I’ve seen plenty of attorneys let their nerves get the better of them in the courtroom, but I rarely hear attorneys discuss stage fright. Why don’t we talk about it? It negatively impacts the quality of representation for many defense attorneys, and I’ve seen prosecutors spend whole trials looking like deer in headlights. I know a fair number of prosecutors and defense attorneys who desperately plead out their cases because they fear trial.
I don’t remember anyone discussing ways to deal with stage fright in law school, and I don’t think most public defender or prosecutor training covers it in any real depth either. The advice seems to just be “keep doing it until you aren’t nervous anymore,” but for some people, just doing it over and over again isn’t going to fix anything. Plus, if you’re doing a terrible job over and over again, your clients are suffering. It’s not just your reputation on the line. You’re training with people’s lives.
The lack of nerve-talk among lawyers surprised me when I first started practicing law. Prior to being a lawyer, I was a musician. My whole background was in music, and I come from a family of professional musicians. Musicians love talking about stage fright. It’s basically an obsession, as conquering nerves, or at least minimizing their physical effects, is essential if you want to perform at a reasonably proficient level. Almost every musician has serious stage fright at some point in their career. Any decent private music teacher covers it with students. Music schools have countless resources available. There are even specialists you can see. Musicians read Zen in the Art of Archery and The Inner Game of Tennis. They practice breathing and other relaxation techniques. They seek out frequent performance opportunities for the sole purpose of applying the techniques they’ve learned. With numerous resources available and plenty of tried and true methods, most musicians learn to control their nerves well enough to perform at or near their actual level of skill.
Isn’t it odd that lawyers don’t pay as much attention to stage fright as musicians do? It’s just as big an issue for attorneys, and I suspect nerves cause a lot of smart people who might be great trial lawyers to look to other areas of law. I once judged a moot court competition where one law student was so crippled by stage fright that he couldn’t get through his closing. He’ll probably never try anything like that again, and who knows, maybe he’d be a great trial attorney. He seemed pretty bright and articulate one-on-one. Where are the resources for him? Where are the CLE courses for a practicing attorney with the same problem? I see a lot of dumb CLE courses in the brochures I get. There are a lot of dumb law school courses. I think lawyer stage fright is something that deserves a lot more attention.