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Stand up to your stammer

16 October 17

Do you suffer from a stammer? Do you see it as a barrier to your choice of legal career? One solicitor tells how even criminal court practice is not beyond someone with an incurable stammer

by Joe Boyd

The British Stammering Association estimates that around 1% of the adult population has a stammer. While this is a low statistic, it represents a significant number of people. To apply it to the total number of practising solicitors in Scotland at the moment, this corresponds to more than 110.

I have had a stammer ever since I can remember being able to speak. One of my earliest memories is being in primary 2. In order to speak at all, I had to make a prolonged “Ahhh” noise for several seconds before leading into what I wanted to say.

Over the years, I have undergone several instances of speech therapy. I also joined the McGuire Programme, which is an international support network for people who stammer, founded and run by stammerers. While there is no cure for a stammer, or indeed no absolute theory in relation to what causes it, I have been taught both physical and mental tools and techniques to help me best manage it. Like anything else, there are good days and bad, and it can be hard consistently to find the time and the motivation to carry out the exercises to keep it at bay.

Overt and covert

While those who don’t stammer are presented with the physical signs of it when the person who stammers speaks, they do not see the psychological side: the guilt, shame and weakness that the person who stammers feels. 

There are two types of a stammering person: covert and overt. For the latter, their stammers are so obvious that there is nothing they can do to try and conceal them. However, for the coverts (which is the category I fall into), they will try anything to conceal they have a stammer at all, and to exude the image that they can speak like the other 99% of the population. 

In a sense, it can be easier being an overt stammerer, as they don’t have to worry and strain on continually trying to conceal this. Their fear of being exposed as having a stammer is extinguished, and they can focus on simply trying to improve it. The other side of this, of course, is the notion that overt stammerers can withdraw from events and society more than coverts, such is the frustration that having an overt stammer causes. Not easy all round!

And in court too?

I have lost count of the number of tricks and avoidance strategies I have developed over the years to try continually to conceal my stammer. For example, adding “filler words” to sentences, to ensure that I can smoothly carry on into the next part of what I am saying. However, I had to come to terms with the fact that I can’t always do this, and on occasion I have to “show my stammer off” in order to speak eloquently, if not fluently. Given all of this, some may wonder why I would ever want to become a court lawyer.

My first memory of wanting to become a lawyer was when I was about 11 years old and I saw a film called My Cousin Vinny for the first time. While I will not spoil the story of the film for those who have not seen it, but may wish to watch it after reading this, it is the best courtroom law film I have seen, and is one of my all time favourites. However, there was a lawyer portrayed near the beginning of the film who had a stammer, and was consequently sacked by his client due to stammering uncontrollably in court. I had mixed emotions from watching this. I desperately wanted to be Joe Pesci (Vinny), who played the main lawyer. But the effect of the stammering lawyer was not lost on me, and I think this gave me the motivation not to allow my stammer to stand in the way of what I wanted to be.

After graduating from Edinburgh University with a LLB Honours degree and the subsequent Diploma in 2009, I began my traineeship with an all-encompassing type rural firm. I loved it. We did criminal defence, civil court work, mental health tribunals, licensing hearings etc etc. I worked and sat with junior and senior counsel in High Court trials from being a first year trainee. The experience was amazing and palpable. I now work for one of the biggest criminal defence firms in the country. I am in court practically every day and I also run my own jury trials in the sheriff court.

A number of people who speak “normally” regularly comment to me that they don’t know how I can do the job I do. The thought of standing up in a court and speaking in public terrifies them, never mind if they had a stammer too. Essentially, in order to do what I do, I need to be continually focused on a number of things, including the way I breathe, my articulators, maintaining eye contact with those I am speaking to, and not allowing myself to be pressured into speaking quickly. 

The last of these can be particularly challenging in a pressurised courtroom environment. The pace at which things are said by all parties can be naturally quick, as the person speaking seeks to get their point across, and pauses can be interpreted as the speaker not knowing what they want to say, when in fact it can be a far more powerful and eloquent way of speaking to do the things that I have to do. The main challenge is consistently to remember to do all of them all the time! But I love what I do. Every case and every day is different. The interaction with clients, colleagues and sheriffs is formal and important, but there is also time for a lighthearted moment or two.

Take courage

Having a stammer used to embarrass me greatly. I can’t recall experiencing anything more frustrating than knowing exactly what I have wanted to say, but not being able to say it.

I would never have written this article or made this disclosure several years ago. It totally rails against the years of avoidance and concealment strategies that I have naturally developed. However, as I have matured and undergone more courses and education in relation to my stammer, I have realised that most people are not bothered about whether I stammer or not. They have their own problems to deal with! On the contrary, the vast majority are unbelievably impressed and supportive of what I do in spite of having a stammer.

The purpose of this article is, first, to try to raise awareness of stammering in the legal profession, and secondly to encourage and demonstrate to those who may experience similar issues and may think otherwise, that a law career and a courtroom job is not necessarily barred to them. 

I sincerely hope this message reaches the people it should. 

Joe Boyd is a solicitor with Paterson Bell Ltd, Edinburgh

Sheriff Principal Derek Pyle writes:

My goodness, for Joe to confess all takes some courage! My experience has been exactly the same, only for longer. I didn’t go to the bar because I knew that in those days you had no choice but to stand up in a busy court and say “I appear for…”. As Joe says, stammerers need workarounds, but I could think of none that meant that no one would notice. As it turned out, building a legal business ended up being much more fun for me, but my career would have been different.

It never goes away, but young stammerers should know that you can still make it. I can stand up in front of 100 people and give a lecture, sometimes without a note. But on a bad day I struggle with a call centre. There is no rhyme or reason to it.

I have six sons; two of them stammer. Yet one has a successful career in banking, while the other is an officer on superyachts and sails all over the world. They both were captains of their rugby teams. You don’t stammer when you shout…

Sheriff Frank Crowe writes:

Until Joe spoke to me about his background I did not notice he stammered. Since we have discussed this topic I am alert to the situation and can assist if an impasse is reached in court. I think we all stammer to an extent on occasion and those who think they have a problem should be encouraged to know that most of the time it is not noticed. If any young lawyer is starting out and worried about what might happen in court, I would suggest you mention the matter to the clerk of court and the judge can assist if need be.

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