Quasi Cum Laude
A few days ago, I was asked to be a speaker at a welcoming evening for students. I was to give a speech to all the new Juris Doctor students, being a “senior” student in the program who has completed 2/3 of the course.
I spent a lot of time thinking about just what to say– because these sorts of events are really a staple I think. Mind you, it’s not like a valedictorian speech where you got the best grades of your class and get to say something inspiring for the future. This is more of a university-specific promotional activity where you give them some insight as to what the program is going to be like, and any advice you might have.
I thought about it for a quite a while. I couldn’t quite figure out what to prepare for this speech. So in the end… I made it up on the fly.
Yes, I made up the speech while I was in the room, in front of over a hundred law hopefuls. Aside from one other student, who was representing the PG students (as a JD, we’re slightly different), the only people speaking were faculty members, and they were talking about generic things like how to use the library resources, and what the teaching philosophy of the school was and that kind of stuff.
The PG student speaker was up first. She came prepared with about three pages of a speech written. Honestly, I didn’t like her speech all that much– because it was all about her.
I think in other contexts it would have been great, but for a room full of first semester students, who honestly is going to care or remember about the 5 years you spent working for such and such a department of government? Who cares what your specific hopes and dreams are? It will appeal to some, don’t get me wrong– there’s bound to be someone in the room who will share some things in common with you. But what about the rest?
I was reading the feel of the room, and though I could have done a much better speech if I had actually prepared for it (the organisers didn’t really tell me what they wanted, and when I arrived, everyone wanted something different), I think I actually did a pretty good job.
Everyone so far had talked about how great it was to study at our university and how there were such a wealth of experiences to be had. You would learn new things, you would meet interesting people who had a diverse background of academic and professional backgrounds. Flowers and roses.
They had asked me here to speak of my experiences, so I found all that stuff quite touching– but perhaps a bit misleading.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” I boomed. “First of all, congratulations on being accepted at [our University].”
There was no microphone in the room, so all that experience yelling over a room full of pre-high school South Korean students came in handy.
“I am not going to sugar coat it for you. In first semester, you guys will go to class and do introductions, and your teachers will tell you to introduce yourselves and say one thing about yourself. People will say, ‘Hi! My name is [Jinryu]! I like judo and badminton and cycling and going out to find new places to eat and…’ yadda yadda yadda. By the time you get to third or fourth semester, when your new teacher asks you to do the same thing, a fair percentage of you will change your answer. You will say, ‘Hi, my name is [Jinryu], and I do law. I don’t have time for anything else.'”
I actually got a lot more normal laughter than I did nervous laughter, so it was a start.
“I will not sugar coat this for you. You’re smart people, that’s how you got in. But law school is, above everything else, hard work, backup, and strategic efficiency. I have been to exams where, before going in, people have got the shakes because it’s 9AM and they’ve already had 9 Red Bulls. I have been to exams where I have seen people weeping with fright. I kid you not– stress can kill even the most passionate of eyes.
My advice to you has to do with strategies to helping you survive, and then, on your own, you can decide if you have enough energy to make a conquest out of this experience.”
After my speech, many of the faculty half-jokingly told me that I didn’t want to scare them all off– but I got a lot of positive feedback from students in the room. I don’t think they completely understood just what the program was going to be like, but it seemed like they were getting the point of what I was saying about certain strategies.
“You can’t be just book smart. Surviving law means being law street smart as well– that means learning to build a network of friends who can watch your back. One day, whether it’s a coffee when you’re really looking like shit, or someone who can explain to you section 49, subection 5b of this or that act– it will come in handy to have friends. As post graduate students, we have a lot to be proud of– but therein, there is also the danger that we think we know everything and that we’re better off independent. I’ll tell you now– as someone who worked over 7 years in a heirarchical public health care system, I’m really good at independent work. You can always be sure of what you’re going to get done if you don’t trust anyone and you always cover your ass. But I can also tell you that as one man or one woman, you will be crushed by law school if you don’t learn to work in teams, because it’s not something you can take on all on your own. The sooner you accept that you don’t know everything, that things are too complicated, and that you need help, the sooner you can actually find help and really open up the law school experience that is working with the people in this room all around you. You’re all in this together.”
I went on to talk about the importance of teamwork and seeking support. That included a plug in for the Counselling and Psychological Services up the hill, which has a full suite of offerings to assist with everything from weight loss advice (the mental side) to full blown anxiety disorders.
I can’t remember everything I talked about, but I concluded that, despite all that having been said, they would succeed if they wanted to. And I wished them the best of luck.
It was a strange experience being at this end of the room. I realised a few things in the process.
The first is that I’m not scared of standing up in front of over a hundred people and talking anymore. I don’t know exactly when that happened in my life, but that night, was was definately sure of it. I guess being asked to speak kind of entered my head as a bit of a game… I wondered if I could get away with convincing myself of what I wanted to generally say, and do it all from the bottom of my heart with the first thoughts that came to mind having plugging myself into this persona of a university representative. “Challenge accepted.” And I delivered. It wasn’t perfect, but it’s a skill in progress and I think I’m getting better at it. By it, I mean, simply talking without needing to prepare– talking confidently and without stuttering, going from one thought to the next– and most importantly, projecting confidence in what I’m saying so that the audience is compelled to listen, whether or not they want to.
It was something that I realised while I was doing all these coffee meetings with lawyers the past few months– it doesn’t really matter what a lawyer has to say. The skill of someone who really has skills in litigation is that, whatever they want to say, they can say it and convince you that they believe in it. I tested this out one for kicks as a bit of a social experiment during one coffee, where I was talking to two lawyers at once.
“So, at your firm, naturally, there’s going to be a lot of [A] because of it’s size and position in the market,” I opened.
“Oh, yeah, of course. [A] is great. [A] is the best thing since sliced bread, because it yadda yadda yadda,” came the reply. The other lawyer also went into some detail about how great [A] is.
“But the thing is,” I followed up, “there’s this rising trend that I’m really interested in…. it’s the usage of [B]. I mean, I’ve worked in situations where… yadda yadda….”
“Oh yea, we have a lot of [B] developping here as well. [B] is all about the yadda yadda….”
Here’s the thing– [A] and [B] and both conceptually polar opposites. I hinted that I enjoyed A, they took the bait, but then I clarified my position that I liked B better, and they completely did a 180. That’s not the interesting part– the interesting part was that the full reverse was absolutely seamless, and they managed to explain their positions in favour of both opposing viewpoints in isolation as if it was actually their view. It wasn’t just that they had a factual knowledge of both [A] and [B]– the frightening part was that they had the ability to convince me that they believed in both with all their hearts, which was impossible; and further that they were able to transition from one position to the other without having to slow down for the turn.
Basically, the skill that I saw in action there was the ability to use subtly use an insane amount of charisma to instantly mobilise the weight of a position that had instantly been created through self-conviction.
My comfort zone for public speaking has always been talking about things I believe in– but what that little social experiment taught me was that there are people who had not figured out just that, but also how to instantly change what they believe in.
The thought had occured to me that they just have really good poker faces and pretend that they believe in something though. Either way… it’s an intriguing ability that I’d like to develop for myself.