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Nervous about your 1L oral argument? Ditch the ‘fake it till you make it’ mantras and just do you

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Oral Argument

So, you recovered from your 1L fall semester, binge-watched Netflix over Winter Break, processed your first semester grades, and returned to school in January somewhat refreshed and ready to tackle a new semester of classes. You eased into your legal writing class, perused the syllabus, and noticed: ORAL ARGUMENT ASSIGNMENT. Wait, what?

If the thought of delivering an oral argument ignited a prickly case of hives or an urge to grab your backpack and run, this blog post is for you. I was an introverted and socially anxious law student. I loved reading, researching, and writing, but the Socratic method of classroom instruction gave me a daily migraine. At the end of my 1L year, I muddled through my oral argument by developing a spontaneous hair twirling tic. I’m also an epic blusher, and hiding behind an oppressive turtleneck and scarf didn’t help.

Somehow I ended up as a litigator in a hard-core construction litigation firm. Daily I thought, if I could just “fake it till I make it,” everything would be fine and someday I would ooze confidence at depositions and court appearances. I tried that strategy—for decades—heeding advice from extroverted and non-anxious mentors to “just face my fears,” “do what scares me,” “imagine the audience in their underwear.” That stuff doesn’t work.

You know what did work? First, understanding the drivers of my anxiety and fear toward performance events in lawyering. Next, untangling the mental and physical components of that anxiety and fear. And then, constructing mental and physical action plans for stepping into interactive scenarios with enhanced self-awareness and mental and physical strength.

You don’t have to fake someone else’s persona

Part of what drives our anxiety and fear toward scenarios like oral arguments is that we feel we have to mirror others’ behavior. We watch extroverted or more confident professors or colleagues debate in class and it seems so effortless. We think we have to fake that confidence. We may have heard messages over the years from well-meaning mentors who told us, “Speak up,” “Step into the fray,” “Be more assertive.”

To be a great impactful lawyer, you don’t need to be anyone besides who you are right now. If you’re a naturally quiet law student—perhaps an introvert who processes energy, information, and stimuli internally, or a shy or socially anxious person who is worried about criticism from others—you also possess incredible assets that our legal profession needs: active listening, deep thinking, thoughtful writing, creative problem-solving, and empathy.

We need quiet thinkers, analysts, writers, and problem-solvers in our profession. Our quiet nature and penchant for solitude help us craft solutions that others overlook. We can capitalize on these assets to prepare substantively for an oral argument:

  1. Methodically reviewing our brief and the other side’s brief (if allowed);
  2. Thoughtfully mapping out an organized argument flow;
  3. Developing a creative “theme” for our party’s position as a home-base; and
  4. Anticipating questions the judges might have about the trickier parts of the legal issues.

View interruptions as invitations to dialogue, rather than critique

For many of us, it’s the anticipation of judges’ interruptions with questions during an oral argument that makes this particular performance scenario feel more daunting than a straightforward presentation. Introverts resist interruptions to our trains of thought, and we avoid interrupting others. But we can plan for this. Having written your brief, you intimately know the facts, the legal issues, the case law, and the arguments. You also know the weaknesses of your party’s position.

The judges inevitably will focus on those fissures in the argument’s foundation. You can substantively prepare by anticipating questions about those weaknesses. Mentally, try to regard the interruptions as mere invitations to dialogue one-on-one, even if the tone feels a little testy. This is not a performance; this is a conversation between individuals.

We can amplify our voices in an authentic manner

Quiet individuals can be incredibly impactful communicators. Have you ever been in a class or a meeting in which someone who has never spoken before suddenly chimes in with a gem of information or a thoughtful perspective, and you sit back and think, “wow!” That’s you. We do not have to be loud, or podium-pounding to be a great orator. To wrangle the nerves and get our points across clearly, we can take a two-pronged mental and physical approach.

The Introverted LawyerTo finally understand my own extreme public speaking anxiety and to help law students dealing with the same issue, I researched and wrote a book called The Introverted Lawyer: A Seven-Step Journey Toward Authentically Empowered Advocacy. The first four steps include:

  1. mental reflection;
  2. physical reflection;
  3. mental action; and
  4. physical action.

In anticipating an event like the oral argument, it helps to mentally reflect on the negative messages we automatically and routinely hear. Personally, I immediately hear messages like, “You’re not as smart as they are…You’re going to turn beet red…Your brain is going to freeze.” Transcribing these messages word-for-word really helps us get down on paper the useless messages we have been listening to for way too long. We can realize that they probably came from a possibly well-meaning past mentor, teacher, coach, buddy, or peer, but they have no business occupying our brain in our new legal persona. It’s time to jettison those messages.

Next, we reflect on what happens to our bodies physically when we anticipate a performance event. I instinctively make myself small; I cross my legs or arms. I hunch. But what I’m doing subconsciously to protect myself is unfortunately blocking my energy, blood, and oxygen flow. When we realize these instinctive physical responses, we can do something about it. We can open back up, unfold, throw our shoulders back, balance, and breathe.

Next comes our mental and physical action plans. In addition to our substantive preparation for the oral argument (a folder with the argument outline, answers to anticipated judges’ questions, case law summaries), we prepare mentally. We know those pesky outdated messages are going to creep in. We need to practice “stop-drop-and-roll”: when the annoying negative mantras appear like uninvited interlopers, we stop. We immediately replace them with what we know now: yes, we are quiet, that’s an asset, we are prepared, we know this stuff, we deserve to have a voice, and we’re going to forge ahead in our authentically amplified manner. We may need to repeat that new message 5, 10, 20 times, but it will work to power us through the event.

Our physical action plan first involves a field trip to the oral argument space, if possible. Get to know the room, what the podium looks like, where you will sit before your argument, where the judges will sit. Breathe in the space. Make it yours. Practice standing at the podium in a balanced Olympic athlete’s stance. Breathe. Send nervous energy into the floor or the podium. Project your eye contact and eventually your voice to the far end of the room. Make that room yours. You own it. Breathe.

On argument day, channel your inner rockstar

In my days as a nervous litigator, I used to think that donning my boring lawyer uniform would make me feel stronger. It didn’t. Now when I have a big important speaking event, I dress professionally of course, but I always wear something that reflects my own personal style even if no one can see it. It’s a reminder that I am me, and I don’t need to conform to everyone else’s expectations.

I’m a huge U2 fan, and sometimes when I feel panicked about a presentation, I “stop, drop, and roll.” I think, “OK, what would Bono do?” He would don his rockstar shades, strut right up to the microphone, and convey his message, fully knowing others will disagree with him. I had a few bracelets made with U2 lyrics written in Gaelic. No one around me can understand them, but I wear them to every performance event and they help me dial down the nerves.

That’s really our goal. Our oral arguments do not need to go perfectly. Perfection is boring. But we can take incremental mental and physical steps to dial down our anxiety levels even just one or two notches. We can stop, breathe, remind ourselves of our new mission, refer to our substantive planning, adopt an athlete’s balanced physical stance, and amplify our authentic voices.

And then we will shine.

Heidi K. Brown Heidi K. Brown is a Brooklyn Law School professor, the author of The Introverted Lawyer, and a former construction litigator. Having struggled with extreme public speaking anxiety and the pressure to force an extroverted persona throughout law school and practice, she finally embraced her introversion as a powerful asset in lawyering.