Opening Statements

No Debating It: Northwestern Debate Team Featured in Documentary

  • Print.

Many of this country’s most prominent litigators, and especially the appellate specialists, appear to share a common experience of their youth. No, we’re not talking about working at a fast-food restaurant or sneaking into buildings late at night.

They participated in debate competitions, of course.

In September, Arnold & Porter—along with the Supreme Court Institute of Georgetown University Law Center—organized a screening of a documentary that follows the championship-winning Northwestern University debate team over the course of one year. Fast Talk examines the speedy speaking necessary for modern debate competitions. After the screening, several prominent appellate specialists discussed how debate trained them to be effective advocates.

Lisa S. Blatt, head of Arnold & Porter’s appellate and Supreme Court practice, says the program developed as a “fun educational thing.” She says, “We thought it was interesting that so many successful advocates had all debated on various levels.”

Appellate specialist David C. Frederick, who has appeared before the Supreme Court 35 times, debated for four years in high school and two years in college. Frederick says those years gave him “great confidence in public speaking.”


“The movie portrayed the very fast talking that is done in modern debate, which is obviously not the kind of presentation style used by lawyers in court,” says Frederick, a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Kellogg, Huber, Hansen, Todd, Evans & Figel.

“But researching, writing and analyzing arguments for and against a particular position are all common features of modern legal advocacy, as well as debate.”

Blatt, who participated in high school debate, recommends the experience for anyone considering working as a lawyer, and particularly a litigator. Blatt points out that most lawyers have “virtually little or no ability to train in oral presentation.”

Blatt says learning how to advance an argument and take apart an opponent’s argument can prepare a lawyer for the most vicious or difficult courtroom battle.

“Debate helps you get comfortable with confrontation,” says Blatt, who served more than a decade as an assistant to the U.S. solicitor general. “For litigators, that’s important.”

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.