This workshop will offer young lawyers vocational training in speaking in court

Jun 10, 2018, 07:14 IST | Benita Fernando

A first-of-its-kind workshop is set to offer young lawyers the much-needed vocal training that their profession needs

This workshop will offer young lawyers vocational training in speaking in court
Illustration/Uday Mohite

Voice coach Hetal Varia is with us in the newsroom, asking us to knock our shoes off. Following her instructions, we stand at ease, our feet resting solidly on the floor. Mimicking Varia, we place our hand on our throat as she hums the wail of a siren. It lifts over the background score of thunder and rain lashing on the windows. It is hard to believe that the petite Varia, who turns 32 this week, can sound as loud and clear as this.

The trick is that Varia has harnessed the power of her voice, and is keen that young lawyers do so too at her upcoming workshop. On June 13 and 14, Varia will lead an intensive workshop at Si Bambai, Fort, for practising lawyers on vocal confidence, speaking with authority, and conserving your voice in the long run. "The workshop is not a personality development class. It is for young lawyers to understand how they can use their voice better, and then it is up to them to use it as they wish in courtroom situations," says Varia, who holds a postgraduate degree in voice studies from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, London.

Voice coach Hetal Varia. Pic/Datta Kumbhar
Voice coach Hetal Varia. Pic/Datta Kumbhar

You don't have to be a law student or a practising lawyer to know that dramatic court scenes are best left to American television serials and Bollywood. In fact, if you have sat in for one of the hearings at the sessions court in Fort, you will see that the chance to and inspire the milling crowd around you with your oratory skills is not the point at all. In fact, amidst the noise in the corridors, consider yourself lucky, as you sit in the third row, if you can hear the arguments presented by the lawyers to the judge. Mrunalini Deshmukh, one of the city's top divorce lawyers, says that arguing in court comes as a package. "The topmost things are the facts of the case, followed by the relevant law applicable to the facts. Then comes how you interpret the facts, and, lastly, what's as important, is how you present the argument," says Deshmukh, who has handled the divorces of noted celebrities.

No room for drama
Chirag Balyan, assistant professor of law at Maharashtra National Law University (MNLU), says that every advocate has his/her own style. He evokes the  example of Harish Salve, who practices at the Supreme Court and formerly served as the Solicitor General of India, and Mukul Rohatgi, the 14th Attorney General for India. "Both have contrasting voice modulation, intonation and demeanour, and are equally effective in court. Courtroom craft is about presenting arguments in a coherent and structured manner. At the end of the day, every lawyer's aim is this: can you persuade the judge with your case theory in those crucial two minutes?" says Balyan.

Mrunalini Deshmukh, divorce lawyer
Mrunalini Deshmukh, divorce lawyer

In her decade-long experience as theatre practitioner and voice coach, Varia has mentored RJs, choir groups, actors and dancers. The actor has also worked with IPTA (Indian People's Theatre Association) and Gillo Theatre Repertory. The point of cultivating your voice, as we learn from her, is one that requires you to train your body and your breath. It is not a job for your vocal folds alone. In one of her exercises, she asks us to go on a 'spine roll', in which we bend head first, then neck, then spine. When we unroll ourselves, slowly, with Varia's assistance, we feel the difference.

"There is a sense of lengthening your body, through good posture. This relaxes your vocal folds, avoiding any constrictions, helping your breath, and therefore your voice, to flow freely. This, eventually, with more focussed work, makes you sound more confident," she says. She also notes, "It is not that you need to have a voice like Amitabh Bachchan to be taken seriously. But, an extremely high-pitched voice could work against you in a courtroom." While you may disagree with her scepticism regarding the effectiveness of high pitches, the courtroom is no place for drama. Atharva Dandekar, 29, a litigator at the Bombay High Court, says, "Judges do not have patience for lawyers' dramatics. A lawyer could be kind of an actor — he/she has to project confidence — but the arguments cannot be rammed down a judge's throat." Such display of emotion is often perceived as a distraction tactic. To the extent that last December, the Supreme Court stated that shouting in court will "not be tolerated at any cost", after a number of incidents in which senior lawyers argued in high-pitches, notably Kapil Sibal, Rajeev Dhavan and Dushyant Dave in the Babri Masjid title suit.

Moot court practice
For Dandekar, who describes himself as an introvert, talking publicly in a courtroom was a matter of building confidence. As a student at Pravin Gandhi College of Law, Vile Parle West, he had a stutter that came in the way of his speech. What helped fix the problem was participating in moot courts, a staple programme in law colleges worldover in which mock-courtroom scenarios are made available for students. Currently in Mumbai, it's the only practical knowledge of arguing in courtrooms, should students wish to pursue litigation, available. It was so even in Deshmukh's time, when she was studying at the Government Law College in the early 1980s. The nuances of how to use your voice are learnt on the job, through trial and error, and by observing your seniors. Today, Deshmukh knows that voice modulation goes a long way, even as she is sensitive to the emotions of couples going through divorce proceedings. "Some points need to be made vociferously. For example, maintenance issues, non-compliance of orders for custody, providing monetary support - in these cases, a bit of firmness, a higher tone for conviction are required. However, when it comes to child custody, you have to change the modulation and decibels, and sound more appeasing," she says.

While this is Varia's first workshop with a group of lawyers, her repertoire includes one-on-one sessions with veterans, mainly in an attempt to conserve their voice. Several years of litigation causes a strain in their voices, leading to hoariness. In her workshop, Varia will show those who are starting out in the profession methods to use the vocal cords without abusing them. But Balyan disagrees. "The voice is such a thing that the more you use it, the more it gets better. Look at Ram Jethmalani, who at 94, still makes his presence felt in court," he says.

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