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The Case of the Moldy Ginger Cake

How Toastmasters made me a better lawyer.

By V. Charles Ward, ATM


Remembering what Toastmasters had taught me, I looked the three magistrates in the eye. I then drew breath and delivered my 10-minute prepared speech. And all without looking once at my notes.

I was prosecuting counsel against a leading supermarket chain in England accused of selling a moldy ginger cake. But the retailer was not accepting responsibility. They blamed the manufacturer that produced the ginger cake and engaged their own experienced counsel to fight the case. But I was prepared. I had already subpoenaed the manufacturer.

After giving my opening speech, the rest of the trial was like Table Topics. It was about thinking on my feet and my verbal jousting with the defendant’s witnesses. But it had to be done in a way that created empathy, not antagonism. I also had to respond to technical points raised by the opposing counsel and sum up my case within five minutes. Any longer and the magistrates would lose patience. After the last word had been spoken, there was the evaluation. It was delivered by the chairman of the bench in five words: “We find the defendant guilty.”

It was a tough case, and I couldn’t have won it without Toastmasters. It also made me realize that rules of advocacy are universal. No one wants a lawyer who comes to court unprepared. Or who “ums” and “ahs.” Or falls asleep.

I discovered Toastmasters from a business card pinned to a library noticeboard. It spoke about becoming confident in public speaking. In those days, there was no internet. It caught my eye, because I had recently attended evening classes to learn effective speaking. The course was disappointing. For too much of it, I sat behind a desk, listening to instruction on public speaking instead of actually doing it.

So, one Thursday in September 1976, I attended my first Toastmasters meeting at the Southend-on-Sea Chambers of Commerce in Essex. When I moved 100 miles away to Hampshire, I wanted to rejoin Toastmasters but couldn’t find a club to join. It was not for want of trying.

In 1984 I moved to London and was delighted to find an entry for Toastmasters International in the telephone directory. I rang that number and soon attended a meeting of Grosvenor Square Toastmasters. With a 50-strong membership, this club was right for me. I quickly made friends and remained a member for the next 20 years.

Three decades after the ginger cake case, I am approaching retirement at the end of a 45-year legal career. I decided to write a book titled Legal Profession: Is it for You? in hopes to provide inspiration to students considering going into law and those contemplating a career change.

And yes, I left a special place in the book for Toastmasters. Like advocacy, the personal qualities that lend themselves to a successful legal career are universal. They are the same whether you practice in New York or Shanghai. It is about integrity, taking an interest in people and being passionate about what you do. Just like Toastmasters.