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Sybil Procedure: How to build a national speaking practice

Sybil Dunlop

Sybil Dunlop

Every once in a while, I realize that I’ve learned something in my years practicing law. One of those moments occurred last Friday, on my way home from Atlanta, where people actually paid to listen to me speak for six hours. On the flight home, I thought about the places that I traveled this year and I realized (proudly!) that I have a national speaking practice.

These days, I am primarily paid to speak on the topic of implicit bias in the legal profession (and how we can fix it), but I also teach daylong courses on legal writing and depositions. (At this point, my daughter might roll her eyes and say something like “your family might pay you to stop talking.”) But on the off chance that you, reader, are interested in building a national speaking practice, I have a few pieces of advice to offer.

First, consider whether you want one. These days, I’m hopping on a plane more than once a month to speak to an audience outside of Minnesota. The flights can be long. I usually spend the night away from home. And the pay doesn’t come close to covering the time I spend preparing for any of my presentations. So why do it? Two primary reasons: it helps me become a better lawyer, and I really enjoy it.

How is it helping me become a better lawyer? I teach day-long courses about legal writing and depositions. To do this, I offer the audience my own thoughts and opinions about legal writing and depositions, but I also undertake a lot of research. What are best practices? What do other writers on these topics say? I watch videos of other depositions and take notes. I study Aristotle and Daniel Kahneman as well as research suggesting that female-named hurricanes are deadlier than male-named hurricanes1 as I think about how to depose witnesses. All of this research and thought is helping me improve my own practice.

I also enjoy it. I’m a litigator. And many of us litigators are showboats. If I could sing and dance, I would love to be a Broadway star. But, alas, I can do neither. Instead, I get to perform around the country to legal audiences and aim to keep their attention and engagement. This is fun stuff and as close as I’m going to get to a chorus line.

If this sounds like a good time to you too, I have a few pieces of advice to offer:

  1. Say yes. I started teaching CLEs by saying yes to anyone who asked me to teach. I taught courses about § 1983 law in dimly lit hotels in Bloomington. I applied to speak at local conferences. Once people know that you’re a willing speaker, the calls will start coming in.
  2. Be informative. I spend double or triple the amount of time preparing to teach a course than I spend teaching the actual course. I also spend my spare time reading books that (I hope!) will inform my presentations and ensure high-quality content. Example: the last three books I’ve read were Biased (by Jennifer Eberhardt); White Fragility (by Robin DiAngelo); and 10,000 Depositions Later (by Jim Garrity). It helps that I teach courses on subject matter that genuinely interests me. But I occasionally miss reading novels . . .
  3. Be entertaining. Audiences don’t just want to be informed, they want to have fun. This doesn’t mean that I include bad jokes (although sometimes I do). But it does mean that I’m thoughtful about limited attention spans. After losing attention from a topic, folks generally want to rest, to try a different kind of activity, or to change mental focus. When I teach a six-hour course, I try to do these things within the course. I include moments of group participation, videos, group conversation, and stories to keep folks’ attention from wandering.
  4. Build a reputation on a topic. These days, I most frequently speak on the topic of implicit bias in the law. I started teaching this course a few years ago after reading a 2016 Harvard Business Review article called Why Diversity Programs Fail. The article taught me that threats, blame, and negative incentives can result in adverse effects. In contrast, engaging participants in solving the problem and encouraging social accountability for change drives better outcomes. So I set out to create a program would leave folks feeling energized. I also started writing about the topic and telling anyone who would listen that I would be happy to share my program with them. My next step is to write a book on the topic (Working title: Why the legal profession is the nation’s least diverse and how we can change it). I now have a heck of a lot to say on the topic and I’m eager to write down all the information I’ve learned while teaching (and improving) my course. And I hope that a book will continue to build my reputation as someone who is knowledgeable as to this topic.
  5. Partner with a speaker’s bureau. I’m grateful to partner with the Professional Education Group who pairs me with audiences looking for a speaker. But there are other organizations out there who will find you speaking gigs. Once you’re on their list, they will help find you gigs.
  6. Be easy to work with. When folks hire me to speak, I respond to emails promptly. I send in my slides on time. I don’t demand first-class airfare. This is low hanging fruit, but based on comments that I have received from clients, a lot of folks are missing the low hanging fruit.
  7. Improve. I try to constantly improve my programs. I watch audiences for moments when I lose them or they start to look at their laptops. I listen to the feedback I receive from my presentations. I look for articles and books to read so that I can learn more and keep becoming a better teacher. The more I do this, the better I get.

Don’t get me wrong, I love practicing law (and practicing law takes up the majority of my time). But teaching compliments my practice. It helps me become a better lawyer and hones my presentation skills. And in the era of the vanishing trial, getting opportunities to entertain on your feet is priceless. Finally, at the end of a six-hour presentation, the audience usually applauds. I’ll freely confess that I’ve never yet gotten a judge to do so.


  1. I am not making this up! “Feminine-named hurricanes (vs. masculine-named hurricanes) cause significantly more deaths, apparently because they lead to a lower perceived risk and consequently less preparedness,” a team of researchers wrote in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (Available at:

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