Rhetoric is an interesting subject and when Claire Bradley (@Claire_Bradley0) tweeted about it, I asked her if she would like to write something for us. She said yes, so here it is. This is the argument for using the classical skills and structure. A more detailed examination of how to do it will follow later this week or early next week.

“It’s just rhetoric.” How often have you heard that dismissive phrase? Rhetoric is often wrongly thought of as just “flowery language” or “purple prose”. It is actually a system for teaching advocates how to be persuasive, which is a fundamental skill of advocacy. Learning rhetoric gives you an understanding of what arguments you can make when bringing a case, how to structure your argument, when to use appeals to the emotions and logical arguments, and the linguistic tools you can use to get your point across in the most persuasive way possible, given your audience and the general circumstances surrounding your case. Classical legal rhetoric is a complete advocacy toolkit and so well worth knowing if you are looking to develop your skills as an advocate.

Whilst experienced practitioners tend to have studied classical legal rhetoric, and understand how useful it can be, the aim of this post is to discuss the ways in which studying rhetoric can benefit those who are just starting out, either newly qualified, seeking pupillage or on the BPTC.

The main advantage of studying rhetoric is that it provides a comprehensive framework in which you can confidently develop all the aspects of your argument. A classical rhetorical argument is made up of five parts,

  1. The introduction,
  2. The statement of facts,
  3. The main legal and policy arguments and evidence in support of each position,
  4. The refutation or rebuttal of the other side’s arguments, and
  5. A conclusion.

If you think about it, a skeleton argument is a classical rhetorical argument, and so are the different elements that make up a case (introduction/opening speech, statement of facts, legal arguments and evidence for the position of each side, rebuttal of each side’s evidence and argument, and closing speech). The basic structure of legal arguments has remained broadly the same for the last 2500 years, and the great thing about that is the classical legal rhetoricians like Aristotle, Cicero and Quintilian have already done all the heavy lifting in terms of identifying the purpose of each stage of the argument and identifying what you need to do at each stage.

If you’ve decided that you’d like to learn how to speak eloquently and you’d like to learn more about classical legal rhetoric as you believe it will be a useful framework in which to develop your advocacy skills, then you should try to get hold of the following books.

The first one is short, with only seven chapters, exceedingly well written and gives you an excellent overview of classical legal rhetoric and how those principles apply now. This book gave me a strong sense of legal history, and a sense that all advocates from the past to the future form part of an ongoing stream of advocacy that started 2500 years ago, and whose basic tenets stand true today. It’s nice to think that if Aristotle, Quintilian or Cicero – through some miracle of time travel – turned up today, and started chatting to modern advocates about advocacy, they would probably disagree very little on the best ways of approaching things!

The other two books explain the different rhetorical techniques. They are both really readable, often quite funny, and they both define the different rhetorical techniques and give examples of them being used in well-known books, films and songs, so you can see how they work and how to structure them. The “Dramatic Adventures in Rhetoric” book shines in that it identifies different objectives and then gives details of the different techniques you can use to achieve those objectives. Be warned, there are 250 rhetorical devices covered in the book, so even if you were working on one rhetorical device every weekday, it would still take you a year to learn them all!  Committing to learning classical legal rhetoric is an investment in yourself and will help in the development of your advocacy skills, as eloquence and mastery of language is a core skill of any barrister. The “Elements of Eloquence” covers only about fifty rhetorical devices, although it is very easy to read and quite funny in places so an easy introduction to the subject. Some of these techniques you will know already, so won’t take long to learn as it’s more a case of refreshing your knowledge. So, for example, if you want your closing speech to sound pleasing to the ear you could look at the different techniques found under the chapter on Sound, like alliteration and assonance.

One of the things you will find initially difficult is the names given to rhetorical terms, which can be real tongue twisters when you first start looking at them. For example, the word given to people who use long winded language full of long words is (seriously) – Sesquipedalianism. Equally, you get the option to commend your fellow students for their expertise in logorrhoea (which is just a smooth way of saying that they have bad verbal diarrhoea!). Dealing with the tongue twisters does get easier as you become more familiar with the terms involved. It doesn’t really matter if you can pronounce them or not – what is more important is that you understand how these rhetorical devices work, and can apply them where appropriate to do so.

For an overview of the over-arching system of legal rhetoric the “Forest of Rhetoric” website is excellent. This includes the different “figures of rhetoric” ie details of the rhetorical techniques you can use to deal with a specific situation, like the figures of rhetoric that you can use if you are looking to refute your opponents argument.

One of the things I’ve found is that the more you look at different rhetorical techniques, the more you become sensitive to language. Just by reading about these techniques, you’ll find that you start to spot them and use them in your writing and speech, often without even thinking about it. Practise, experiment, try inventing your own examples. Set aside some time each day or every week to work on these techniques – it’s an investment in yourself because once you develop mastery of language that is a skill you have for life that will stand you in tremendous stead, particularly if you want to be a barrister. Once you’ve got the idea of how to use them, start applying those techniques to either current cases that you are dealing with, or if you are not at that stage yet, pick an old case of Curran, Erskine, or Marshall Hall, and read their closing speeches and identify the techniques they’ve used, and try reworking them yourself.

Curran in particular is well worth a look. When he started out, he had a bad stutter, and the first time he got to his feet he died completely and was unable to say a word. Anyone less likely to become one of the great orators of all time is hard to imagine. But he did. Curran is the perfect example of what a person can do armed with a knowledge of classical legal rhetoric, and the drive and commitment to practice these techniques until you become really good. He was also a very funny man; in debate with John Fitzgibbon, 1st Earl of Clare, Fitzgibbon rebutted one of Curran’s arguments by saying “If that be the law, Mr. Curran, I shall burn all my law books.” To which he replied “You had better read them first, my lord.”… Curran also said “”Eloquence … was not only the most popular, but one of the shortest roads to eminence” so if you want to get to the top of the profession studying rhetoric can only help.

Enjoy your adventures in classical legal rhetoric!