Attorney Communication & Persuasion

Lawrence & Hormann

At the time of writing this review (August ’05) Jim Lawrence, the co-teacher of this class, is also a part-time law student at UHLC. We were told that he takes no part in the grading of assignments in this class. Jim’s background is in acting and his plan on graduation is to get into the juror consulting business. Sharon Hormann is a family law attorney who has her own practice in Kingswood outside of Houston.

When it comes down to it, the goal of this class is to teach the art of storytelling. Being able to tell a good story is a good skill to possess period, but it’s darn near essential if you ever see yourself standing before a jury as a trial lawyer. This class focuses on techniques set out in the textbook for the class, which I think is called “Attorney Communication & Persuasion Techniques” and was written by a notable Texan trial attorney.

Reading is very light for this class, maybe one 10-15 page chapter each week. There’s no discussion of the reading per se, so you won’t be called on to talk about what you have (or haven’t) read. Instead each class you’ll be expected to give a roughly 5 minute presentation to the class on a given topic, e.g. one topic we had was “A lesson I have learned or a physical scar I have”. The presentation will be videotaped for you to review at home if you want to.

At the start of the semester the presentations aren’t graded to allow those less comfortable with public speaking to find their feet. About halfway through the semester, the presentations start to count toward your final grade. There is a written mid-term which tests the material you’ve read in the casebook up to that point; I think the mid-term was worth 20% of the final grade.

The goal isn’t just to tell a neat story each week, instead the instructors are looking for you to demonstrate specific storytelling skills that you learned from doing the assigned reading, and you’re graded on how well you demonstrate those skills. Example: the book talks about three “representational systems” that are exhibited in people’s everyday speech: visual (e.g. “I see what you mean”), auditory (e.g. “I hear what you’re saying”) and kinesthetic (e.g. “I want you to get a good feel for how this works). The book’s theory is that everyone has a preferred system that they will attend to the most closely, so when you’re speaking to a panel of jurors, to hold everyone’s attention you will want to use words associated with each system. For the class presentation testing the three representational systems, you’re graded on how well you use each system in your presentation.

My class was about the right size, around 16 students. Our classroom was the Byron McCoy mock trial courtroom down near the library. If you take this class, you’ll be surprised at the interesting stories your classmates have to tell. Naturally some people are more comfortable with public speaking than others, which shows up as nervousness and such, but everyone made a valiant effort and the stories were almost always interesting enough to keep the audience tuned-in.

Practice is huge for trial lawyers (reference how prized the trial experience from a background in the DA’s office is) so this class can’t hurt you if you want to litigate. There are some group presentations, but most are solo. There are also “observations exercises” that you’re to turn-in each week. These require you to write down three experiences you had during the past week in which you observed an instance of the skill/behavior/communication type discussed in the chapter you had to read that week. The observations only need to be a page or less long, and are graded but only count for a total of 10% of your final grade.

Some of the skills you’ll cover are very practical, e.g. one week we were to repeat a presentation we did the week before, only this time we had to keep our voice tone totally even, and remain completely still for the 5 minute talk. Sounds easy, but it isn’t…it sharply brought into focus all those little habits you have of fidgeting, shifting from foot-to-foot, modulating your voice tone, etc.

This is a 2 credit class that meets only once weekly, so it is quite schedule-friendly. In addition to trial advocacy and the depositions class, you should add this to your list if you plan to litigate, or simply want to polish up your public speaking.