By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
What do scholastic debaters do after they graduate? Based on my own social circle, they either teach others to be debaters, or they become litigators. It is by no means a universal prerequisite, but it is common enough that within any gathering of trial lawyers, at least some of them, sometimes more, will have been debaters in high school or college. Some go into debate with the intention of developing pre-law skills, while for others, it seems only natural after the last tournament to seek out an occupation with more "rounds" and higher stakes. What that transition means for those ex-debaters in law is that they will need to adapt to an aligned, but still quite different forum for persuasion. What that transition means for everyone else in the legal field -- colleagues and clients alike -- is that they will need to deal with a few transitioning ex-debaters in their midst.
An article in the current issue of the Houston Law Review (Fulkerson & Lotz, 2013) addresses exactly that transition. Written by Tom Fulkerson and Wes Lotz, two Houston attorneys who are both veterans of the highest levels of American intercollegiate debate, the article describes the modern policy debate experience, and then focuses on the various ways debate-trained lawyers need to adapt, or in the authors' words, "reengineer" themselves. Looking at a number of differences relating to substance and style, they come to the conclusion that policy debate is valuable background for lawyers as long as that critical reconditioning occurs. "What causes a 'win' in debate," they note, "is very different from a 'win' with a trial judge, jury, or arbitration panel - and most importantly, a client." While the article does a good job of noting the differences in context, it got me thinking that this need for reconditioning applies not just to recovering recent debaters, but to all argumentatively-minded litigators...which is to say, all litigators. Based on that, I thought I would pick up on some themes of the article and extend it to a general message for translating the argumentative debater's focus into the persuasive litigator's focus.