The Ancient Art of Advocacy Logo

Practising and learning from opening speeches

In this section, we are going to be looking at some of the speeches of some of the greatest legal orators of all time, starting with John Philpot Curran, then looking at some of the speeches of Sir Thomas Erskine. 

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."… He also said "Eloquence ... was not only the most popular, but one of the shortest roads to eminence [as a barrister]" so if you want to get to the top of the profession studying rhetoric is a good way to go. Curran lived in a very volatile time; he was a contemporary of Erskine, and also involved in defending people against political crimes.

The first opening speech we are going to look at is Curran's opening in R v Hamilton Rowan. 

R v Hamilton Rowan - Background to the case

In 1790 Hamilton Rowan helped found the Dublin Society of United Irishmen, working alongside famous radicals such as William Drennan, and Theobald Wolfe Tone. Hamilton Rowan was arrested in 1792 for seditious libel –a political charge –when caught handing out "An Address to the Volunteers of Ireland", a piece of United Irish propaganda. As a prominent member of the Irish gentry, Hamilton Rowan was an important figure in the United Irishmen. He visited other radical societies in Scotland, and upon his return to Dublin, he was charged with seditious libel. The government, concerned about the inflammatory trial, posted guards around the court, and you can pdfread Curran's opening speech- which comments on the strange and fearful nature of the proceedings, here.1.29 MB

Key learning points from Curran's opening speech

Whilst the opening speech is an excellent one in its own right, Curran had a little help. As someone who was very familiar with the speeches of Cicero, Socrates and Demosthenes he often based his speeches on the speeches of some of these great orators, and used his own knowledge of classical legal speeches to help him build his own. As a new or developing advocate that's not a bad idea to follow, particularly if you want to get to the top of your profession. Great rhetorical speeches tend to be built on the foundations of other great speeches - for example, the speech of pdfRobert Emmett550.76 KB was used by Winston Churchill as the basis of his "We shall fight them on the beaches" speech, and in this case, Curran has largely based his opening speech on Cicero's opening speech in Pro Milone. Prior to the Bar exam being invented the classical way of becoming an advocate involved studying legal rhetoric, logic, and law, and studying and analysing great speeches and cross examinations as a way of developing your own technique. That is a method that has been used for over 2000 years and you are encouraged to do the same!

You can read an excellent analysis of how Curran uses legal rhetoric and applies rhetorical techniques to his own speeches in this paper 'Classical Rhetoric in the Legal
pdfyou can read it here. 1.13 MB, by James M Farrell. The basic lesson from this is there is nothing wrong with reading up on great speeches and then using your knowledge of these (pre 1950) speeches to help craft your own. However, make sure these are pre-1950 speeches at least, and never copy the speech of a barrister that is still alive, unless they've given you permission. But using speeches from Cicero, Socarates or Demosthenes is fine, and studying the speeches of the great legal orators can only help you develop your advocacy skills. The more of these speeches you have got in your head, the more flexibility you will have as an advocate as you will have a data bank of great phrases that you can draw on if you need to. So if you spot a particularly apt phrase that grabs you, make a note of it.


You are not authorised to post comments.