The Trial Lawyer as a Storyteller & The Role of Effective Trial Preparation
Being a trial lawyer and telling stories are inextricably linked. As a trial lawyer, you stand in front of a courtroom and tell a story— the client’s story. That story will be the guiding narrative the jury holds onto as they experience the trial and listen to the lineup of evidence. Stories are powerful, but in order to strike the right balance between storytelling, compelling evidence, and ethical practices, a trial lawyer must understand and consider the jury. As a trial lawyer, you are a persuasive storyteller that must consider the realities of the case and the many factors of the jury. That’s where trial preparation and jury research come in. They are an essential part of ensuring your story is understood and aptly communicated.
The Art of Storytelling and Preparing for Trial
The jurors hold all of the power in a trial. The court of public opinion does not decide a case, the media does not decide a case, the families of those affected do not decide a case— it is the jurors that decide. The verdict is in their hands. That is why understanding effective storytelling is essential. Understanding juries, however, is not clear-cut. Why? Because humans are complicated and no jury is alike. It’s why trial lawyers must continue to use jury research and mock trials to sharpen their skills and stay close to the way jurors experience trials.
The Role of Trial Preparation
In trial preparation, a legal team has the opportunity to ask questions about how a person might react to a specific case. In preparing for a big legal case, like the recent George Floyd case, both legal teams always have a lot to consider. The Chauvin defense team, for example, had their plates full when it came to finding impartial jurors. Would men be more open to listening to the other side? Would women be more sympathetic? Would a young person from the city have a hard time listening to new evidence? These are questions that must run through the minds of the legal teams preparing for trial. The trial begins before opening statements when lawyers seek to find the people that would be sympathetic and/or open to changing their mind, but there is only so much one can control or do when it comes to picking jurors. The real work comes in convincing and communicating with the jurors that were selected and getting their minds on the same page.
An Example of the Complicated Nature of Juries in a Recent High-Profile Case
In high-profile cases such as Derek Chauvin’s case, the narrative arc is critical, particularly when there is already established public sentiment over the case. This makes a defense case extremely complicated. Many wondered why the judge decided to keep the trial in the community. Others wondered why the jury had not been sequestered—as has been the case for most high-profile cases. But these questions notwithstanding, both sides had to consider carefully how they wanted to present their story to the group of jurors who may or may not have come in with some preconceived notions of the case (given it’s highly publicized nature). After Mr. Chauvin was convicted on all counts, the attorney for the defendant filed for a mistrial on grounds that the jury had been influenced, pressured, and had felt intimidated by the case.
Using Story to Build a Relatable Case
People might associate a story with a fictitious element. In the trial, of course, the story is not about creating characters or a plot. There is nothing fictitious about it. Quite the contrary, of course. The story is about finding ways to show the audience what happened in the event in question. It’s about presenting the evidence in a way that makes sense to the jurors and keeps them invested. As research suggests, emotion is an important element in learning and retaining information. So when lawyers can build an effective story around the evidence, they have a better chance of connecting with the jurors and helping them remember important facts of the case.
The facts of the case need to be woven into a retelling of the overall story behind the case, the day in question, or the event in question. Telling a story means helping the jurors connect the dots, understand the evidence and its significance, and avoid losing them in scientific testimony, technical information, or jargon. In the Bill Cosby sexual assault case, for example, the jury deliberated for 52 hours. This was longer than it took to present all of the evidence. After the fact, jurors described how they spent an entire day deliberating on the definition of ‘reckless.’
It all boils down to structure. The Aristotelian argumentative structure is familiar here. When talking about a trial, the moving parts may look a little like this:
- Introduction: The power of the introduction cannot be overstated. This is where the narrative is introduced, where emotional ties might be made.
- Laying down the stakes: What’s at stake in the trial? What are or have been the ramifications of the case?
- Presentation of evidence: This is an overview of the case. The goal here is to show rather than tell.
- The showcase of evidence: The evidence presented should be tied to the themes and story of the trial. The evidence and the story are interlocked.
- Conclusion: The end is where everything is tied together. This is the overarching significance of the whole trial.
Trial preparation helps legal teams ensure their story is coming through. It’s a way to test out their narrative structure and ensure there are no facts left behind.
Tell a True Story that Gets to the Heart of the Matter with Trial Preparation
Preparing for a trial is necessary to ensure your story will resonate with the jury. In our years of research and post-trial interviews, we are always surprised to find how different people come away with different key details of a case. That’s because communicating effectively is difficult and even when done well, juries are very different.