A week and a half ago, we held our first Voir Dire Master Class. Four lawyers came together to workshop their specific cases with me on Friday and then conduct a voir dire with two sets of mock jurors on Saturday. The group included two plaintiff attorneys from Portland, one from Virginia, and a public defender from Montana. Some of the attorneys had only been practicing a handful of years, others, close to 20.
When Saturday arrived, the lawyers were sequestered in a separate room while the first set of mock jurors milled about, eating breakfast pastries and drinking coffee. At 9 a.m. sharp I invited the jury to take their seats and gave them their instructions. They would hear from each attorney for about 20 minutes, during which time they would be asked a variety of questions to determine whether they’d be a good juror for the particular case. When the attorney was finished, they’d be given a questionnaire to fill out that asked things like, “Was the attorney believable?” “Did you feel encouraged to speak up?” “What do you think this case was about?” They would then have an opportunity to address the lawyer with specific comments while I coached the attorney in real time.
I then went and fetched the attorneys. They all looked as though they were about to throw up, pass out, or both. As they filed into the “courtroom” some smiled at the jurors, others nervously walked past with their head down. When they presented their voir dire, some had shaky hands, others wandered too much or conversely, stayed frozen in one spot. But by the end of the day, all of the attorneys were able to do the one thing that matters most at trial.
What do the best lawyers all have in common? Nothing. That is, nothing concrete like excellent presentation skills or amazing legal brilliance or the ability to connect with jurors from the get-go. All those things help in trial, don’t get me wrong, but some of the best trial attorneys of my acquaintance aren’t skilled orators or even particularly brilliant. What they are is authentic.
We tend to think that the ability to persuade comes down to a set of skills, but the truth is, people are more apt to trust us and our version of events when we simply show them who we are. This is why gimmickry of any kind utterly backfires in court; jurors feel manipulated.
So when this group of attorneys asked me whether they should button their coat or leave it open, or if they should start with “Good morning” or just get right to the point, I asked, “What’s authentic to you?” There simply isn’t one “right” way to communicate at trial. Effective communication is going to look different for every attorney I encounter.
Jurors will trust and believe an attorney with a wrinkled suit* and shaky hands any day over a polished attorney who isn’t real. Whether we’re talking about Gerry Spence or Rick Friedman or Moe Levine, the best trial attorneys are comfortable in their own skin.
*Not that I recommend this, of course.