Conventional wisdom says law school is all about training students to think and act like a "lawyer." However, in a changing world, transitioning from law student to lawyer requires skills that are not easily found in classrooms or case books. These soft skills are not just important for aspiring lawyers—they're essential.
Perhaps the most important of these soft skills is public speaking. No matter where your legal education takes you, a superior set of presentation skills allows you to stand out. Luckily, law school is a great time to recognize the need for these skills and find opportunities to develop them.
Here are three ways the skills you build in law school can help you become a more confident communicator.
1) Balance Preparation and Practice
When preparing a speech or presentation, it's important to avoid the classic "more is better" exam trap. Imagine you're studying for a big exam. In preparation, you spend enormous amounts of time putting together page after page of materials to bring with you on the big day, but then find yourself struggling to use that information on the test. When you get your grade back, you wonder why there doesn't seem to be a clear connection between your level of preparation and the actual outcome.
You may have experienced this disconnect because your preparation strategy didn't focus on building connections between ideas. Presentations often come with the same set of traps. When preparing for a presentation, make sure you spend enough time actually practicing the speech itself. This may seem obvious but too often law students spend so much time doing front-end research that they run out of time to practice putting these ideas together aloud. Your goal from the start should be to achieve an equal balance between research and practice. Achieving this balance will help you build confidence while identifying gaps in your understanding.
2) Create a Cohesive Outline
Too much preparation can be the enemy of an effective presentation, but that doesn't mean preparation isn't important. The key is preparing in the right way. The way you prepare for classes is a perfect example. You probably learned very quickly that preparing for class requires more than just reading a case book. Each case contains far too many complicated details to understand without breaking them down.
Try building a presentation like you would a case outline. Start by identifying the key concept you want to teach or the argument you want to make. Then make decisions about how to break down the most complex ideas. By simplifying these ideas in your presentation outline, you will reinforce them in your own mind and make them easier to explain in the moment.
3) Don't be Afraid to Take a Pause
The idea of having to speak "off the cuff" can be terrifying. That's why few things create more anxiety for law students than the classroom "cold call." You've likely experienced the sinking feeling of being asked to answer a question in front of your peers. This can be especially daunting if you're uncertain of an answer or unsure about what is being asked.
Situations like these don't just happen in classrooms. They happen in offices and conference rooms every day. When asked to answer a question in front of others it's important to recognize that your reaction is as important as any response you can give. Don't be afraid to take a second to collect your thoughts before answering. Use that time to understand the essence of the question and why it is being asked. Even in a few short seconds you can create a roadmap for your answer. By crafting an organized response, you will not only give a more focused answer but also exhibit a calm and controlled demeanor.
Becoming a more confident communicator is a process. Luckily, half the battle is recognizing how the law school experience has given you the tools needed to begin that journey. By recognizing the need for these skills early on in your law school career, you'll be able to jump start your path towards success.
Stanley Polit is a graduate of Penn Law, and has taught public speaking techniques as part of a communication seminar.
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