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Learning how to advocate by being on the public hotseat

Oct 20, 2011 Learning how to advocate by being on the public hotseat

Deft experience being on the public hotseat is critical for preparing one to better advocate publicly. Such hotseats include appearing before angry trial judges, before a panel of appellate judges peppering tough questions at arguing counsel, and before adversarial interviewers (for instance my appearances on the O’Reilly Factor and Radio Factor). Effective public advocacy also requires feeling comfortable in the public speaking setting that so many people are terrified of. A trial lawyer’s clients and other witnesses need to be prepared well for their testimony, and not just thrown cold on the witness stand.

Fortunately for me, I appeared on the public stage from the age of nine playing the trumpet with bands, started doing magic shows at eleven, got on television by the age of seventeen, and did two trials while still in law school. By the age of nine, I stood up to teachers in front of the rest of the class when they seemed to be unfairly throwing feces my way. I almost always felt comfortable playing music onstage, even when doing improvised solos, perhaps because I was not speaking, but also perhaps I was practicing on the horn daily. When speaking in public, I sometimes got nervous, but recognized that the more prepared I was to do well, the less nervous I was.

Nothing beats quality practice, practice, practice. Nothing beats being in the now to reduce stagefright and any other fear. Ultimately, a strong trial lawyer will be able to shed and reduce more and more fears, because doing so is empowering, as demonstrated by the following tale I frequently have retold: To be fearless, I take inspiration from t’ai chi master Cheng Man Ching, who spoke of overcoming our fears in terms of imagining that we are practicing t’ai chi while balanced atop a narrow pointed cliff. To not eliminate one’s fears while atop the cliff is to guarantee certain death. Eliminating fear also calls for keeping and tempering the fearlessness of a child filled with wonder, and living in the moment, as wonderfully detailed in the following story of the man and the two tigers: A man is chased in the wilderness by two tigers, only to be forced off a cliff, hanging for life from a vine. One tiger waits above and the other waits below for a human meal. Two field mice gnaw away at the vine. The man sees a wild strawberry growing from the side of a cliff, reaches for it, tastes it, and — with his life hanging in the balance — thinks of how delicious the strawberry tastes. When one lives in the moment, one fears little if at all. Here is my video about being effectively fearless by being here now.

For me to show clients and other witnesses that ordinary laypeople can perform effectively in the courtroom and other stages with limited fear, I look to examples of those who are not lawyers, actors, or television professionals. One good example of a non-lawyer who holds himself well onstage is James Peterson, a professor at Bucknell University whom I know. By now, he is often on the television interviewing circuit. Watch how well he handles himself with Bill O’Reilly, standing up against Bill’s advocacy for profiling students as part of his goal to reduce violent crime in society.

One should think carefully before accepting a broadcast television or radio interview, and should not do it merely to obtain the experience or exposure, as that can backfire terribly. Strongly disagreeing with a colleague who once said no news coverage is bad news coverage, I have declined broadcast interviews more times than I have accepted them, often because the calls are the same day when I might have court all day or need to do critical preparation for an upcoming trial, sometimes because I am asked if I advocate a position that I do not advocate, sometimes because the interview will be about a client (when my non-political clients often have little to gain by my telling a journalist anything other than some public information about the case), sometimes because the topic is not one that interests me in discussing or getting up to speed on, and other times just because the interview does not seem that it will give me a sufficient opportunity for me to spread the gospel of Constitutional rights, civil liberties, and criminal defendants’ rights.

Bill O’Reilly is a merciless interviewer who had quite the "F–k it" meltdown on camera in 1995. James Peterson handled O’Reilly very well, and got his message across despite O’Reilly’s incessant talking, to counter O’Reilly’s oversimplified solution of profiling students to reduce violence and not to spend any more money towards reducing violence. Peterson is very smart and knowledgeable, and countered that today is far from the same as when O’Reilly and Peterson were in school to reduce violence, with Peterson’s pointing out, for instance, that crack cocaine never existed when O’Reilly and Peterson were students. See more about James Peterson here (more videos), here (his online articles), and here (on Twitter).

Those invited for interviews need to remember that the interviewer’s agenda is to get his or her story out, to keep the interviewer’s job, and usually to make money for the interviewer’s organization. The judge’s agenda — depending on his or her view — is to get justice done as the judge defines it, to administer, and, unfortunately, sometimes to deviate from the role of the unbiased adjudicator. The interviewee’s and public advocate’s role is to get his or her message out as effectively and persuasively as possible. 

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