Tag Archives: spontaneity

The Recipe For “Successful Spontaneity” In the Courtroom

alg-court-jpgI’ve been reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. Actually, I’ve been listening to the book on CD during my long commutes between Santa Barbara, where I live, and Los Angeles, where I mostly work.

I really like Gladwell, because he seems to dwell in the world of irony. In Blink, he capitalizes on how we often make more accurate decisions quickly, based on less information, than we do if we take more time and are weighed down with more information.

In one part of the book, Gladwell focuses on spontaneity. He discusses the improvisational comedy group, “Mother,” which performed at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York city. He points out that, while the actors acted spontaneously on stage, reacting to what other actors said without any prearranged script, they were only able to perform so seamlessly because they spent a great deal of time both practicing and conducting post-performance analysis of each show.

Gladwell likened the actors’ level of pre- and post-performance effort to the preparation an army or navy undergoes in advance of an actual battle. Soldiers train, practice and even participate in highly elaborate war games to prepare for what they might encounter on the battlefield. Gladwell refers to this preparation as “creating the conditions [necessary] for successful spontaneity.”

It occurred to me that creating the conditions necessary for successful spontaneity in the courtroom can be viewed the same way. In other words, while the improvisational actors do not work off of a script, and soldiers cannot anticipate exactly what they will encounter on the battlefield, it is through meticulous preparation in advance of the performance or battle that both the actors and the soldiers are able to successfully respond spontaneously to whatever is thrown their way.

That same level of preparation is necessary in advance of trial in order for the lawyer to successfully respond spontaneously to whatever is thrown his or her way at trial. While most of us will craft an outline for direct or cross-examination, it is only by being thoroughly prepared that we can effectively deal with surprises, such as an unexpected evidentiary ruling, a witness who forgets or gets confused, or a judge who cuts our examination short.

Legendary trial lawyer Edward Bennett Williams took this level of preparation a step further. His preparation included “devil’s advocate research” which prepared him for surprises his opponent might hurl at him during trial. In an interview published in the Winter, 1986 issue of Litigation, he said:

“I believe that a lawyer should always have the devil’s advocate. In my office, the devil’s advocate researches each of our cases as we prepare it, persistently finding the holes and forcing us to prepare specifically against each of them. Whenever I go into court, I have completely prepared both sides of the case.

Some trial lawyers do not want to do this. They say, ‘My opponent is skillful. He will find all the law on his side. I am going to prepare only my side.’ But I don’t like it that way, and I don’t think it can be done that way.

I believe a lawyer must prepare both sides so that he will not be surprised by whatever may be hurled at him. After he is prepared in this way, even if his opponent does come up with some detail that may have escaped him, it cannot be so far from the facts already known that it will completely surprise him or put him at a total disadvantage.” (Litigation, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Winter 1986), p. 37.)

So prepare for trial like you’re taking the stage or walking onto the battlefield.

Cross-Examination: Equal Parts Preparation And Spontaneity?

tredEverything I’ve ever read and heard about trial preparation, including cross-examination, points to preparation as the single most important element of success. I know that strategy has always served me best. But what about the role of spontaneity? Surely, it’s not for new or uninitiated trial lawyers. But a recent post at The Velvet Hammer, in which Karen Koehler, an experienced trial lawyer, describes her experience cross-examining an expert at trial, highlights spontaneity as a crucial part of her strategy. She says:

“Us lawyers spend a lot of time preparing for cross, thinking about cross,  going to classes to learn about cross, and basically obsessing about cross and scaring ourselves to death over the prospect.  But here is the truth.  There is no one perfect way to do cross that works on all expert witnesses.  There is no magic bullet that will work every time.  Did I read his report in advance – yes.  Did I read a few depositions he had given before yes (thanks Ben Wells).  Did I make some notes – yes.  Do I know the chapter approach – yes.  Do I know the rules approach – yes.  Have I gone to reptile – yes.

But in truth, I do not know what I’m going to do in cross until Jodi sits down and it is my turn.  Being able to be in the moment.  Not focusing on obscure minutiae.   Being able to figure out how the message can be conveyed to the jury as quickly and powerfully as possible.  This is what is needed in cross.  At least for me.” (Emphasis added.)

In Cross-Examination: The Mosaic Art, John Nicholas Iannuzzi discusses this intersection between preparation and spontaneity. He says:

“[A]s you cross-examine on your feet, even if you have a full-blown cross-examination script in hand, you are not hide-bound by that script, but are continually revising and adjusting the cross-examination to accommodate the twists and turns that inevitably arise as the witness twists and turns to elude the thrusts of your questions. Therefore, that capacity and flexibility to improvise and formulate cross-examination quickly, while on your feet, is the same capacity which permits you to formulate your attack well, quickly, and professionally, despite the shortness of preparation time.” (p.127)

The key element here would seem to be confidence. Solid preparation builds confidence. This also holds true when taking depositions. If I am for some reason ill prepared, I remain glued to whatever outline I’ve created. When extremely well prepared, I feel far more comfortable drifting from my script, comforted by the knowledge it is available for me to retreat to, if necessary.

It would seem, then, that  preparation and spontaneity do not play equal roles, since spontaneity thrives on preparation. For most of us (who are not Robin Williams) the converse is probably not true.

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