If you’re someone like me who cringes at the thought of public speaking and debating, doing an oral argument for your legal writing class or moot court trials can be intimidating. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be a strong oral advocate! It helps to be skilled at debating and thinking on your feet, but I have found that it’s primarily about thorough preparation and knowing the best arguments for both your side and the opposing side. With good preparation and practice, you can do well in your oral arguments too!
Here are 10 tips I found helpful when preparing for my oral argument:
1. Memorize your introduction
The introduction is the one part of the oral argument that you can control, and even if the judge cuts you off partway through, you at least start off on a good note. In the beginning, you might also feel nervous, and having your introduction down by heart will help you ease into the argument.
2. Know the cases inside and out
I did my oral argument on Zoom and had all the key points of the relevant cases in front of me but did not have time to use them in real time. So don’t rely on your notes to carry you through!
3. Make an outline of your arguments — the key facts, cases, and counterarguments
Having an outline in front of you that you can quickly glance at can help you stay on track and find your place again when things go out of order.
4. Practice your arguments in different orders
Generally, you want to bring up your strongest arguments first, but you never know when a judge might throw a curveball, or another argument will come up, and you have to find your way back. I’ve found that it can throw you off if you only rehearse your arguments in a certain order and then find yourself having to transition between arguments.
5. Be prepared to both answer questions and keep talking
The best way to prepare for oral arguments is to be prepared for anything — you might get asked questions the whole time, or the judge might stay silent, in which case you need to keep making your case. Most likely you will get a combination of both, but you always want to be prepared for judges at both ends of the spectrum!
6. Figure out the opposing side’s strongest arguments and have answers ready for them
In contrast to what you might imagine, the judge is probably not looking to embarrass you or make a fool of you in court; rather, the judge is trying to make the most impartial, law-supported decision on a controversial issue. You can expect judges to ask tough questions in oral argument because they are ultimately trying to get at the truth and make the best decision. Thus, when preparing to make your case, having answers ready for your weakest points is one of the best ways to convince the judge that your strong points outweigh your weak points.
7. Imagine you are advocating for your client — what is most persuasive to a judge?
Since you are likely not advocating for real clients in your legal writing assignment, it can be hard to put yourself in that situation, but imagining that you are advocating for your client can put you in the right mindset to be the best advocate. Treat the process not with the mindset of, oh no, the judge is looking to find holes and break down my argument, but rather, I am here advocating for my client and I want to make sure that the client’s arguments are adequately represented and conveyed.
8. If the judge throws you a curveball question you weren’t expecting, it’s okay to pause for a few moments before answering
When you’re in a more stressful situation under the spotlight, time can seem to pass by much more quickly. For example, when I performed the piano during college, I would tend to rush because time seemed to stand still when I held a note, when in reality it was only a couple of seconds. I also used to think that pausing means you’re struggling to form a good response, which can make you seem less persuasive. However, some people need more time to gather their thoughts and come up with a strong answer, and it’s always better to take a couple more seconds and respond with a more thorough and thoughtful answer than to rush into a less compelling answer.
9. Practice with others
Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it certainly makes you better and much more confident to tackle anything the judge might send your way! Before my oral argument I practiced mock arguments with my legal writing fellow and friends, which was helpful in identifying areas where I needed to work on crafting a stronger response. Even just talking about the issues with a classmate can get you in the mood to be ready to discuss them, which allows you to better recognize and respond to weaknesses in your argument.
10. Keep the conclusion short and sweet
You would usually conclude around when time is up, so you don’t want to go overtime. Recapping your key points or responding to a key concern the judges had is a good way to come back full circle and remind the judges why it would be the best decision for them to agree with your side.
Probably the most important quality you can exude in oral arguments is confidence — you’ve done the preparation, now is the time to shine and tell the judges why your argument makes the most sense and why they should go with your client’s perspective. Happy advocating!
For more advice and words of encouragement:
- Surviving Your First Oral Argument
- Podcast #53: Acing Oral Arguments in Law School
- Public Speaking Tips
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