The Legal Advocate

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All posts by Kathy Behler

August Theme: Winning with Visual Story Action

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written by NITA guest blogger David Mann

Everyone knows the best story wins. But what exactly constitutes a good story? We all know it’s important to have a good guy and bad guy, and we know it’s important to frame things in light of common sense violations of rules or principles. We know we need an interesting protagonist who is easy to identify with. But we also know we can do all that and still have a story fall flat and consequently lose an otherwise solid case.

So what’s the secret ingredient to making a story come to life for the jury and leading them to take action? For winning cases in which I’ve constructed the opening, we’ve grabbed the jury immediately with vivid visual language that is active rather than passive. Here’s what I mean. Consider the wording in this sentence from an opening:

“Paramedic Miller’s lack of attention on the scene of Plaintiff Dan Gerson’s cardiac arrest was in violation of the laws of the commonwealth of Virginia. His actions were the cause of Mr. Gerson’s death, and the evidence will show that.”

Information is provided and a strong point is being made. But it’s not visual and it’s not active. It’s impossible for a jury to imagine the scene from that description, and the whole thing is in the passive verb tense, making it seem distant and unimportant. It has a certain legal-sounding formality to it that is at odds with the general culture’s insistence on approachable, plain language. Further complicating things is the fact that the story is displaced into the future, when we’ll presumably hear and see evidence that will tell the story. While it is of course necessary to use legal references and refer to upcoming evidence, don’t do it at the expense of moving the story forward. Establish an active, vivid story before asking the jury to focus on the evidence you’ll be providing and the legal conclusions you will be drawing – all at a later date. The later addition of evidence should serve to flesh out the images they’ve already begun to form in their mind from your well-crafted opening story. You’ve got one shot to do it. If you don’t succeed in planting that story in their imaginations, you might never get them invested.

The description of the paramedic and Mr. Gerson above is the type of sentence that makes up the majority of the first drafts of opening statements I see. We then work the story through several revisions to make it come to life. Look at the difference in this way of depicting the same story:

“Dan Gerson collapses in his chair and his niece calls 911. Within two minutes the police arrive and begin administering CPR. Six minutes later, the paramedics arrive but Paramedic Miller orders the police to stop CPR. Because of the Defendant’s actions, Dan Gerson is dead.”

The second approach is a story. It is told in action language a jury can visualize. The first passage describes the events from a distance: Defendant’s “lack of attention…was a violation of…” and his “actions were the cause of…” The second passage tells it in the present, one image at a time: Plaintiff “collapses,” Police “arrive,” and then Defendant “orders the police to stop.” All actions, all parts of a story that is unfolding in our minds as we hear it.
These are subtle yet powerful ways of making a story come to life. So remember:

  1. Use language that describes things in real time and space so the jury can actually see it in their minds. Avoid lofty statements of vague purpose (“This is a case about…”) until you are certain you’ve given the jury enough concrete story images to work with.
  2. Use action language in simple sentences when you’re laying out the first description of the story. Avoid passive (but legally prevalent) phrases like “…is in violation of…” and instead use clear action words like “violated.”

For lawyers who have spent their professional lifetime working with careful, formal legal language, this may seem counter-intuitive. But it’s critical for engaging the ordinary people in the jury. When the story comes to life, they’ll respond by taking action.

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About the Author

David Mann specializes in persuasive presentation skills and storytelling. A theater artist for over three decades, David now trains attorneys and business professionals how to use performance and storytelling techniques to win. He has taught with NITA for the past five years and has served as Program Director for NITA’s Persuasive Power in the Courtroom communication programs since 2015.

Contact David Mann to get in touch doing any opening statement work: 612-756-0200 or email at: david@davidcmann.com

Trinidad Press Release

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written by NITA guest blogger Doris Cheng

On August 11, 2017, NITA completed its fifth advanced trial advocacy skills training in the Caribbean with the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) as part of the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI). One of the goals of CBSI is to increase public safety and security through improving the rule of law. NITA has been considered the expert in international advocacy training and a proud partner with NCSC in the CBSI efforts.

This recent NITA advocacy skills program provided training to the Port of Spain Prosecutor’s Office led by the Director of Public Prosecution Roger Gaspar. NITA Program Director Doris Cheng, L.C. Wright, Cynthia Goode Works, Hon. Matthew Williams, and Kimberly Moore conducted a three day program focusing on lay and expert witness examinations, opening statement and closing arguments in a complex murder case. The case materials were challenging and parallel the types of cases that Caribbean prosecutors regularly encounter. This is the first of two advocacy skills programs for the Office of Public Prosecution in Port of Spain, Trinidad.

L.C. Wright, Justice Gillian Lucky, JoAnne Richardson (NCSC), Doris Cheng Cynthia Goode Works, Hon. Matthew Williams, and Kimberly Moore in front of the Hall of Justice in Port of Spain.

Before the program started, NITA faculty had the opportunity to visit the trial courts and observe bail hearings conducted by local Justice Gillian Lucky, who was enthusiastic about the use of different trial techniques and audio-visual demonstrations. Program Director Doris Cheng commented, “We had an inspiring exchange of modern day trial skills techniques with high skilled prosecutors. The persuasive techniques that NITA has been teaching since 1971 continue to be relevant in all adversarial justice systems.” At the end of the program, DPP Roger Gaspar, who also teaches trial advocacy at the law school, expressed his pleasure with training provided by NITA and NCSC. The exercises brought out the verve and vigor of the prosecutors, who enjoyed testing their arguments against one another. A number of the prosecutors exclaimed their excitement about learning different approaches to witness examinations.

NITA’s learning-by-doing style has been incredibly successful in the Caribbean. The first NITA training in the Caribbean was held in Antigua in July of 2015. Prosecutors from Antigua & Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, and St. Vincent & Grenadines attended the three-day workshops. After the program, the judges remarked that the advocates’ courtroom presentations were much improved with the training. NCSC next invited NITA to reprise the program for the prosecutors in Jamaica and then in the Bahamas.

NITA returns to Port of Spain, Trinidad to work with the remaining thirty prosecutors in September, which will mark NITA’s third trip to Port of Spain. In addition to training the prosecutors, NITA delivered advocacy training to the Legal Aid defense attorneys earlier this year in January.

August Theme: Why is Storytelling Important for Lawyers? (Or how I learned to survive on the Bench)

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written by NITA guest blogger, the Honorable Christina Habas

As trial lawyers, we are masters of our cases. We know the facts of the case like the back of our hands; the law comes easily to us to know what we must prove; and finally, we know how to communicate with power. What we often forget is that our biggest task is to convey our client’s STORY in a way that can be easily UNDERSTOOD by our listener. We also want our listener to REMEMBER what we tell them.

The best method of communicating concepts to be UNDERSTOOD and REMEMBERED is story. We tell ourselves stories all of the time, even when we are asleep, our brain is telling itself stories. As human beings, we are incapable of putting together large amounts of data in an understandable way unless we have the framework of story. And, as trial lawyers, we often must explain something to jurors who may have no personal experience or history to give them an understanding. If a juror has never before met a person who is paralyzed, they will have no concept of how that person copes with the world unless we find a way to connect with their own life experiences, making our client’s case more real.

We also know that if there is not a cohesive and coherent story in a case, the jurors will likely tell themselves their own story as they hear about a case. If my passion is to ride bicycles, I may listen to a case about a bicycle accident from the perspective of the cyclist – on the other hand, if I have unpleasant experiences as a car driver with bicyclists, I will likely listen with that perspective. This means that the listener will fill in any gaps in a story with their own story that fits into their own personal experiences and philosophy. This is how verdicts are sometimes perplexing, because the jurors have made a decision based upon the story they tell themselves, and that story is not necessarily in lock-step with the evidence presented at trial.

Storytelling is also effective because of the way we are hard-wired: when we listen to a story, our brains are transported into a calm, receptive state. We know, as the listener to a story, that we will not be called upon to actually participate in the process, and we have “mirror neurons” that fire the portion of our brain that would fire if we were actually participating in the action, as we listen to a description of the action.

Finally, if the listener can actually VISUALIZE your case in their own mind, you have a much better chance that the listener will not only understand what they are listening to, but also remember what they heard. This is the way a good trial lawyer will arm jurors so that the jury will reach the verdict that supports the lawyer’s client’s version of the case. It will ingrain the action in a way that makes the juror unlikely to be swayed away from that vision of the case.

Welcome the Newest NITA Advocates

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NITA is proud to announce the 2017 2nd quarter recipients of the Advocate Designation. These designations are awarded to a person who has taken a well-rounded set of courses, proving they are serious about trial advocacy.

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  • Andre Hungerford | Hungerford Legal
  • Charles Shelton | Crone Hawxhurst LLP
  • Keevil Markham | Law Office of Keevil L. Markham
  • Maria Estanislao | Loventime Law LLC
  • Marilyn Phelps | Office of Marilyn Phelps
  • Christopher Nuneviller | Nuneviller Law
  • Tanya Broholm | Tanya Broholm Attorney at Law
  • Sam Wu | Law Office of Sam XJ Wu APC

If you have any questions on how you can receive the NITA Advocate or NITA Master Advocate Designation, please review the information on our Advocate Designations page, or email customerservice@nita.org.

Why You Should Start Thinking About Your Trial Technology Well Before Trial

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written my guest blogger and NITA faculty Wayne Stacey

Courtroom technology is not about slick presentations and overdone graphics. Courtroom technology is about helping jurors follow your story and remember the supporting exhibits. It is also about engaging each juror’s individual learning methods.

While we often focus on the usage of technology as we approach trial, the focus should begin much earlier. In today’s civil trials, key witnesses are often outside the trial-subpoena power of the court. That means the only way to present those witnesses’ testimony to the jury is through deposition playback.

Anyone who has sat through video playback knows that it can be brutally boring and difficult to follow, which means that the jury will likely miss the point and overlook important evidence. The jury sees witnesses questioned in the open-ended style common to depositions rather than the leading, cross-examination style common to trials. As a result, the jury is left with a meandering series of questions and long answers rather than a crisp cross-style trial presentation. And most damaging, the jury is left with no easy way to link the video testimony with the trial exhibits.

To solve this presentation problem, focus on creating the material for engaging video clips during the depositions. Consider yourself the director in a short movie. The witness is your actor, and the exhibits are your props.

Trial technicians bring your vision as director to life. They can sync video playback and exhibits in a split-screen view to create a visually engaging video. But more importantly, they can draw the jurors’ eyes to the key material through annotations. The example below shows how a good trial technician can link witness, exhibits, and annotations. The video playback in this example looks more like a live-witness presentation than typical video playback. The witness is shown in the upper left corner. The exhibit is shown simultaneously on the right side of the screen. The trial technician creates a callout over the exhibit—helping the jury understand the origins of the callout. And finally, the trial technician can annotate, in real time, the exact material corresponding to the witness’ testimony. This arrangement makes the story and the evidence easy for jurors to follow. Jurors are not required to flip through paper exhibit copies or search a screen for the relevant material.

This type of engaging video playback does not happen by accident. Trial technicians need guidance when selecting exhibit clips and annotating the clips. The deposing attorney must provide that guidance through carefully-crafted deposition questions. Rarely will courts allow a technician to clip or highlight exhibit material not clearly called out by the deposing attorney or the witness. Think about these questioning techniques as controlling the eyes of the witness, the trial technician, and the jurors. All of this must be set up in the deposition.

Three steps will guide trial technicians and the jury through typical exhibits. These techniques must be rolled out during the deposition to make them useful.

  1. Introduce the exhibit properly: Often exhibits are introduced mechanically in a deposition, such as by introducing the document as Exhibit 1 and then explaining that Exhibit 1 is marked with Bates No. 743,231. The mechanical introduction is useful for record clarity, but it is not useful for the jury. For example, the exhibit number used in deposition frequently does not match the exhibit number used in trial. Jurors are unlikely to do any conversion between deposition exhibit number and trial exhibit number. And few jurors will connect with an exhibit’s bates number. This type of mechanical approach would rarely be used at trial.
    If the exhibit is one that the jury should see, remember, and understand, introduce it with the video playback in mind. Guide the witness in the deposition to the key identifying features of the document such as title, date, signature, etc. The trial technician can follow this guidance and highlight those identifying features for the jury during the video playback.
    In the example above, you would want to direct the witness to the company name, “Data Dynamics Corporation;” the document title, “Quarterly Income Statement;” and the time period, “For the Period July 17, 1987.”
  2. Guide the witness to the correct section of the exhibit: Once you have introduced the document to the deposition witness (and the jury), guide the witness to the correct section. Try to set the stage for the section that the witness (and eventually the jury) is seeing. Call out identifying material such as chapter headings, section titles, paragraphs, etc. The trial technician can highlight this material based on the deposing attorney’s questions.
    In the example above, you would guide the witness to the totals section that includes the “net sales” and “costs of sales” information.
  3. Guide the witness to the exact material that you want the jury to see: If you have done steps 1 and 2, the jury should be following your questions about the exhibit. They know what document you are asking questions about. They know the section you are focused on and how it fits into the whole exhibit. They are following the testimony and the visual presentation because the trial technician is guiding their eyes by highlighting material corresponding to your deposition questions. And with a final question, you guide the witness (and trial technician) to the exact material that you want the jurors to remember.
    In the example above, you would direct the deposition questions to the specific “gross profit” entries. The jury could forget everything else about the exhibit, but they should remember the approximately $400K in profits. They saw the number with their own eyes—because the trial technician highlighted it for them. They know where the number came from because you guided the witness (and the jurors) through the exhibit.

Courtroom technology does not make your story better. Technology’s role is to help you visually tell the story and help your jurors remember the evidence. The next time you are drafting your deposition outline for a deposition that could be played at trial, ask yourself what type of video are you creating. Are you creating something that the jurors can follow? Are you introducing evidence in a way that the jurors will visually follow? Or are you creating something destined to put everyone to sleep? Whatever you create, it starts with the questions you ask in the deposition. The conventional wisdom of asking open-ended deposition questions is not always the best solution.

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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