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A Light Heart and a Focused Mind at the Law Firm
Part III—Speak Slowly and Write Short Briefs


Cam Stout

Stout Heart, Inc.

 I. Introduction

Welcome back, Friends. The first two installments of this trilogy are about mental wellness, self-care, and perspective and the power of being nice. In this final piece, we will dig into writing, efficiency, and (yikes!) speaking to an audience without passing out. This is not a tedious treatise on precise Blue Book citations; nor will I exhort you to study the work and style of great orators, such as Winston Churchill or Dr. Martin Luther King. As before, I am just here to give some common-sense advice and to repeat one of my favorite clichés: Progress, not perfection.

 II. Simple Words in Short Sentences.

If I had had more time, I would have written you a short letter. — Blaise Pascal

Good legal writing is no different from (than?) any other kind of writing. Some thoughts:

  • Others (and you) should actually enjoy reading what you write, and a non-lawyer should be able to understand it. Read a well-written book on good writing and work with your firm’s writing center if it has one. My favorite book in this genre (in part because it is not written for lawyers) is The Elements of Style, by Strunk & White.

  • Relax! Perfection and excellence are related but different.

  • Review another piece of writing that the partner with whom you are working has written or approved.

  • If what you are writing will be filed in court, or with an arbitration forum, first check what the applicable rules require. It is good to know about mandatory citation style, font, and page limits ahead of time, rather than learning you’ve violated an annoying little rule when the CM/ECF algorithm gremlins reject your MSJ opposition brief at 11:59 pm.

  • Start the project ASAP so you can manage your time but resist the temptation to just start writing.

  • Create an outline of your main points first. Don’t worry if the first draft (which only you will ever see) needs a lot of work.

  • Shorter is always better. (Capiche, Mueller Team?)

  • Use the simplest words. Cut out as many adjectives and adverbs as you can. No Latin! Avoid string cites and lengthy footnotes. Write short sentences in the active voice.

  • Be mindful of your audience: How much time will the judge, client, partner, or another busy reader be able to spend on your offering?

  • The introduction should be a short, engaging roadmap that includes a brief preview of the conclusion and the relief you are seeking. (It may be the only part of your brief that gets read.)

  • Bribe a more senior lawyer (preferably one who knows nothing about your matter) to read a draft and make suggestions before you give it to the partner.

  • Whatever you do, only refer to opposing counsel and her arguments with respect. Snarky comments have no place in our profession, and will tarnish your credibility and reputation.

 III. Working More Efficiently.

In the interests of efficiency, I only have three points here:

  • Avoid doing busy work (a sign that you are procrastinating) before turning to your more difficult tasks.

  • Work in a group less often. A cohort can be helpful when shared skill and knowledge promote excellence. However, working in a group often morphs into lengthy gossip sessions and even exchanging selfies.

  • If you feel there just aren’t enough hours in the day (and–I hate to say this–sometimes in the night), turn your cellphone off and put it in another room for a bit. (Hypocrisy alert.)

 IV. Speak Slowly and Carry a Big Mic.

Those two words need not freeze the human heart. Here are some simple tips that should help when speaking at conferences, firm events and meetings, as well as in court. Obviously COVID has pushed us off the stage and in front of the computer screen. Thus, the tips with an asterisk (one of these: *) aren’t as applicable right now. However, many of my thoughts are still relevant.

 A. Preparation:

  • Figure out who and how large your audience will be. What is the dress code? (At least from the waist up, but be careful!) I prefer a coat and tie when I present, except in Silicon Valley where I don my Don Ho Hawaiian shirt, blue jeans, and flip-flops.

  • Strike a reasonable balance between winging it and over-rehearsing. Don’t worry that you may forget to say some of the things you planned on saying. You’ll probably hit at least 85 to 90 percent. Let it flow.

  • Realize that you will look and sound better once you’re off and running than when you rehearse in the mirror or with friends.

  • *If you are speaking at a conference, check out the venue ahead of time. Be sure that there are no A/V glitches. Get a wireless mic or keep the handheld right up to your mouth. (Watch Dave Chappelle.)

  • If you are using a PowerPoint, run through it at least twice ahead of time in slideshow mode.

 B. Designing the Slides:

More folks are abandoning the use of slide decks. With respect, I think they are very helpful if they are designed with a few thoughts in mind:

  • Each slide should have only a few bullets points, and every point should contain as few words as possible.

  • Weave some (G-rated) pictures into your slides.

  • The bullet points on a given slide should be animated so they appear click by click. You don’t want your audience to be distracted by point five while you are still waxing lyrical about point number one.

  • Don’t read lengthy, small text to the audience that is jammed onto slides. It’s distracting and boring! The folks who are watching and hopefully listening know how to read.

  • Before you start going through the slide deck, tell your audience that a link to your slides will be distributed after the talk so they can read the details later.

  • DO NOT USE DENSE CHARTS/TABLES. Only the STEM nerds in the audience will understand them. I didn’t even understand some of the charts that I used (before I swore off them). If these data-heavy distractions pop up on your screen, phones will pop up in the audience. They will anyway, but charts will make it worse.

 C. Now You’re on the Stage. It Is Go Time!

  • First, you should probably raise with your audience the thorny issue of smart phone use. Eighty talks ago, I stopped asking people to turn them off because the bloody contraptions are addictive. Why add guilt to the misery of the addiction? (Hypocrisy warning #2: I confess that I stare at my phone when I am sitting in the back row near the exit and (sort of) watching someone else present.)

  • Try not to read from a script. You will seem less rehearsed if you use a simple outline. This will get easier as you get more experience. My PowerPoint serves as an outline and keeps me relatively organized. I like to pretend that I’m having a one-sided, somewhat informal conversation with the audience.

  • S-p-e-a-k s-l-o-w-l-y and pause…to emphasize a point. Obama is a master of this art. (Practice not filling the pause with an “Um.”) It’s OK to repeat a short sentence or phrase for emphasis, but do it sparingly.

  • Give a short, punchy introduction.

  • List the takeaways and refer back to them periodically as you go.

  • Don’t ask the audience ice-breaking, let’s-all-be-friends questions, such as “How is everyone?! I can’t hear you! Has anyone ever…?”

  • Cut out the “verbal lard” words: Um, uhh, duhh, so, yeah, OK, well, right, Omigod!, totally, pretty, sure, unh-hunh, basically, to be honest, literally, you know, like, look, I guess, kinda, sorta, etc.

  • Have water handy but avoid this rookie mistake (that I made just the other day): Do not imbibe a carbonated drink during your talk. Belching will not endear you to your audience.

  • Do not end sentences with the word Right!? Here’s an example: Attorneys have a number of ethical duties, right?! When a speaker uses this crutch, I start to dread hearing it again. So, stop doing it, right?! (You saw that one coming, right?)

  • There will be times when you lose your train of thought. Make it look like an intended pause. (See, Obama.)

  • When you answer a question, here’s a wild idea: Just answer it. Too many people start an answer with too many lard words.

  • Pop quiz: Which of the following is the best way to answer this question:

  • *Don’t worry about the people in the audience who are looking at you, if at all, with blank faces. Blank faces often mask interested listeners.

  • *Address your talk to and make eye contact with folks in the audience who are clearly engaged. They will be your allies.

  • When all else fails, imagine how much fun it would be to say, “All right, you chowderheads, here’s the mike. Let’s see if you’ve got anything interesting to say!” Of course, you might also have to start imagining yourself looking for a new job.

 

You got this, right!?

For any questions, please feel free to contact the author directly.

In addition to working as an attorney and a mediator, Cam speaks around the country to legal professionals on mental health, addiction, and ethics. He also mentors summer clerks and young associates on how to thrive in the legal profession with a lighter heart and a more focused mind. Cam’s presentations are based in part on his own journey through, and resilient recovery from, a major depressive episode in 2013, and his eight years of sobriety. Cam’s mental wellness work is supported by Stout Heart, Inc., a non-profit 501c3 corporation.

For more information about Stout Heart, Inc., visit http://www.stoutheart.org

2020 ©/TM Stout Heart, Inc. and Cameron G. Stout. All rights reserved.

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