What high school debaters could teach lawyers about arguing cases

A great deal of work goes into high school debates. While they tend to be an extracurricular activity that attracts highly motivated and structured individuals with a particular type of personality, these debates also requires an intense amount of preparation, regardless of who is doing the debating. High school debaters need to develop certain skills, such as the ability to read the judge, the ability to turn the opponent’s evidence or arguments to their favor, and the ability to do a substantial amount of research.

These same skills need to be developed by trial lawyers. Many people assume that trial lawyers are successful in court because they possess charisma or chutzpah, or because there is something special about them.

In some important ways, high school debate is different from trial law because cross-examination is not as important in debating. A cross-examination can go on for a long period of time, destroying an opponent’s arguments, as opposed to the very brief window during which it occurs in a high school debate. Unlike trial lawyers, who must prioritize their arguments, debaters often rely on putting forward many arguments of equal weight at once to make sure they don’t leave anything out.

However, in spite of these differences, all trial lawyers can benefit from the development of the skills that are developed by high school debaters. High school debaters learn how to synthesize their evidence to present the most persuasive argument or story that can help push a judge or jury to vote against their own biases about what is right or wrong in favor of the version of the argument or story that is best presented.

Furthermore, debates are never really about catching up an opponent on a logical fallacy or trivial misstatement. Instead, they are often a couple of carefully prepared and rehearsed speeches. High school debaters have to think through their points ahead of time and may be simply reciting well-rehearsed arguments, rather than thinking off the cuff. Most of what high school debaters say in debate has already been said before and is being stated because they’ve done enough preparation to know all of the different ways the debate could go and are ready to pick rehearsed lines when the moment comes.

Similarly, trial lawyers should not expect to be spontaneous or play a trial by ear. Unlike the lead character in an episode of Perry Mason, trial lawyers must know ahead of time all of the different ways a direct or cross-examination could turn out, and how to use those variations to benefit their case. They may hope to surprise the other side with their approach, but they need to do a lot of preparation to avoid being surprised or losing control of the argument or narrative.

A trial lawyer has the job of convincing a judge or jury of his or her version of events and describing both the facts and the law so that they can understand why they should vote for the trial lawyer’s side. Like high school debaters, they must prepare intensely to make their performance seem effortless before a jury.

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