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Lessons from Competitive Debate

November 29, 2018
Minnesota Lawyer - Partner Content
Author: Ryan M. Lawrence

High school and collegiate competitive debate is strange. At its highest levels, debaters outpace auctioneers as they argue matters such as law, public policy, and philosophy. Much of what is said is prewritten and read straight from the page.

To the casual observer, a debate round would be dizzying and look almost nothing like what one would expect. It is about the furthest thing you can imagine from two political candidates on the debate stage trying to chalk up as many sound bites as possible.

It would seem that an activity that has abandoned persuasive public speaking has little to contribute to the would-be lawyer, or to practicing litigators. Not so. When fanciful rhetoric goes unrewarded and competitors are judged mainly on the merits of their arguments the result is a fantastic training ground for making the types of arguments litigators must make on a daily basis.

Experienced litigators frequently make mistakes that young debaters are taught to avoid. Here are just a few:

1. Inefficiency

Common wisdom is that good writing begins with strong nouns and verbs. Debate is a timed activity, and debaters quickly learn that to succeed they must get the most out of each syllable. Flowery rhetoric just wastes time.
Attorneys have page limits (and often time limits) too. More importantly, the goal of any brief or oral argument is to convince a judge who is deciding the issues on the merits to adopt your client’s position. Yet we tend to junk up our briefs with meaningless introductions and conclusions (“Come now Plaintiffs so and so, by and through their counsel ….”). Introductions and conclusions should be concise and substantive. Legal prose is littered with nominalizations, e.g. “Defendant was in compliance with” as opposed to “Defendant complied.” Sometimes one page or more is dedicated to uncontested and uncontroversial issues like the standard of review.
Of course, succinctness has its limits. But we can all do better to use our briefing space and argument time wisely.

2. Repetition

Debate is structured as a set of alternating speeches, which typically have shorter time limits as the debate progresses. Novices tend to just repeat themselves throughout the debate. Really, the later speeches should be used to respond to what the other side just argued, such that by the end of the debate each argument has been responded to, those responses have been addressed, and so on and so forth. In this way, the judge is not left with just an argument and a response, but instead has the benefit of a back-and-forth that helps reveal which position is better supported. Read more.