Make It Your Courtroom!
Steve Clements & Claudia Coplon
Do you go on auto-pilot when you enter the courtroom? Or are you just starting out and looking for your voice during trials? Whichever the scenario, you must be best positioned to capture the attention of the jury, judge, observers in the gallery and even the press to accomplish your goals.
Without question, the courtroom is a stage and the lawyers, judges and witnesses the actors in the play. Yes, the courtroom must be given its due reverence. It is the site wherein accused after accused is given the right to a fair hearing based on all the issues. However, no two trial attorneys or even expert witnesses bring an equal amount of “fair” to hearings. The difference lies in quality of court performance.
The reality is few people have the theatrical voice, gesture, and movement of a Belli, Darrow, or Bailey. Therefore, it is up to each trial attorney to examine (and re-examine) what works in court, and, for those who have been doing this for years, what used to work in court. Just like an actor who has played one particular role on Broadway for years, ennui sets in, and the performance can become a poor facsimile of the original.
This comparing the fiction of a Broadway role with the search for truth in a court of law is not intended to cast aspersion on the courtroom. Nevertheless, the truth remains. If two trial lawyers were to use the same questions of the same witnesses, and make the same statements in front of the same jury, the outcome of the case would vary each time. Why? Your audience, the jury, judge, client, and other courtroom players are influenced by “packaging” and stage presence. So how do you ensure your packaging is intact, in concert with your style, and effective?
Examine your approach to the courtroom. Has it become rote? As a result, is your track record as great as it was five years ago? Have you sought new ways to utilize your growing maturity to create ways to make your court performance reflective of the person you are today, rather than the person you were when you began your career? Re-evaluation is needed for everyone who has performed the same role in life hundreds, even thousands of times.
Or are you just starting out, and seeking that persona that maximizes the opportunity for victory for your clients? Then it’s time for evaluation. (Even when you discover that basic persona, there are still variations within you that will be more effective depending on client, jury profile, the nature of the case, and/or the disposition of the judge.)
Take a moment and consider:
Are you examining the body language of every essential player in the courtroom, so that you can respond to restlessness, tension, hostility, and compassion?
Begin to “learn the room.” Increase your awareness of how you and the situation are being perceived. When examining a witness, include everyone in the courtroom through both your eye contact and body language. Demand they participate, they listen, that they gain a feeling of interaction directly with you. Start with your next court case. Make a commitment to meet the eyes of each member of the jury, and not to look away until that connection has registered on the jury member. Perfect that, then add the judge, the opposing counsel, etc. Work each courtroom until you “read” the thoughts coming back to you.
Are you receiving the visceral reaction you seek from the key trial participants?
Your energy in the courtroom should equate with that of an on-stage performer. A competent but low-key trial attorney will not command the attention of a competent attorney whose stage presence dominates the room. It may be time to “freshen” your performance. Try different levels of energy for each of two or three trials and find your personality again.
Remember, your personality is a combination of personas. Aren’t you a variation of yourself for your family, your colleagues, your clients, and others, each an aspect of you? Listen to yourself when you interact with others in your life. What personality traits might give you a new edge in the courtroom? For example, if quiet intensity has become a new aspect of your conversational style in recent years, it can be adapted successfully into your courtroom performances.
Are your questions, statements, and speeches registering maximum advantage? Do you sense a thud rather than a bolt of electricity going through the courtroom?
Don’t allow your examinations to drift. It bores the judge, jury, and audience, and minimizes your impact. Make your questioning incremental, each adding to the final goal. Otherwise you risk negative feedback for you and your client.
Keep updating summaries for those who have missed a point, or might have tuned out for a period of time. That also leads all involved to the conclusions you are trying to convince them to reach.
Above all, be articulate. This is the strongest advice I give my clients and the area of greatest emphasis during training. Hesitations, misstatements, long pauses, or the inability to find the correct word or question reduce confidence. Practice out of court in order to strengthen the message itself and the way in which you deliver that message. If possible, utilize an oral communication expert to videotape simulated appearances in the courtroom, and analyze whether or not you are who you envision as you deliver opening statements, cross-examinations, and summations.