UVA Law's Public Speaking Courses Offer More than Just Courtroom Prep

Public Speaking

University of Virginia law professor Molly Bishop Shadel (right) leads students in the course Oral Presentations In and Out of the Courtroom, which is one of the Law School's numerous public speaking offerings.

November 28, 2012

When third-year law student Caroline Ryon practiced her speech arguing for continued federal funding of PBS during a recent public speaking class, there was one thing she didn't anticipate: Her reference to the "Sesame Street" character Big Bird had gone from topical to touchy for some audience members, thanks to the first 2012 presidential debate.

"You touched on Mitt Romney, but you ultimately wanted to talk about the good PBS does," Associate Professor Molly Bishop Shadel told her.

With guidance from Shadel and fellow students in the University of Virginia School of Law course Oral Presentations In and Out of the Courtroom, Ryon learned from the misstep and revised her approach.

"I really appreciated both Professor Shadel's and my classmates' feedback regarding that issue being potentially polarizing," Ryon said. "I feel like I'm getting tools to improve not only how I make presentations, but the substance of my presentations."

The Oral Presentations course is one of a number of classes at UVA Law that teach students how to become better public speakers in any situation, a skill that every lawyer would benefit from learning, Shadel said.

"Most law schools offer a trial practice class or a moot court competition," Shadel said. "We have devised an entire program of classes to strengthen your skills of verbal persuasion. We're not just going to teach you about the rules of cross examination and stop there. Our classes incorporate the teachings of classical rhetoric, performing arts techniques, psychology and literature."

Public speaking courses at the University of Virginia School of Law teach students how to become effective speakers in any situation, a skill that every lawyer would benefit from learning, say students and oral advocacy professor Molly Shadel.

Shadel, who directed theater professionally in New York before attending law school and later worked for the Justice Department's Office of Intelligence Policy and Review, pointed out that not all lawyers become litigators, but all lawyers are called upon to persuade, and in a variety of settings.

"Being able to articulate your ideas aloud, confidently and clearly — that's how you attract clients, that's how you work effectively with colleagues, that's how you get the job in the first place," she said.

The Law School's courses in public speaking, in addition to Oral Presentations, include Advanced Verbal Persuasion, Hallmarks of Distinguished Advocacy and a seminar on rhetoric. The classes teach students such fundamentals as choosing and structuring the best argument, communicating through body language and tone of voice, managing the stress of public presentations, using psychology to connect with an audience and thinking on your feet. Apart from mastering the techniques the courses teach, students learn from copious amounts of practice and constructive feedback.

Shadel and Professor Bob Sayler are the two faculty members largely responsible for shaping the courses. They also co-authored the 2011 book "Tongue-Tied in America: Reviving the Art of Verbal Persuasion," as well as a series of blog posts on the rhetoric of the presidential campaign. (More) Hallmarks of Distinguished Advocacy, taught this fall by Shadel and visiting professor Timothy C. MacDonnell, combines courtroom exercises with other types of advocacy practice. In one recent class, the students took turns performing the roles of attorney and witness. Second-year student Ken Stout, who cross-examined a witness, said the experience was particularly useful because he's interested in a career as a litigator.

"This [exercise] was our opportunity to think through the kinds of open-ended questions we would ask a witness on cross-examination and anticipate the answers, so that we could create a narrative with the witnesses' testimony," Stout said.

Stout said the role-playing helped him understand aspects of his public speaking performance that "you really don't see until you have a video of yourself and get comments from an expert third party."

Second-year law student Yakov Medinets took the course simply to become a better speaker and a more effective legal advocate. Though he participated in a debating club as an undergraduate, Medinets said it wasn't until taking Virginia Law's speaking courses that he felt more comfortable and effective communicating in front of an audience. In the future, he said, he'll be able to persuade verbally in ways that a legal document cannot.

"The human aspect of advocacy comes through oral advocacy," Medinets said. "I want to nail that down and make it a part of me."

Associate Professor Molly Shadel of the University of Virginia School of Law offers tips for public speaking.

Ben Cooper, a 2011 graduate of the Law School who took courses in public speaking here, said the skills he learned were essential to his work as an associate at Hogan Lovells in Washington, D.C.

"Oral communication is essential to our profession," he said. "I believe the adage that we should 'think like lawyers, but speak like humans.' I think Hogan Lovells has trusted me to recruit for the firm, for example, because I still speak like a human, using plain words and empathy. UVA's public speaking classes helped me develop and solidify this approach."

Cooper will co-instruct the short course Persuasion during the January Term at the Law School. He joins MacDonnell, a 2007 LL.M. graduate of the Law School who now teaches at Washington and Lee University School of Law, as among the alumni who have returned to UVA to give back to the program through teaching.

Shadel said she is never surprised by the strides her students make each semester.

"People walk in the door truly terrified, and by Week 13, they're all stunning," Shadel said. "It's a wonderful thing to watch, and for the students to experience. You gain a great deal of confidence when you know that you can take this thought in your head and be able to articulate it in a way that people can understand." 

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

News Highlights