Search This Blog

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Hall on the Continuing Importance of Oratory

I came across E. Connor Hall's essay, Oratory and the Lawyer, in the Green Bag (22 Green Bag 332 (1910)). There, Hall argues that the art of oratory is generally ridiculed as no longer being of any use to lawyers. Hall ties this to phenomena of the time which, he argues, are leading to a general decline in oratory. He notes that newspapers and the rise in writing may be to blame for the decline in the focus on oration, and he also points out that the greatest of speeches tend to come in times of crisis, but there had been no crises "of supreme importance since the settlement of the slavery controversy," (remember, the essay was written in 1910).

Hall also notes that the term "oratory" had fallen into disrepute, and that it was often taken to mean "windy, holiday, and schoolboy speeches, or the high flown peroration, often tacked on without logical connection, after the main speech is ended." Despite these developments, Hall argues that oratory remains a uniquely effective mode of communication, and a mechanism of persuasion that lawyers should still seek to master.

While Hall was writing in 1910, it is interesting to consider the merits of his arguments in light of modern technology and trends in legal practice. Hall would probably disapprove of the low level of influence the spoken word has in the digital world. On the Internet, writing remains the dominant means of persuasion. When speeches are used to persuade, advocates tend to clip short sound bites from the speech, or they resort to using the awful practice of sending each other pictures with words on them.

Legal practice has also changed since Hall wrote his essay. Trials are extremely rare, so the skill of persuading a jury seems virtually irrelevant to a modern practitioner. Courts' schedules are packed, so what are the odds that they will be persuaded by an effective oral presentation when they have dozens of similar motions to get through?

While Hall would have more of an uphill battle arguing for the importance of oratory today, it is a battle that he could still win. Confidence and persuasiveness in face-to-face situations is a skill that can cut through the haze of online nonsense. And while trials are rare, motions still need to be argued in court -- and may be even more important than ever -- since an overburdened judge who has not read the briefs may end up being convinced by a persuasive advocate.

And for those lucky few people who will have the chance to take their cases before juries, this selection from Hall may be worth reading:

[A] bare recital of the testimony favorable to his cause does not comprehend the duty of the advocate. He must go further and explain the relation of the circumstances of the case to each other, as well as their relation to extraneous facts. He must examine every bit of testimony, testing it by other parts of the testimony, and pointing out its significance in the light of the whole case. The facts in his case are not things by themselves, unrelated to other facts of life. His case is not isolated in the world of experience. And before a just and proper judgment can be reached, his cause must be weighed according to standards of conduct in general. To thus correlate the facts of a case, and explain their meaning in relation to one another, and to human experience in general -- to do this well, is oratory.

No comments:

Post a Comment