The Legal Advocate

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Monthly Theme: Opening Statements Part One

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Opening Statements: How to Tell a Persuasive Story

Written by NITA guest blogger and Program Director Michael Johnson

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

“The magician’s underwear has just been found in a cardboard suitcase  floating in a stagnant pond on the outskirts of Miami.”

“First the Colors.

Then the humans.

That’s usually how I see things.

Or at least how I try.


* * * HERE IS A SMALL FACT * * *

You are going to die.


What is common to these quotes?

Whether it is from classic fiction (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)), a cult novel of a generation (Tom Robbins, Another Roadside Attraction (1971)), or a more contemporary novel (Markus Zusak, The Book Thief (2005)), each of these lines is the first lines of the book–the beginning of the story.

Each is deep with meaning, intrigue, and invitation.

The meaning is not evident, and won’t be clear without delving into the story much deeper.

The intrigue is exactly that–what could this story possibly be for that opening sequence to be true?  How is it possible that it was both the “best of times” and the “worst of times” at the same time?

The invitation is for the reader, listener, to want to know, hear, more:  to want to become engrossed in the story.  And, in the example from The Book Thief, duplicated here as closely as possible from the printed version of the book, the invitation is not only auditory, but visual as well.

The challenge for a Opening Statement is exactly the same.  How do we tell a story, with a compelling start, that invites and intrigues the audience to delve more deeply into the meaning? Our audience is, of course, the jury, and our primary means of communication with them is the spoken word rather than the written word.  The art of telling a story orally differs in the method of delivery but shares much of the principles of a well written and read story.

In my view, and the view of many others, the Opening Statement is the single most significant part of any trial.  It is your opportunity to engage the audience and provide them with a context in which to consider the evidence, the players, and the compelling reason why it is just and right that your side should prevail.  Studies that have examined how jurors decide cases have consistently supported the crucial importance of the Opening Statement.  The studies indicate that there is a strong correlation between a juror’s ultimate conclusion and that juror initial impression.  Put another way, juror’s frequently view the evidence and the closing arguments to validate their sense of the what is the right and just result  Starting strong with a good compelling invitation and a well structured story is a winning combination.

During the NITA webcast on July 12, we will explore these ideas in more detail.  Our discussion will delve into the concepts of primacy and recency, viewing matters from a point of view, how much detail the content of the story should contain, the organization of the story, developing and using thematic statements, and since we are telling a story to a jury in a court of law, the legal context of the story.  We will grapple with how to be persuasive without crossing the line into prohibited argument.  And, very importantly, we will explore the method and manner of delivery, and the importance of being mutli-dimensional.


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NITA’s team of practicing lawyers, professors and judges from around the nation dedicates its efforts to the training and development of skilled and ethical legal advocates to improve the adversarial justice system.

NITA’s Goals are to:

  • Promote justice through effective and ethical advocacy.
  • Train and mentor lawyers to be competent and ethical advocates in pursuit of justice.
  • Develop and teach trial advocacy skills to support and promote the effective and fair administration of justice.
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