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How Debate Intersects with Law

Updated: Sep 25, 2023

Have you ever considered debating, but shied away because it seemed too intimidating? Debate has been popularized as a teen extracurricular activity in recent years. All around the globe, one hears about friends and family signing up for debate seminars, classes, or competitions. Although it does seem like a stressful extracurricular, it can bring many benefits. Personally, I have debated competitively for four years, and it is hard to summarize all I have learned. Not only has it helped with my current events knowledge, it has also constructed essential skills I use daily, ranging from English class to interviews, mock trial to presentations. However, it does seem quite a jump from debate to law: so let's connect the dots!

How can debate help you in a future career in law?

1. Debate is highly interconnected with public speaking

In many styles of debate, public speaking is a basic expectation. Being able to win a round goes beyond simply stating your arguments— it is essential to articulate your arguments in a persuasive style. This is especially true in formats such as World Schools debating, where ‘style’ accounts for 30% of your speaker score. For example, stating why abortion should be legal is not as moving and persuading as speaking with passion and tone on how it is a woman’s bodily autonomy and choice.

How does this connect with law? Similar to debate, being a lawyer is a competition— you are always trying to win a case over another lawyer for your client. So, just like how public speaking is a basic in debate, it is also a basic in law. Debating is one of the best ways to build a public speaking foundation. Additionally, similarly to how speaking stylistically furthers you in debate rounds, speaking stylistically, using the tone that adheres best to the case, would further you in trials too.

2. Debate helps with organization

If you’ve ever seen the notes of a debater during a round, it perhaps is messy. But the speech given is always in structure— signposting is fundamental, speeches are meant to be easy to flow. Commonly delivered in numeric structure, speeches that are clear and concise wins you rounds. Simply put yourself in the shoes of a judge: a messy and unorganized speech makes it harder to digest all the material, you simply feel more unjustified giving a win to a team that doesn’t ‘make sense’ in your head. Organization also applies beyond the speech: if you lose one of your note sheets during a round, it can have costly consequences on your speech.

Established that organization is essential to debate, which means that it is a skill you will gain as time passes on, how does this help with a career in law? Bombarded with cases all with different backgrounds, suspects, and victims, the stress load is extremely hard to manage. In order to make work easier, organization is essential. Losing a case file can cost you the case. But furthermore, being clear and speaking in an organized manner also is intuitively more persuasive to the jury. The skill of organization strengthens a lawyer as a whole.

3. Debate creates time crunches

Debate is a stressful activity, which is also why a lot of people quit debate. Your opponents are likely very good debaters who are also trying to win the competition; the debate gets close and heated. This stressful environment also functions under a time constraint. This is applicable to all debate formats, but especially impactful in formats such as British Parliamentary where debaters are given a motion and only have 15 minutes to prepare for it. Thinking of 2 arguments along with refutation and team strategies is extremely stressful, especially knowing that your speech is expected to be 5 minutes. This not only allows people to cope with stress better, which will be essential in law, but also working well under stress and a time limit is a great skill to have. This guarantees efficiency, but also is important when you have limited time on each case you can process as a lawyer.

Other than all the skills in debate that help you in law, how are these two fundamentally connected?

An interesting perspective:

The world is simply built on debate. Or rather, more specifically, the concept of ‘democracy’. The prerequisite for having a successful and functional democracy is that there are discussions. We vote on policies we believe will be good, but how is that ‘good’ often defined? Although there are policies that seem like an ‘intuitive good’, these are often very personal intuitions. For example, just because a liberal might believe medical for all is a policy that grants people basic human rights, which makes it an ‘intuitive good’, a conservative might believe it is not a right in the first place, or rather it is too costly of a policy. The idea of ‘good’ is often controversial and debatable, which is why having debates in public, including presidential debates or just social media posts, is a fundamental to having democracy or a society in the first place. And of course, a society is regulated by law, and policies are again, laws. Debate and laws intersect and mutually depend on each other.

So the conclusion is, if you do want to pursue a career in law, check out some debate resources! Of course, debate’s benefits go beyond law: you will have to make a presentation some time in English class and you will have to talk eloquently in your first interview for a job. At the end of the day, debate develops essential skills. Join your school’s debate clubs, or check out organizations in your area! For example, @unitedspeakersglobal is a great student-led organization that can help you take your first step in public speaking and debate!

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