VBI Family: Interview with Neil Conrad

Neil Conrad is a law clerk for a federal judge, and recently graduated from the University of Chicago Law School with a J.D. He graduated from Tulane University in 2008 with a B.A. in Political Science, Economics, and International Development. In high school, he debated for the Texas Military Institute, where he won, among other things, the Greenhill Round Robin. He is an assistant coach for the Greenhill School, and has coached multiple TOC qualifiers and tournament champions. He attended VBI in the summers of 2002 and 2003 as a student, and returned as an instructor every year between 2004 and 2010. 

It’s said that a lot of Lincoln-Douglas debaters go on to become lawyers, which seems to hold true for you! Do you think skills you learned from debate have helped you out in law school?

I do think the transition from high school debater to law student is a relatively natural progression, and I was able to apply some of the skills I had developed in debate to law-school work. In particular, the ability to research efficiently and to argue points on the spot proved immediately helpful. Although not as immediate, I also learned to apply the concept of “spreading” to typical law school exams.  Somewhat surprisingly, law students tend to be rewarded on the typical exam more for the number of issues they spot rather than for the depth of their analysis. Eventually I realized this and started preparing for law school exams in a similar way that a debater might block out a position.

You participated in (and won) the Hinton Moot Court competition at the University of Chicago. How was that different from LD? How was it similar?

UChicago’s moot court competition is based on an oral argument before an appellate court. At first blush, an appellate oral argument is quite different than an LD round. The most fundamental difference is that an oral argument requires that the speaker respond to questions from the judges in real-time. As a result, the speaker is not directly competing with the advocate on the other side, so much as conversing with the judges about the issues the judges deem important. You may, for example, not be asked a single question about what the opposing advocate actually said—in which case you would do well not to address the other side’s arguments directly. In LD, that would be an anathema, and in most cases, a losing strategy.

There are certainly similarities, however, especially in the way someone prepares for an oral argument. Being able to anticipate the best answers to your position, and taking the position that preempts those answers as best as possible, is one of my favorite skills to teach in LD, and that skill transfers rather directly to appellate oral arguments. I also think the ability to think on your feet and to answer questions quickly is an LD skill that translates easily.

You wrote your senior thesis on the role of the separation of powers in international law. How has debate influenced your interest in international affairs?

Debate sparked my interest in international affairs and was the single biggest reason I decided to study international relations in college. During my junior and senior years in high school, we debated two foreign policy topics: one about the right of humanitarian intervention, the other about globalization. I remember encountering international relations theory for the first time while preparing for those topics, and when I started college, I knew I wanted to study that material more. Over time, I began to pursue other courses of study, but I’m still interested in international affairs. (And it’s probably no surprise to people who know me that I still prefer to coach foreign policy topics in debate.)

You recently returned to coaching after a brief hiatus at law school. How do you think LD has changed since then?

I think the activity has changed some since 2010, but I don’t think the difference between 2010 and 2014 is as big as the difference between, say, 2004 (the year I graduated high school) and 2008. The pervasiveness of metaethics and theory has grown since 2010, and I think top debaters are generally more able to win tournaments without knowing much about the core topic area. But even back in 2009 and 2010, I think the trend toward framework and theory had begun.

What is your favorite memory from VBI as an instructor?

After teaching at VBI for as long as I did, it’s too hard to pick a single, discrete memory. I had the good fortune of working with so many bright, energetic students and co-instructors. I loved the atmosphere that Victor Jih and Mike Bietz were able to create at the camp—an atmosphere that produced so many good memories. I guess, if I had to narrow it down, one of my favorite memories was being able to see debaters in each generation of VBI students subsequently return and become great instructors at the camp. It was especially rewarding to see a former student take something she had learned at camp, improve upon it, and then teach the new-and-improved skill or concept to a younger generation of students. I loved seeing that process of innovation over the years.

If you could say one debate-related thing to your sophomore self, what would it be? 

I would say something to the effect of “If you’re serious about being a great debater, practice, practice, practice—your natural speaking ability, intelligence, or whatever intrinsic skill you think you have will only take you so far.” I say that because I think there are lots of bright young debaters out there who think that they can become excellent debaters because of their natural talent. These debaters often get frustrated when they lose rounds where they think their opponent lacked their natural skill or where they think the judge just got it wrong. That frustration stunts a debater’s development. LD involves a set of specialized, technical skills. Natural talent helps, but it doesn’t guarantee success. Being a great debater takes lots of practice and repetition. And the flip-side, which is also worth considering, is that you can be great even if you’re not the smartest or naturally the best speaker. 

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