I learned many things about arguing in law school. But one lesson in particular was a gob-smacking lesson: always be able to argue both sides. Not only is it important when you want to practice law (which I didn’t do), but it’s also essential for leaders.

Leaders make decisions after listening to arguments. Sometimes leaders argue to get what they want. What is important no matter what side of the decision you sit is that you know both sides of the argument. Otherwise, you could be missing the point.

The Debate

It was debate day in my first year of law school in the late 1970’s. The rules were that two students argued a case before a panel and audience as if it were a real courtroom. My class partner and I were assigned the topic: Should Laetrile be made legal? I was to argue the government’s side against legalization, and my partner, the side of desperate and terminally ill cancer patients.

The judges of this competition? Our dean and two professors. The audience? Our entire class.

The stakes were high.

We had two weeks to prepare. All I knew about Laetrile at the time was that Steve McQueen, the actor, had gone to Mexico to buy this drug as a last ditch effort to treat his hopeless cancer. I also had a vague idea Laetrile was made from ground up apricot pits.

I headed for the stacks. It was the year before the legal research online search tool, LEXIS, was introduced to our school, so we lived in the law library. I started by learning about Laetrile. Turns out that the product derives from amygdalin (from the ancient Greek “amygdalin” meaning almond.) First investigated in 1830, amygdalin is a glycoside (molecule bonded to sugar) isolated from the seeds of a tree known as bitter almonds. Beginning in the early 1950’s, both amygdalin and Laetrile (a modified form or amygdalin), also called Vitamin B although neither are vitamins) were promoted as cures for cancer.

When I did my research, I found no clinical study showing any effectiveness of Laetrile in treating or ameliorating cancer. What studies did show, however, was either amygdalin or Laetrile taken by mouth could be potentially lethal. The studies did not point to dangers of being injected with Laetrile. Steve McQueen and others like him seeking a cure for their cancer took Laetrile by injection.

Next I immersed myself in the daunting task of studying the history and regulations of the Food and Drug Administration, as well as related legal actions. I barely left my staked-out spot in the library for days. Then it was time to sift through what I had learned, to eliminate the irrelevant, compare notes with my partner, and to organize our arguments.

The day had arrived, and we were both extremely anxious—even though we were well prepared.

I went first. I laid out the facts, made my arguments and sat down—to total silence. If I expected applause (and I probably did), reality was quiet. My partner made his presentation and began to sit down. But before he got far, the law school dean invited me back to the podium and said to both of us, “Now switch sides.”

Neither of us moved. One of us said, “Excuse me?”

“You heard me. I want you each to argue the other side of your proposition.” He motioned for me to begin.

My brain was missing. Nothing was happening up there except sheer, raw panic. Finally, since I didn’t have any other choice, my brain said, “Well, Judy…Get on with it!”

I began to speak, voice cracking, knees knocking like the first time I ever gave a speech. I don’t remember a word that I said. I do remember collapsing into the chair as my partner took his turn.

While this was unplanned and panic-inducing way to learn it, I appreciated the lesson. In law, you certainly have to be able to argue both sides effectively. But for leadership, I learned you couldn’t fully see your side until you can fully see the other side.

This concept is essential for leaders, managers, and anyone who wants to or needs to influence others. If you don’t understand both sides of an argument, then you don’t understand the side you are on—a slippery slope at best.

PS: I did some more research on Laetrile (mostly as a refresher for writing this). Here’s what I learned:

“The risk-benefit balance of [laetrile] as a treatment for cancer is unambiguously negative. The promotion of laetrile to treat cancer has been described in the medical literature as a canonical example of quackery and as ‘the slickest, most sophisticated, and certainly the most remunerative cancer quack promotion in medical history.’” (Source: Wikipedia)