Law Tips: Trying Cases in a World of Media Overload: Adapting to the Audience’s Expectations

Welcome back to our Law Tips discussion by Tony Paganelli on issues a trial lawyer can encounter in today’s world of media overload.  In this week’s blog Tony takes the case to the judge and jury. Mr. Paganelli believes that even though TV and movies create an image removed from real life litigation, there are ways a trial lawyer can adapt successfully in the courtroom. I’m pleased to provide to our Law Tips readers his insights on adapting to the audience’s expectations:

Although a lawyer can (hopefully) communicate in advance with a client in such a way as to condition him or her to understand that lawsuits in real life are far removed from what they see in the movies or on TV, a lawyer has no such opportunity with a judge or jury. To a large extent, a lawyer must adapt to meet those expectations as much as possible in hopes of winning a case. Put simply, Johnnie Cochran and the cast of CSI have ruined it for the rest of us. Fortunately, there are many ways to create a polished and sophisticated impression without breaking the bank or distracting from the message that you want to convey on your client’s behalf. The two main areas where these issues come into play are courtroom visuals and “theatrical” performances of counsel.

First, lawyers must decide whether theirs is a case that lends itself well to multimedia presentations, and whether their judge and courtroom are good candidates for such presentations. If the answers to these questions are “yes,” then it is worth considering using these tools to enhance a courtroom performance.

While certain courtroom animations and computerized visual effects can be cost-prohibitive for many lawyers, and in addition to being complicated to use in a courtroom and temperamental to the point of being unreliable, recent advances in technology have made impressive-looking presentations both easier to use and less expensive than in the recent past. In fact, Microsoft PowerPoint, that staple of meetings and conferences, is both powerful and flexible enough to allow lawyers to quickly and easily create impressive visuals to use in a courtroom, either to project and emphasize exhibits, or to emphasize key points made in oral arguments. Most lawyers already own the software as part of the Microsoft Office suite that they use daily as they run Word, Excel, and Outlook. The hardware is almost equally accessible. Most lawyers either have or can borrow a laptop computer. Similarly, most law firms have a projector and screen and, if not, they can be rented inexpensively or purchased in many cases for a onetime investment of less than $1,000.00. Several books are available to help. Lawyers use these tools to create polished and impressive (and persuasive) visuals, including Cliff Atkinson’s Beyond Bullet Points, Jerry Weissman’s Presenting to Win, Christopher Ritter’s Creating Winning Trial Strategies and Graphics, and Slide:ology by Nancy Duarte.

In the area of courtroom demeanor, the solution is equally achievable. Contrary to popular belief, judges and juries do not expect (or want) lawyers to be blow hards or bullies. Rather, studies show that jurors sympathize with witnesses who are badgered and are put off by arrogant and pretentious trial lawyers. What they want you to show, however, is sincere passion for your client’s case and poised, polished presentation. Standing at counsel table and reading your examination questions or your closing argument in a monotone from your legal pad places you in a stark (and unfavorable) contrast from the actors and actresses they see going through the same motions in the movies, and from the celebrity lawyers whose cases are covered on the news.

Even in an era where jurors have seen hundreds of fictional closing arguments and cross-examinations, their expectations of how a lawyer should act in a courtroom will be met by a well-dressed and groomed (but not flashy) lawyer who appears prepared, organized, and confident, who advocates passionately and confidently (but not obnoxiously) for his or her client’s cause.

Here, like in most aspects of litigation, there is no substitute for simple preparation. A well-prepared lawyer will naturally be confident-and therefore appear confident-as he or she presents a client’s case. Argue with passion and conviction, but don’t pound the table theatrically or turn on the crocodile tears. You won’t be perceived as a movie star, but rather as a bad actor. Put another way, don’t bury your emotions-they can be a powerful tool for communicating your client’s message. But at the same time, don’t manufacture emotions because you think that’s what your audience wants to see. That insincerity will backfire every time.

Movie stars and famous lawyers with unlimited budgets have certainly made it harder for the rest of us to look good in comparison. But with some planning it’s still possible to manage your client’s expectations of what a lawsuit looks like and how a trial lawyer acts so that you won’t fall short in your client’s eyes when your case takes longer than 44 minutes (not counting commercials) to get from first meeting to trial. At the same time, with just a little work you can put on a case that’s (almost) worthy of a Hollywood production without compromising your client’s interests or blowing your litigation budget.

Break a leg!


About our Law Tips faculty participant:
Tony Paganelli is the principal of the Paganelli Law Group, Indianapolis. Before leaving to found his own law firm in 2013, Tony was a litigation partner for several years with one of the largest law firms in the United States. Tony is an experienced trial lawyer with nearly 20 years of experience representing people and companies of all sizes in courtrooms across the United States. He also advises businesses on a wide range of issues, including employee relations, contracts and transactions, regulatory compliance, and intellectual property issues.

About our Law Tips blogger:
Nancy Hurley has long-standing connections with Indiana lawyers. She was formerly a member of the ISBA and IBF staffs for over 30 years. Nancy’s latest lifestyle venture is with ICLEF. We are utilizing her exceptional writing and interviewing skills while exploring how her Indiana-lawyer background fits with ICLEF’s needs. When she isn’t ferreting out new topics for Law Tips, her work can be found in our Speaker Spotlight blogs, postings on the ICLEF Facebook and Twitter pages, and other places her legal experience lends itself.

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ICLEF • Indiana Continuing Legal Education Forum, Indianapolis, IN

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