Lawyers, after getting what they want in a trial, often strut about as if the entire result was due entirely to their skill as advocates. I certainly know a number of lawyers who feel as if they are God’s gift to the court room due to their polished oratory.
To those people, I would direct their attention to juror #4.
I don’t know the gentleman’s name, and even if I did, I would not share it. I only remember him as juror #4. I was defending a client on trial for driving under the influence. Juror #4 was an older fellow. I can’t remember exactly what he grew, but I remember that he was a farmer. He had a threadbare, white cotton shirt and a bald head that shone in the fluorescent lights of the court room. His large jaw stuck out a bit, and seemed to constantly worry over dip that may or may not have been there during the trial.
In this particular case, I recall that the facts were not particularly good for my client. I did not have much good evidence to give to the jury.
What I did have was a speech. Before my practice of law, I had a lot of theater background. As a child and young man, I did everything from Shakespeare to contemporary plays and musicals. I am not an astute legal analyst, nor a particularly shrewd negotiator. I can’t sweep people off their feet with my charm, and I certainly can’t intimidate them with my money or my influence (I don’t have either). But I can give a speech.
I recall spending a lot of time preparing this speech and rehearsing it before the trial. My word choice was careful, and seemed poignant. I moved appropriately, but I did not pace. My theme touched on all the relevant evidence. My discussion invoked a lot of powerful concepts: justice, doubt, and humanity.
When the time came, I delivered it with all the verve and force I could muster. I recall the prosecutor’s own closing argument being fairly dry and to the point. I’m not sure it was an argument so much as a rather mundane discussion of the jury instructions. Examining the jurors, I certainly did not perceive them to be giving the prosecutor the same rapt attention that they gave me. (Please remember – this entire narrative is filtered through my own ego.)
The jury went out to deliberate. They were in the palm of my hand. I could feel it. They came back half an hour later.
Guilty as charged.
Once my guy got sentenced (and left the court room in the company of a few bailiffs), I had a discussion with the jurors. Some attorneys are not willing to do this, but I think it is really important. I’ll take feedback from anyone. And I am especially interested in the feedback from the people who have actually been subjected to my trialcraft.
At this point, when asked, juror #4 provided me with true illumination. I have to render this exactly as it was said to me, because he might has well have engraved these words into my mind.
“Son, you gave a real nice speech… but that sumbitch was guilty as hell.”
With that, he inclined his bald head, walked out of the courtroom, and into my memory. That experience illustrated something to me which has never left me, and which I try to transmit to other people. I try and phrase it a little differently than he did.
Evidence wins cases.
Plain and simple. Take the most polished, eloquent, evidence-savvy lawyer out there and pit him against a homely, witless attorney that has significantly better evidence supporting his position, and homely will win more times than not. Good theatrical skills might give you an advantage in the ones that are really close calls, but ultimately, no amount of polishing is going to turn a piece of dirt into a diamond.
Bearing that in mind, I don’t agree with acting like God’s gift to the courtroom because you won a case. It is more likely that the facts swayed the jury than it is any particularly well-shined piece of B.S. you marketed. (And I’m not saying don’t take pride in a good job – just appreciate exactly what your role was in the whole process.)
I’m reminded of a quote attributed to Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo. “Walk a single path, becoming neither cocky with victory nor broken with defeat.” I think this is particularly apropos to trial work, because you have very little control over what the facts are in any given case, and while they may be great for you on one occasion, you may find yourself trying to sail a burning, sinking ship the very next day.
Losing a dog of a case doesn’t make you a bad lawyer, and winning a no-brainer doesn’t make you a good one. I think the truth of any lawyer’s worth is found in the niceties of his practice. What is his mastery of the law, his rapport with his client, and his sense of appropriateness in resolutions?
Somehow, it is always the little things that tell you the truth.
- God's Gift