My title is World Class Advocacy: Achieving Excellence in what we do. I’m grateful to my latest successor as Director of Training in the Faculty of Advocates, Neil Mackenzie, for prompting this title by commenting on the energy, passion and values which he experienced in the early days of the devils’ advocacy skills course in the 1990s and which he was kind enough to say that Mike Jones and I exemplified when delivering the course.

World Class – that is certainly what we sought to achieve. In those early days we stood on the shoulders of giants from around the world in developing training here. Mike Jones and I both believed in excellence. Those training courses were the best we could make them.

But what does world class mean? I have had the privilege over many years of working with world class, elite athletes, operating at the highest levels in Olympic and other events. What world class means for them is what it should mean for all performers who aspire to excellence.

It is that extra bit of preparation, the fine tuning of a piece of equipment, the extra mile in every sense, persevering under pressure, standing back and assessing the situation. Focus, clarity, less is more, making a difference in the margins. They say that the difference between mere competence and world class performance lies in those margins.

A tenth of a second on the track, a millimetre above a bar, a pause before striking the ball. Alastair Cook, Johnny Wilkinson, Andy Murray, the list is endless of people who are talented but, much more than that, extract every ounce from each performance.

It’s what makes the difference. For Mike Jones as a world class advocate, it was every word being carefully chosen for its task, every question honed to a fine degree, each submission written so that the judge could use it verbatim in her opinion, thinking about the words, actions and visual aids which would create “events in the mind of the audience, in order to persuade”. No detail missed.

It comes with energy, passion, commitment to deliver the best. A sense of joy almost, and certainly an appreciation of the values that underscore excellent advocacy, as in elite sport. Not just turning up and playing out a role but whole-hearted participation in the event.

That is what leads to gold medals in sport, success at the highest levels in court and the admiration of your colleagues. Admiration is not necessarily affection. This dedication can place you in the margins, on the edges, not being part of the club. Top advocates have found that. It can be the same in sport.

The Brownlee brothers, Alastair and Jonny, were Olympic gold and bronze triathlon medallists respectively at the London Olympics in 2012. Rather than participate in a more conventional training plan, the Brownlees preferred to do it their way, on their hills. It was not easy.

As the BBC said at the time of their Olympic success: “Do not be fooled into thinking it was anything but brutally hard work. This was not only the culmination of thousands of hours on the bike in the lanes of the Yorkshire Dales, of endless lengths of Leeds swimming pools or miles run around the footpaths and trails of Bramhope, Otley and Bradford, but of nearly two hours of blisteringly fast, relentless racing under immense pressure.”

Peak performance under pressure may be the defining characteristic of the world class performer, be it advocate, athlete, business leader, surgeon or whoever. What happens when it all goes wrong? When you have only a moment in which to make a key, possibly life-changing, decision? How do you react? How do you manage the adrenaline surge? Does your fight or flight (or freeze) reflex kick in?

Or, do you have the resilience, the patience, the physical and mental resources to stay in control, keep calm, consider your options, formulate your words, breathe… even when everything seems lost?

Mike Jones had that resilience and those attributes. For others, thorough training gives us the opportunity to practice the key skills, build resilience, inculcate new habits, change the default setting from fearful anxiety to competent response. And even, on occasion, enables us to achieve world class advocacy.                              


Originally published as an article in The Scotsman on 9 December 2019


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