SLU Writing Corner: Overwrought Orator
by Kelly Mulholland and Laura Schulz, Assistant Professors of Legal Writing, Saint Louis University School of Law, St. Louis
My supervising attorney approached me and asked me to cover an upcoming oral argument on a motion. I said yes, of course, but I am quite nervous. I have never done an oral argument before. Help!
Dear Overwrought Orator,
First, congratulations. This is an exciting opportunity. Second, take a deep breath. You will get through this. Take solace in the fact that even seasoned attorneys get nervous when doing oral arguments. Indeed, many attorneys will tell you that if you are not nervous, you are not challenging yourself enough. Below are some tips to get you going.
Be conversational—but not colloquial. At its heart, an oral argument really is just a conversation with the judge. Keeping this in mind will help keep your mind at ease. Remember, though, that the argument still must retain a formal tone. Always address the judge as “your Honor,” and avoid colloquialisms such as “yeah,” “sure,” or “I think/feel.”
Prepare. At the end of the day, there is no substitute for preparation. The judge will interrupt you to ask questions. Anticipate the questions you will be asked, focusing on the weaknesses of your argument. If there is time, enlist a colleague to ask you questions in a mock oral argument.
But don’t be scripted. One mistake new attorneys make is trying to write out the entire argument, line by line, word by word. When they get a question that throws them off script, they often fumble to find their place again. Know the main points you want to make, but be flexible in how you will communicate them.
Know the litigation documents and law cold. You do not want to be in a position where the judge knows more about the relevant deposition or case law than you do. Be able to speak about the facts and law without having to fumble through documents. On that note, be organized. For example, you will not be able to bring the entire case file with you to argument. Pull out key documents and have them organized in a binder in case you need to consult them. Consider creating a manila file folder to help organize your argument and case law. Place a short outline with bulleted talking points on one inside flap of the folder. Place overlapping index cards for each key case on the other side.
Answer the judge’s questions. Always provide a short, direct answer to the judge’s question before giving a longer explanation. Otherwise, it may seem like you are dodging the judge’s question.
Be confident, and don’t forget to thank the judge at the end. Good luck, and know you will get more comfortable with oral arguments with experience.