisor.  Pay close attention to her questions and comments.  Nod when you understand the concerns she articulates, and respond straightforwardly when you have an answer.  Treat the exchange as a fluid conversation.  Take notes on your supervisor’s observations so you can refer back to them for any follow up tasks.  Also be attuned to your supervisor’s non-verbal messages—they provide myriad clues that will inform your delivery and enhance your communication.  Observe her facial expressions—a face can transmit agreement, confusion, or frustration.  If your supervisor appears perplexed, but doesn’t say so, ask, “Is my analysis clear?” You can’t know for certain what she is thinking, but with attentive practice you will get better at processing clues in real time and adjusting your content and tone accordingly.[11]

Next, consider your own body language: it should signal that you are engaged in the conversation. [12]  Steer clear of crossed arms, which usually convey a reluctance to engage.  Slouching or leaning back into a chair may transmit disinterest, a lack of preparation, a lack of self-confidence, or a cavalier attitude to the task at hand.  Similarly, looking down or away during a conversation bespeaks distraction.[13]  Instead, lean forward and make frequent eye contact with your supervising attorney. Leave no doubt that you are present.[14]

Conclusion

Developing the necessary skills to provide effective oral briefings is a key dimension to your professional development.[15]  With practice and patience, you can become adept at explaining complex problems and offering solutions with clarity and confidence in face-to-face conversations with supervising attorneys.  In time, you may even find the experience enjoyable. And you will reap the benefits of your oral fluency throughout your legal career.

[1] See, e.g., Susan L. DeJarnatt, Law Talk: Speaking, Writing, and Entering the Discourse of Law, 40 Duq. L. Rev. 489, 507 (2002) (noting that law school seldom reflects the reality that a lawyer’s life “consists of talking about written analysis, in conferences with supervisors, in meetings with clients, in settlement and mediation conferences, [and] in oral argument”); R. Michael Cassidy, Beyond Practical Skills: Nine Steps for Improving Legal Education Now, 53 B.C. L. Rev 1515, 1519 (2012) (observing that law schools primarily teach and evaluate written, not oral, expression, yet a lawyer’s success “depends on effective oral expression”).

[2] One author cautions that “technology is implicated in an assault on empathy,” as individuals today prefer electronic messages over face-to-face conversation, which is “the most human—and humanizing thing we do.” Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age 3-4 (2015).

[3] Be mindful that schedules fluctuate and emergencies arise.   When you arrive for your meeting, check in with your supervising attorney.  If you are meeting in an office or conference room, knock on the door, make eye contact, and inquire, “We were scheduled to meet to discuss the Martinez case—is this still a good time for you?”

[4] For a description of an elevator pitch that wasn’t, see Amy Cuddy, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges 14-15 (2015).

[5] In most cases, you should avoid discussing your research process, as in “I started with secondary sources, including a law review article and Florida Jurisprudence, and then I ran a search using the terms “invitee,” “licensee,” and “premises liability” in the Restatements of Torts and in all Florida case law.”  Unless your supervisor expresses an interest in this information, it is neither helpful nor necessary.

[6] See Suzanne E. Rowe, Legal Research, Legal Writing, and Legal Analysis: Putting Law School Into Practice, 29 Stetson L. Rev. 1193, 1198 (2000).

[7] Always be receptive to and grateful for guidance and feedback; your attitude will help you build positive working relationships.  Supervising attorneys may remember a junior associate’s response to feedback long after a case is over.

[8] This quote has been variously attributed to Mark Twain, Blaise Pascal, and Winston Churchill, among others.

[9] See Inst. for the Advancement of the Am. Legal Sys., Foundations for Practice: The Whole Lawyer and the Character Quotient, 13 (2016) (noting that out of 24,000 lawyers surveyed, 91.5 % considered a lawyer’s ability to “listen attentively and respectfully” as a necessary skill in the short term).

[10] See, e.g., Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence 96 (1995) (observing that “the key to intuiting another’s feelings is in the ability to read nonverbal channels,” including “tone of voice, gesture, [and] facial expression”); David A. Binder et al., Lawyers as Counselors 51 (2012) (classifying non-verbal cues as either (i) auditory, such as “voice intonation, pitch, rate of speed, and pauses in conversation” or (ii) visual, such as “posture[,] gestures[,] facial expressions [and] body movements,” among others).

[11] See, e.g., Richard M. Rawdon, Jr., Listening: The Art of Advocacy 36 Trial 99, 99 (2000) (noting that, in the context of pretrial and trial work, listening is not only “an attempt to hear,” but also “processing feedback”); E. Scott Fruehwald, Developing Law Students’ Professional Identities, 37 Univ. of La Verne L. Rev. 1, 30 (2015) (observing that “the ability to understand body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions” helps individuals grasp what others think and feel).

[12] Your body language also sends you messages, which can impact your delivery.  See Amy Cuddy, Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are (June 2012).

[13] These are U.S.-centric interpretations of body language.  Whenever possible, be aware of your audience’s cultural background.  In some cultures, for example, looking a superior in the eye may be considered disrespectful.  For guidance on building cross-cultural awareness, see generally Susan Bryant, The Five Habits: Building Cross-Cultural Competence in Lawyers, 8 Clinical L. Rev. 33 (2001).

[14] Incidentally, before the meeting, silence any gadgets on your person.

[15] For guidance from legal educators, see generally Richard K. Neumann, Jr. & Kristen Konrad Tiscione, Legal Reasoning and Legal Writing 241-44 (2013) (discussing how to deliver effective oral research reports).

Rosario Lozada Schrier Rosario Lozada Schrier is Associate Professor of Legal Skills at Florida International University College of Law. She has had a diverse legal career, serving as a federal judicial law clerk, a Skadden Public Interest Law Fellow, and university in-house counsel. Contact her at rschrier@fiu.edu.