Legal Education Digest
Teaching Talking: Oral Communication Skills in a Law Course
 LegEdDig 12; (2006) 14(3) Legal Education Digest 16
54 J Leg Educ 4, 2004, pp 588–596
Attorneys spend an enormous amount of time communicating orally — both hearing and conveying information — in telephone calls, conversations with other attorneys, and meetings with clients. The importance of good oral communication skills is often overlooked, although at least one survey of new attorneys rated those skills more important than writing skills. Law schools’ existing paradigm for imparting oral communication skills is to give students an eclectic hodgepodge of opportunities to talk. One of the purported benefits of the Socratic method is that it prepares people to speak on their feet. Perhaps calling on students who do not have their hands in the air does prepare them to respond quickly and effectively as lawyers.
Clearly, something better is needed, namely, a course focused on improving communication itself. Law students may not be among the worst public speakers, but as legal educators we should be doing something to assure that they are among the best.
To address those concerns, the author developed a course combining a skills- and results-oriented approach with substantive law, examining the oral communicative process in the context of employment law. She turned her employment law seminar into one that featured oral communication skills instead of writing skills, by dividing the necessary skills into segments and planning to focus on one segment of an effective presentation each week of the seminar.
People learn about good writing not only by actually writing but also by editing the writing of others. In thinking about applying this to oral communication skills, and because she was somewhat concerned that the class might not stay tuned in for the various talks each week, she required each student to critique everyone else’s presentation. These critiques were both written and oral. Course grades were based on three components: the short presentations, the long presentations, and the written critiques.
It is commonly thought that a speaker has thirty seconds to grab the audience’s attention. In other words, the audience decides within the first few moments whether to tune in or out. So the first segment focused on the introduction of a speech. For the first presentation, each student gave a three-to five-minute talk in the second week about one of two books they had been assigned, chosen because they would introduce students to the world of minimum-wage workers. In addition to a really dynamic introduction, the goal for the second week was to introduce the idea that an effective talk is geared to a particular audience.
It is amazing how hard people will work when they know they have to get up and talk in front of a group. Students were remarkably well prepared, although their oral communication skills varied considerably. After each presentation we went around the room giving oral critiques. These had many benefits. The students had to pay attention to each other’s talks.
For the next assignment the students were to think about how to identify the main point(s) of a presentation they were preparing. The hidden agenda was to have them realise that, just because the speaker knows the main points of the presentation, it does not follow that the audience will agree on what the main points are. By then, the introductions grabbed attention and the students understood the importance of tailoring a speech to a specific audience. At the conclusion of each talk, students listed what they each thought were the main points of the talk they had just heard.
In week 4 the techniques for effective conclusions were discussed and in week 6 we began the first set of fifteen-minute presentations. The students were expected to have effective introductions, have content appropriate to their audience, and make clear, concise and recognisable points. Audiovisual skills are increasingly important in oral presentations and, used effectively, can have enormous impact. Students were required, in week 9, to focus on an employment law case of interest to them. Although the importance of practice had been stressed throughout the semester, using visual aids required more practice than students had anticipated. By this point in the semester, many of the most annoying mannerisms had been weeded out and students knew their weak points. But we had not yet practised responding to audience questions, especially difficult questions. During one of the closing weeks of the semester, we had a session on impromptu speeches.
Students gave their final presentations in the semester’s final weeks. This time they chose their own topic. Each of the students had come a long way. The student evaluations were high: they all said that they had learned a great deal and were much better equipped with good oral communication skills. They liked all of the assignments, though not necessarily at the time; they thought they had learned some employment law as well as some practical skills. Students felt that the atmosphere of the class was crucial. Trust is all important. If they feel embarrassed, that should be because of their own critical self-assessment, not what someone in the class says to them. There are ways to critique without being overly critical. It was rare for students to be overly harsh with each other, and they were never cruel. Students liked the way their skills built up slowly over the semester as we focused on a different aspect of oral communication each week. Students learned about research while preparing their presentation; they learned as well about the importance of narrowing a topic down to fit the allotted time. This was another opportunity to reinforce the importance of preparation and the consequences of inadequate preparation.