It’s a trite complaint of most advocacy textbooks that the “art of oral persuasion” is one that cannot be acquired purely through reading books.
Though there is undoubtedly some truth in that statement, those students looking to make a living from the spoken word are well advised to keep an amply stocked bookshelf.
The starting point for any reader interested in advocacy is Aristotle’s treatise On Rhetoric.
The classical discussions of oratory still make worthwhile reading. Written in a society that valued participation in public life as the highest good, where being a skilful advocate was uniquely bound to the conception of being a worthy citizen, the principles set out by Aristotle, and later developed by Cicero and Quintilian, are as applicable to closing speeches today as they were two thousand years ago.
Apart from the classics, there is a wealth of more recent books to assist young lawyers. The Art of the Advocate by Richard Du Cann, QC, remains essential reading, written with a level of forensic analysis that was a trademark of Du Cann’s courtroom style.
It is always worth dipping into the biographies of great advocates, and readers are advised to pick through them for the excerpts they often give of particularly successful cross-examinations. The best examples are Memoirs of a Radical Lawyer by Michael Mansfield, QC; No Ordinary Man: A Life of George Carman by Dominic Carman; and Donald McRae’s book The Old Devil, on the US lawyer Clarence Darrow.
Of those books aimed specifically at students and young practitioners, The Devil’s Advocate by Iain Morley, QC, is hard to beat. A short, punchy little polemic, it contains more useful advice than many books twice its length, and is written in a pleasant and engaging style. However, not all of the books aiming at the student market are equally useful, and the persistent appearance on student reading lists of Keith Evans’s The Golden Rules of Advocacy, remains a mystery.
Budding advocates should not restrict themselves to what can be found in law libraries.
In Walter Scott’s novel, Guy Mannering, the eponymous hero is ushered into the office of his lawyer, Pleydell. “‘These,’ said Pleydell, ‘are my tools of trade. A lawyer without history or literature is a mechanic, a mere working mason; if he possesses some knowledge of these, he may venture to call himself an architect’.”
Most law students will have had their fill of imprecations to read the classic fictional portrayals of the law; from Dickens’ Bleak House to The Trial by Kafka. But away from these rather cliché-ridden staples, the wider canon of English literature has much to offer. As Professor Ian Ward, of Newcastle Law School, notes, students can better understand “the origins of English constitutional thought by reading Richard II, the inadequacies of rape law by reading The Handmaid’s Tale and the psychology of English property law just by looking at the pictures in The Tale of Peter Rabbit”.
Words are the tools of a working advocate. As such, reading – and absorbing – as much high quality literature as possible is not only essential for anyone who wants to succeed on their feet in court, but also a greatly enjoyable distraction from the study of dry legal textbooks.