Dear LiL – I have to argue my first chambers application next week and I am really, really nervous. How did you overcome nerves at your first court appearance, and do you have any suggestions for success?” Signed ~ Nervous Nelly
We welcome LiL Ally and Harper Grey lawyer, Mollie Clark to the Dear LiL Blog, to discuss breaking down those nerves into manageable pieces that will allow you to make the most out of this important experience. To read more about the LiL Articling Student initiative – click here.
Dear Nervous Nelly:
Dear Nervous Nelly – You’re an articled student about to do your first chambers application, and you’re nervous. That is undoubtedly an experience every litigator has had. Here are a few tips and some junior lawyer perspective to help you make it through, nerves and all.
Let’s break it down, why are you nervous?
Before getting into how to handle nerves in chambers, let’s take some time to appreciate the fact that you feel nervous. Think about what that means. As was explained to me by a mentor of mine, if you feel nervous, it is because you recognize what you are about to do is important and should be taken seriously. Maybe it’s even a little bit intimidating. Nerves are a signal to yourself that this matters to you, and that you care about doing it well. That’s a good thing! Many senior lawyers still get nervous before certain applications for the very same reason (or so I’m told). It would be much more concerning if you didn’t feel nervous at all.
Practice makes perfect better advocacy
Your first chambers application is your first chambers application, and you will feel nervous for it whether you’re an articled student, a first-year call, or a sixth-year call. In my view, it’s important to attend chambers as much as possible and as early as possible, so you can get through the first-time nerves as soon as possible. When I picture myself as a sixth-year call, I like to imagine I’ll be attending my fiftieth chambers application rather than my first. By then, I’d like to be a capable oral advocate who can argue in chambers clearly, comfortably, and confidently. Fortunately, or unfortunately, there’s only one way to get there: practice. This first application will not be comfortable, but it is the necessary first step towards achieving your oral advocacy goals. Keep your future self in mind. She will thank you for going through this now.
To that point, consider that you are lucky to be getting your first application out of the way while you still get to waive the “articled student” card around. Remember to tell the presiding master or judge you are an articled student when introducing yourself and take some comfort in knowing those two words will adjust everyone’s expectations almost instantly.
Prepare, prepare, prepare
This is probably the most important step for calming your nerves as an articled student who is about to make an application. Compared to more senior counsel, you don’t have a whole lot going for you. You don’t have experience, you don’t have well-developed litigation skills, you might not even know when you’re supposed to stand up or sit down in court. The one thing that you can always have in your corner is preparation. Try to prepare in two different ways:
First, and most importantly, know your materials. Know the facts, know the history of the litigation, and know the law (and not just the excerpts that say what you want). If your application is unopposed, know everything there is to know about service on the other parties. If you know all of those things, you know more about what’s going on than the presiding master or judge does at first. Find confidence in that. You can be the expert of this specific application. You should also be mindful of that when you are speaking to the court. Think about what someone hearing about your case for the first time might need or want to know.
Second, it may help to know the mechanics of what you’re about to do. If you have never been to chambers before, and you have a fellow student or junior lawyer you are comfortable with, ask them some specifics: what should you wear? How do you get your order vetted? How do you find your courtroom? How do you use that stack of paper at the front to check in? Or, how on earth do you do all this over the phone? It may seem insignificant but knowing where you’re going can go a long way in calming nerves. If you don’t have a fellow student or junior lawyer you feel comfortable asking, you are more than welcome to ask me.
How to form sentences when you can’t form sentences
We’ve talked about why nerves are generally a good thing before chambers. Now, let’s acknowledge the less than helpful part of nerves that likely drove you to read this blog post in the first place: nerves get in the way. My first time appearing in court as a student was in remand court. I only had to speak for about a minute, and I didn’t need to discuss or rely on any law. Even that brief appearance was difficult to get through without stumbling around my words. I know what it feels like when you stand up in court and your nerves suddenly take front and center in your mind. While being prepared is the most helpful way to make it through, here are a few other practical tips I have for navigating an application when your mind is filled with nerves and drawing a blank:
Consider bringing a script of sorts that includes everything you need to say. And yes, I mean everything. As a student I went to chambers and even a trial with a piece of writing that started with “Clark, initial M., articled student.” If you can speak without a script, you should. You will be much easier to listen to, and better able to field questions in the middle of your submissions. But, if you are really nervous, you need to make sure you still manage to say all the things you need to say while you’re having a hard time focusing. Having a script to fall back on can allow you to function on autopilot for a few moments until your nerves calm down a bit. In the future, make it your goal to whittle your script down to bullet-point style speaking notes.
If you are using a script or written speaking notes, try writing big reminders to yourself throughout about the things you need to do, that your nerves may not let you remember on your own. Two tried-and-true examples include “SLOW DOWN” and “WATCH THE JUDGE”.
Lastly, have back-up plans ready before your mind blanks. Bring your Rules with you. Tab and highlight your materials well. Don’t be afraid of saying, “I don’t know”. Instead, anticipate that you might have to. Think about what your next move will be if that happens. For example, be prepared to ask to stand down and phone someone if you can’t answer an important question.
Do your best
My last piece of advice for making it through your first application is to simply do your best, because your best is all you can do. Everything that has happened in the litigation up to the point of your application has already happened. There is nothing you can do to change the facts or circumstances. If you got to know the law, you prepared yourself well, and you did your best to advocate for your client’s position, the outcome doesn’t matter – you’ve already had a successful application. Take a brief moment to acknowledge that achievement before an order is made.
About the Author
Mollie Clark joined Harper Grey LLP as a summer student in 2017, completed her articles with the firm and was called to the BC bar on May 28, 2019. Mollie is now an associate working with their Family, Insurance, Health, and Privacy, Defamation and Media Law Groups. She is an active member of the legal community as well as a director of the Hutch Fund, a charity founded in North Vancouver that fundraises for the mental health community.