I’ve previously written about how young lawyers enjoy an undeserved reputation for honesty. It’s a gift. Don’t squander it.
Similarly, when jurors encounter a trial lawyer for the first time, the lawyer’s mere presence in the courtroom says many things before the lawyer opens her mouth. This observation comes from the trusted Professor McElhaney. In a chapter from Litigation (ABA 1995) entitled “The Most Important Witness,” he suggests that a trial lawyer’s presence in the courtroom implicitly says to the jury:
- “I have studied the facts and understand what this dispute is all about. You can trust me to steer you straight.
- I have carefully screened the witnesses. I will only call those who will tell you the truth.
- I know the law that governs this case. Justice is on our side.
- If I introduce evidence, it is because it is important.
- If I leave something out, it is because it is not important.
- And If I attack a witness, it is because he is not telling the truth.” (Id. at 9.)
Of course, just as with a young lawyer’s unearned reputation for honesty, each of the above assumptions can be quickly proven wrong. Witness choice is a perfect example. While you sometimes have no choice but to present a dodgy witness, this should not be undertaken lightly. As Professor McElhaney points out:
“[T]he very act of putting the witness on the stand implies that you are vouching for his credibility. . . . Whom do the jurors blame for a bad witness? Listen closely to the comments clerks and bailiffs hear every day. ‘I wonder where she got that guy?’ ‘Where did he dig him up?’ ‘Can’t he find someone better than that?'” (Id. at 11.)
Another opportunity to prove the jury wrong in their initial positive impression arises from how you organize your evidence presentation, including direct examination of your witnesses. How you conduct the examination, what you leave in and what you leave out can affirm or undermine the assumption that “If I introduce evidence, it is because it is important.” As McElhaney says it:
“A confused, rambling examination suggests a disorganized understanding of the facts. Not only does it fail to tell the story effectively, a poor direct examination is the living picture of a guide who cannot be trusted to lead a jury through the thicket of facts in the case.
Dwelling at length on small points is a little different. At first it suggests that the seemingly insignificant detail will become important later on.
Why? Just putting it in the case says it is worth the jury’s while.
So the first time the fact that took so long to explain turns out to be meaningless, the jury feels cheated. When it happens again, they wonder whether the lawyer is trying to kick sand in their faces or is just inept.” (Id.)
The jurors are your friends, your students and your wards. Don’t kick sand in their faces.