Empowering Law Students to Overcome Extreme Public Speaking Anxiety: Why 'Just Be It' Works and 'Just Do It' Doesn't

34 Pages Posted: 18 Apr 2015

Date Written: April 16, 2015


For law students experiencing extreme public speaking anxiety, which can manifest from variations of introversion, shyness, social anxiety, or social phobia, the Socratic method of intellectual discourse — either in the classroom or in the first-year oral argument experience — can trigger such a high level of apprehension that it may threaten even an otherwise strong student’s confidence in his or her future as an attorney. Extreme public speaking anxiety can pose a serious impediment to processing and comprehending legal concepts, and engaging with professors, classmates, and substantive material. Unless the anxious law student takes steps to address the roots of this particular issue, extreme public speaking anxiety can plague him or her unnecessarily throughout an otherwise promising legal career.

Unfortunately, trite advice from well-meaning authority figures and peers urging, “Just Do It!” does not help...as if these students could don a pair of Nike high-tops and bungee-jump their way to psychic freedom. Many law school administrators, professors, parents, and classmates who are life-long extraverts, or believe they conquered their own public speaking anxiety simply by “getting out there and doing it,” regrettably are not very helpful to those students who need a deeper examination of the roots of this problem. Many law professors give the impression that students automatically should be able to deal with the rigors of the Socratic method or other “command” speaking performances, and if they cannot, then they probably should choose another vocation. This article urges that this is a misguided mindset and message. Psychology-based research supports the notion that many introverted, shy, and socially anxious or social phobic individuals are capable of offering an even more nuanced, thoughtful, and empathetic perspective on legal issues than classroom “talkers,” but law school, and indeed society in general, rewards the loquacious. The legal academy and broader legal community need to hear from the subtler voices.

Part I of this article defines the often-intertwined “labels” of introversion, shyness, social anxiety and social phobia. Part II explains why the “Just Do It!” mantra is not helpful to students experiencing extreme public speaking anxiety, and instead, why a mindful “Just Be It” approach is more appropriate. Part III describes tangible and practical steps comprising one “mindful” approach to overcoming extreme public speaking anxiety. Part IV captures the results of three years of Overcoming Public Speaking Anxiety (OPSA) workshops conducted at New York Law School and sponsored by the New York State Bar Association. In OPSA, law students volunteered for and participated in a five-part workshop series in anticipation of their spring first-year oral arguments. In their own words, participants of these workshops share their views on why “Just Do It” is not the right message in this context; they explain how taking time to examine their individual anxiety triggers, and realizing they are not alone in this experience, enabled them to make strides to overcome this challenge. Part V offers strategies for professors and other mentors to identify law students experiencing this battle (whether outwardly or secretly), exhibit empathy for their challenge (and potential embarrassment or shame), and motivate these individuals to tap into the underlying roots of this fear in order to ultimately “find their lawyer voice.”

Keywords: introversion, shyness, social anxiety, social phobia, oral advocacy, oral argument, public speaking anxiety

Suggested Citation

Brown, Heidi, Empowering Law Students to Overcome Extreme Public Speaking Anxiety: Why 'Just Be It' Works and 'Just Do It' Doesn't (April 16, 2015). Duquesne University Law Review, Vol. 53, p. 181, Winter 2015, NYLS Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2595308, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2595308

Heidi Brown (Contact Author)

New York Law School ( email )

185 West Broadway
New York, NY 10013
United States

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