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Skills Assessment 4 – Advocacy

Skills Assessment 4 – Advocacy

The advocacy assessment is a test of your public speaking skills and of your understanding of what is required when in a courtroom. Although set in a legal context, it is your knowledge of the objective and process of the hearing that is being assessed, rather than law itself. My assessment was in criminal litigation, so I will say now that this piece will lean towards criminal. It may be that you have a hearing in civil, but the basic advice remains the same.

The assessment will be a simple hearing that doesn’t involve arguing the law, but about having a handle on the facts of the case; as mentioned above, they are not assessing your legal understanding. You will have a prepared speech pleading your case, and may have to listen to a fellow student’s counter-argument for the prosecution or defence, and you will be asked questions by the judge. You might be filmed to aid assessment.

The types of hearing used for the assessment are ones where persuasive argument is used to obtain a particular outcome. In a bail hearing, for example, you are persuading the judge or magistrate to either release the accused on bail or keep him in custody. In a sentencing hearing you are trying to persuade the judge of the type of sentence the convicted should receive. In either case, you will have been taught what factors are considered when making the decision. You will have also been taught how the hearings proceed and the applicable court etiquette – don’t forget this!

A successful advocacy assessment is about two things: preparation and confident speaking.

Many people are worried about public speaking. Advocacy is different to standing up in front of a group of people to present, mainly because there will only be a few people in the room with you. The main reason is that you can prepare what you have to say inside out. In my opinion, if you understand the reason for the hearing and know your case, even if you forget what you planned to say, you should be able to ad-lib enough to get you through. A successful advocacy assessment is about two things: preparation and confident speaking. I have a few suggestions that should help you with both.

Preparation

You will get a scenario before your assessment, which will set the scene for your hearing. This is the key to your preparation; understanding the facts inside out and applying them to the decision making factors in advance will help you structure your speech, and understand why you are asked particular questions. In particular, you should consider the following points.

  • Set out the facts of the case in a pros and cons table. For example, if no damage was caused, the crime was victimless, the accused has a steady full time job, the accused has previous history of similar crimes, etc.
  • Find out the sentencing guidelines for the particular crime involved; these often list aggravating and mitigating factors for sentencing.
  • Anticipate what your opposition will argue and try to counter your speech. Twist their arguments into a positive for you, or cut them off by asserting your point of view more strongly.
  • Think about what questions might be asked and how you might answer them
  • List the points you wish to make and learn them. I would not advise scripting your speech, as this can lead to problems if you miss your place, have a blank moment, or the opposition don’t do as expected. Learning the points in list form will allow you some flexibility.
  • Think about the language you are using – some words will give a positive spin or infer a certain way of thinking, for example describing ‘criminal damage’ as  ‘extensive’ or ‘highly destructive’ is more suggestive than ‘a lot’ or ‘very damaged’, even though they mean the same thing.
  • Think about your tone. Giving a statement with a sarcastic tone infers it shouldn’t be taken seriously, or saying something that sounds a little exaggerated with a serious tone gives it more weight.
  • Practise your speech to yourself in the mirror. This will not only help you learn it, but also help you pick up anything in your presenting style you could improve.

Presentation skills

There are lots of little tips for positive public speaking that will help improve your advocacy. Take some time to practice them, so that they come naturally.

  • Maintain good eye contact but don’t stare. It is ok to look down at notes, or to take a sip of water. Sometimes this can emphasise a point you wish to make.
  • Speak with a good rhythm, not too fast and not too slow – think of the Queen’s speech at Christmas. A really good advocate can use their rhythm to make a point stand out.
  • Don’t worry if you have a blank, take a deep breath and a sip of water to give yourself time to think.
  • Find out what your nervous twitch is and try to coach yourself to stop (mine is pen clicking and over the top hand waving). Don’t worry if you catch yourself doing it though!
  • Use professional language. You are addressing a judge who deserves your respect.
  • Dress well. It will give a good impression, but suits also have a strange way of giving you confidence when you wear them!
  • Don’t over egg it – hamming up your performance will put the judge’s back up and making it sound like you aren’t taking it seriously. No ‘You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!’ moments please!
  • If you are asked a question by the judge, answer it to the best of your knowledge. If the answer is not part of the instructions say ‘I do not have instructions in that regard’. You shouldn’t mislead the judge by making material up (professional conduct rules apply here).

Several of my friends really begrudged the advocacy assessment; they didn’t want to be litigators and felt it was a waste of time. I disagree with this. Although non-litigators may not be standing up in court, all lawyers need good public speaking skills. Be it to persuade your client to follow your advice, to negotiate a deal or to make a presentation to your team, the skills used in advocacy will help you during your training contract.

Doing well in the assessment is nothing to do with confidence – it is about being comfortable. The cocky, ‘already knows how to do this’, ‘going to breeze it’ lawyer will often come unstuck when they realise they haven’t done the preparation that they should. The quiet ones really should be watched, they often make good advocates. And remember, as this is a skill you only need to be satisfactory, there are no grades here!

Next week I will be looking at sales of part in Property Law and Practice.

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