What College Debate Taught Me About Lawyering

Every weekend in college, instead of partying or studying, I would pack my sleeping bag and a suit and head off to a  debate tournament somewhere on the east coast. When I entered practice, about ten years after my college debate career ended, I never imagined that some of the ol’ debate lessons and skills would transfer. Surprisingly, however, as a new lawyer, I find myself repeatedly relying on lessons learned back in the day. So what did I learn?

First impressions matter

My college debate team impressed this point upon every freshman debater. When you walk into a debate round, the judge and the other (2-person) team may already be in the room. Even if you’re an unknown freshman and the opposing team is composed of Princeton’s most accomplished senior debaters, you want to smile with confidence, introduce yourself to the opposing team and the judge (firm handshake!), and engage in friendly small talk. Before you start to argue, you have an opportunity to impress the judge with your professionalism, convey that you’re not scared of the more experienced folks, and maybe even meet a new friend across the aisle.

As a junior attorney, this rule still applies. In every negotiation or encounter with a more experienced opposing counsel I recall my debate training and start with a firm handshake and a confident smile.

Don’t pretend more than you know

Admitting you don’t know something is fine, but you can look like a real idiot when you pretend to know something you don’t. My freshman year in college, I was feeling pretty good about myself and getting props from the more senior folks on the debate circuit.  My feelings of awesomeness peaked when the Columbia debate team turned to me for advice before a round. “Hey Sybil,” one of the guys said, “Do you know what year Dred Scott happened?”  I did not say “I have no idea.”  Instead, I revealed complete and utter ignorance because I said, “you mean Dread Scott the Pirate?” When they said “no, Dred Scott the slave,” I compounded the problem by covering, “ohhh, the other Dred Scott.”  I, of course, was thinking of the famed Dread Pirate Roberts, but this excuse does not make me look any sharper.

As a junior attorney there are lots of potential Dred Scott moments lurking. There is no shame in a simple “I don’t know, but I will find out.” Better than the Dred-ed alternative.

It’s hard to convince people of anything if you’re boring

One of the first rules of winning a debate round is that the judge needs to be listening to your arguments. You cannot win if the judge is staring out the window or looking at notes for the next case. For the most part, debate judges were college students and debate rounds took place on Saturday mornings when judges could be hung over, tired, or simply distracted with their own issues. To keep the judge engaged, you wanted to convey energy, passion, and humor, if possible. Long or excessively complicated explanations would also result in judges’ eyes glazing over.

While legal judges have a lot more patience than college students, that doesn’t mean that any audience likes to be bored (or has the time to dig into a complicated argument).  Debate rules remain helpful: you want to convey energy, passion, and humor, if possible. Whether I’m watching a CLE or an oral argument, I am always appreciative (and attentive) when the speaker starts from this baseline. I aspire to do the same.

I don’t think college debate is special. I have a hunch that many of us learned lawyering lessons pursuing various extra-curricular passions. Among my colleagues, one lawyer credits years of dance for teaching her how to receive and incorporate constructive criticism. Another attorney learned to handle the pressures of being a part of a team through her experience as a Gopher hockey player. Our profession is filled with interesting, smart people who have honed their various skills through multiple routes. Taking the time to talk with our colleagues about their early life lessons can offer insight into their practice and their passions. And we can truthfully tell our children that trumpet lessons and chess club will impact their lives in ways they never imagined.


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