Kate’s Counsel: Speak Up!

Kate McGuinness - Terminal AmbitionMore hard-won advice from the fantastic Kate McGuinness, author, advocate, and former BigLaw partner and Fortune 300 GC. Do check out the video at the end!

I imagine many readers are burned out from adopting and abandoning New Year’s resolutions, but I’m going to suggest one more: Speak up in class.

A 2012 study by the Yale Women Law Women revealed that:

Men continue to participate more in class than women—and the disparity between male and female participation rates have barely improved over the past ten years.

Faculty and students observe that women seem more risk-adverse in their participation and are more likely to undermine or discount their own comments in class.

Yeah, yeah, you’ve already heard this. But before you reject this advice, think about what lawyers do.

Speaking Up is What Lawyers Do

The Model Rules of Professional Conduct describe lawyers’ responsibilities as advocating their clients’ positions — whether in court or in negotiations — or explaining to their clients the implications of relevant law and facts. In a significant majority of cases, the advocacy or the explanations are delivered orally.

You want to be a lawyer? You better get comfortable with public speaking. Not just prepared remarks, but spontaneous descriptions, justifications, defenses and wild-ass strategies. That is what it takes to succeed as a lawyer.

Wouldn’t you rather acquire this skill in law school than babble the first time a partner asks you a question?

Speaking Up Makes You a Better Law Student

Class participation will likely have short-term benefits as well. The results of a 2012 survey of law student engagement found that:

Higher levels of interaction with professors and peers relate to greater development in students’ writing, speaking and legal research skills, job- or work-related knowledge and skills, critical and analytical thinking, and ethical development.

Not Convinced? Watch this TED Talk

If you’re ready to stop reading because the prospect seems so daunting, I’m going to make it easy on you. Watch this marvelous, career-transforming TED Talk by Harvard B-school professor Amy Cuddy.

Yes, it’s twenty minutes long, and you could use those minutes to brief a case or eat or even sleep. Sacrifice whatever it takes to make the time to watch this video. Everything she says makes sense, and when you get to the sixteenth minute Professor Cuddy shares a personal experience that will totally win you over to her approach.

I promise it will make you a better lawyer.

— – —

Thanks, Kate! I couldn’t agree more. Although speaking up in class can definitely be intimidating, it gets easier over time and it’s the only way you’ll find your voice. So, take a deep breath and do it! Chances are good you’ll survive. (And, seriously, the video is a must watch. Bookmark it right now.)

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More about Kate: Kate McGuinness is a lawyer who spent 17 years in BigLaw before becoming the general counsel of a Fortune 300 corporation. She is an advocate for women and tweets as @K8McGuinness. Her blogs about women’s rights have appeared in Forbes Woman, Women’s Media Center, Jezebel, The Frisky, Role/Reboot, Fem2pt0 and Ms. JD. (These essays are collected on her website.)

She has created Pinterest boards illustrating issues of concern such as advertisements objectifying women. You can find her on Pinterest and LinkedIn as Kate McGuinness and on Facebook as Women’s Rights Writer. After leaving the corporate world, she studied creative writing and is the author of a legal thriller Terminal Ambition, which is available on Amazon. Information about the firms, characters and locales in the novel can be found at Terminal-Ambition.com.

Have a question for Kate? Leave it in the comments!


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  1. Kaitlyn Fydenkevez says

    I had a feeling this video was going to be the one that was attached. I watch the last 5 minutes or so every time I’m feeling like a law-school impostor. It should be required viewing for women entering law school!

    Great article, Kate. It’s hard to face the realization that even though I sometimes talk in class, I usually immediately discount what I said once the professor calls on someone else. I only recently realized that half the battle is not telling yourself “that was stupid, I shouldn’t have said that” once you finish speaking.

    • Great point. The unfortunate reality is that not every professor is great at incorporating comments into what they plan to cover, so it’s easy for what you say to get skipped as they try to bring out the exact points they’re looking for. But that doesn’t mean what you added lacks value! Even if it can sometimes feel that way…

      And I’d never seen this video, but I love it! I sent it to a bunch of friends immediately.

    • So glad that you’re already familiar with this Ted Talk. I think Amy Cuddy is just amazing. It’s terrific that you’re participating in class. It truly is excellent preparation for legal practice. The self-doubt will gradually fade, and if it doesn’t, know that you’re not alone. Here’s a short article that you’ll find reassuring: http://www.forbes.com/sites/barbarastanny/2011/11/11/do-successful-women-struggle-with-self-doubt/.

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