The extraordinary film “The King’s Speech” did more than just sweep the Academy Awards (winning Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay) and captivate the public imagination.
It shed light on an affliction that the general public knows relatively little about and at which society and Hollywood itself has poked fun. Colin Firth’s moving portrayal of England’s King George VI and his lifelong battle with stuttering helped raise awareness of this communication disorder that affects over 3 million Americans and more than 68 million people worldwide.
Watching as the reluctant monarch ascends to the throne in the wake of his older brother’s abdication, one cannot help but feel for Colin Firth’s character, whoÃ¯Â¿Â½in the age of radioÃ¯Â¿Â½must rally and inspire the British population through his public addresses as Hitler’s rise threatens the safety of Europe.
It is painful to watch “Bertie” struggle with the stoppages of sound and syllables, repetitions, and prolongations that characterize his stammering, just as one cheers the progress he makes with the aid of an understanding, if unconventional, speech therapist (played by Geoffrey Rush).
Watching this movie, it is impossible not to feel for the stuttering royal, born into a life of public appearances and speeches and desperately trying to live up to the expectations of a domineering, emotionally distant father.
How much easier would it have been for him if he’d lived in relative obscurity, able to avoid public speaking by pursuing some other profession? After all, a person who stutters wouldn’t seek out a job that demanded public speaking, like being a trial lawyerÃ¯Â¿Â½or would he?
The truth is, there are trial lawyers who stutter. In a profession whose hallmark is communication skills and whose public perception is tied to such skills (even slang terms for lawyers, like “mouthpiece,” are focused on their speaking abilities), one might think, “stutterers need not apply.”
But there are lawyersÃ¯Â¿Â½exceptional ones at thatÃ¯Â¿Â½who stutter. One of them is David Walton, a partner at Philadelphia-based Cozen O’Connor who practices labor and employment law and who spends a great deal of time in the courtroom. In law school, Walton says his stuttering was so bad that during moot court, the judge started crying in the middle of his argument because she felt sorry for him.
Walton, who had been turned down for sales jobs and discouraged from attending law school by family and friends because of his stutter, persevered. A law professor even told him that his stutter could be turned to his advantage, in that a jury would listen more closely to him.
As it turns out, that professor was right. Walton has gone on to a distinguished career as a trial lawyer. In one of his first major cases, a lengthy trade secrets trial, after the favorable verdict was rendered a group of jurors approached him. One juror told him that they really respected him because they knew he had a stutter, but that he showed real courage in being a trial lawyer.
As the jurors walked away, Walton says “I realized that I had something that was natural and genuine. It was an epiphanyÃ¯Â¿Â½my stutter was a great gift.”
Reflecting on his career and dealing with the adversity of a speech impediment, Walton goes on to state, “I wouldn’t change a thing about my stutter. It has made me tough; it has taught me how to fight through adversity. Yet everyone who is reading has something in their life like stuttering that they’ve had to overcome. The key is to use those experiences as strengths in a courtroom and provide the confidence to be yourself.”
The popular conception is that the last place for an attorney who stutters is in the courtroom. Just look at the movie “My Cousin Vinny,” and its portrayal of the stumbling, stammering defense lawyer who painfully struggles through an ineffectual cross-examination to the bewilderment of the jurors and the abject horror of his client.
Yet David Walton’s story is not an isolated case. In fact, another trial lawyer in Pennsylvania, William D. Parry, is a stutterer who has not only dealt with his disorder successfully in his legal career, but who has actually become a certified speech pathologist. Parry is the author of a book on understanding and controlling stuttering, and has helped countless others in coping with their stammers.
When I recently visited an online support group, the Stuttering Forum, one thread caught my eye. The discussion focused on law students who stutter and whether or not they should reconsider their career plans. A lawyer who identified himself as a stutterer gave an eloquent, moving response:
“Will it be tough for you, tougher than for other students? YES. Will you be denied jobs and clerkships because of your speech? YES. Will you want to go back to your room, crawl into a ball on the floor and sob every now and then? YES. On the other hand, will you be denied all jobs and all clerkships? NO. Will your speech make you a failure as a lawyer? NO! The legal profession needs fewer slick talkers and more ethical, devoted thinkers. You will find a rewarding role in the professionÃ¯Â¿Â½I did.”
It’s a subject that resonates with me personally. A good friend of mine, Christopher Egan, is a great attorney, a trial lawyer with the Tax Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. He has received various promotions and recognition for his successes over the course of his government service, including two Outstanding Attorney awards.
Since childhood, Chris has also coped with a stutter, frequently brought on by anxiety. When I first met Chris, he was dating my friend’s niece (they are now married and the parents of three beautiful children).
At the time, he was working as a CPA with a major accounting firm (Chris also has a master’s degree in accounting), but he really wanted to become a lawyer. I tried to talk him out of it, as did others. But Chris was intent on pursuing his dream, and was accepted to the SMU Dedman School of Law.
As I expected, it wasn’t easy. Chris did well enough in his classroom studies, but advocacy programs like moot court (in which student lawyers present appellate oral arguments) and mock trial challenged him like they challenged no other law student.
In fact, during one of his trial advocacy classes the professor actually played the “stuttering lawyer” scene from “My Cousin Vinny” as an illustration of what not to do at trial.
Chris says, “I felt great shame and anger” when the professor did that, and “the scene’s use as a teaching tool flooded my head with doubts and fears.” How could he expect to be a trial attorney, he wondered, when “I could hardly carry on a conversation sometimes.”
As tough as it was to be peppered with questions during a classroom exercise, interviewing for a job posed even bigger obstacles. I tried to help Chris become more relaxed and confident in an interview setting by enlisting attorney friends of mine to conduct practice interviews.
But it was to no availÃ¯Â¿Â½interview after interview went nowhere as hiring partners at tax firms couldn’t quite picture the young man with the painful stammer communicating with clients or presenting arguments in a courtroom.
As doors shut in his face, Chris refused to give up. He worked harder than ever, and he credits his Christian faith and the support he received at monthly meetings of the National Stuttering Association for building his confidence and “providing me with a safe place to explore my anxiety.”
Chris obtained an unpaid internship with the Department of Justice. There were no promises that it would lead to anything, but it was the shot he needed. Chris impressed his bosses enough to land a paid internship, and his performance in that job earned him a position after graduation with the DOJ.
Chris graduated with honors from SMU, made the school’s prestigious law review, and won awards for his legal writing. He’s gone on to distinguish himself at the DOJ, trying six cases and successfully arguing dozens of dispositive motions.
As Chris describes it, the whispers of doubt in his head are gone, and while “my speech is far from perfect, I am thankful every day that I took a risk and became a trial attorney.”
And that’s not allÃ¯Â¿Â½since 2006, Chris has served as president of the Dallas chapter of the National Stuttering Association.
Over the course of his education and career, ChrisÃ¯Â¿Â½like stutterers everywhereÃ¯Â¿Â½has had to overcome a great deal. Beyond coping with his speech disorder, he’s had to battle the many popular misconceptions and stigmas associated with stuttering. Such misconceptions are largely rooted in ignorance.
According to the Stuttering Foundation of America, there are several factors that can lead to stuttering. One is a genetic link; an estimated 60 percent of those who stammer have a family member who does so as well (David Walton’s father and brother both stutter).
Neurological research also points to a neurophysiological source as well, as people who stutter process speech and language slightly differently from those who don’t stutter. Other factors that have been identified with stuttering include childhood developmental delays and family dynamics.
Many well-known people have struggled with a stutter. They include not just King George VI, but people who have gone on to become reknowned for their public speaking or performing: Winston Churchill; actors James Earl Jones, Bruce Willis and Marilyn Monroe; country singer Mel Tillis; NBA great and analyst Bill Walton; broadcast journalist John Stossel; and business mogul and former General Electric CEO Jack Welch.
In “The King’s Speech,” King George VI is goaded by his speech therapist about why anyone should listen to what he has to say, and the frustrated monarch exclaims “Because I have a voice!”
If you know people who stutter, take the time to listen to them and to be supportive of their career aspirationsÃ¯Â¿Â½even if they want to be lawyers. After all, they too have a voice.
To learn more about stuttering, go to www.stutteringhelp.org, contact the Stuttering Foundation of America at 1(800) 992-9392, or contact the National Stuttering Association at www.nsastutter.org and at 1(800) 937-8888.