By Ken Lopez
Founder & CEO
Why do so many TV shows and movies include courtroom dramas? Because people love drama, they love to try to figure out who committed the crime, and because they love the clash of right and wrong.
With all that focus on the creation of drama for fiction, we only need to turn on the television or start a DVD to see a lot of good acting by actors who are behaving like lawyers. Surely, there is something we can learn from their work.
After all, top-notch screenwriters have written their words, costume and set designers have made them look the part, and the actors have studied the best trial lawyers in the world and have had dozens of “takes” to get it right. So we are seeing the world's best storytellers tell a story that they think everyday people want to hear, in an intensely dramatic way.
In the first place, TV and movie viewers are ordinary people, the same ones who will become jurors some day. They are used to hearing and seeing the best in their entertainment and they will want it in the actual courtroom.
Second, we can learn from the way in which movie and TV directors distill the best and most exciting aspects of a trial to make it compelling. We can make our trial presentations just as compelling.
Here are sixteen lessons from the movies or television (note that each movie/TV title has a link to purchase a copy from Amazon.com):
1. Practice. Matthew McConaughey may not have what it takes to actually be a lawyer, but with great practice he delivers an amazing closing argument. If he can do it, you can too. Listen to this closing from A Time to Kill.
2. Use jury consultants. This clip from Runaway Jury doesn’t illustrate the work of jury consultants any more than CSI illustrates police work accurately. However, a good jury consultant can tip a close case by either helping to pick the right jury, testing the case and the lawyers, or both.
3. Use plain, simple language. The best screenwriters know how to make a few words go far, and you can do that as well. Here, Keanu Reaves, playing Kevin Lomax in The Devil's Advocate, uses simple language and lays out a straight-forward and emotional theme in his opening statement.
4. Be Believable. Screen and TV actors know how to project credibility, and lawyers can do the same. Glenn Close masters believability in this scene from the show Damages. Do you have any question about whether she is going to take the settlement offer made in this deposition?
5. Manage your hands: Like many distracting mannerisms, how a litigator uses his or her hands can be a good thing or a bad thing. Look at Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men. In this classic scene (and we all know it NEVER ends with the witness famously breaking down on the stand) Tom Cruise never distracts. When he is at the podium, he stands strong. When he is before the jury, he gestures well. When he is before the witness, he stands with hands behind his back.
6. Make Sure Your Audio Video Setup is Flawless. Courtrooms rarely have high quality trial technology equipment that make your presentation look and sound great. It is up to you and your trial technician to make sure your setup works well. In this scene with Matt Damon from The Rainmaker, can you imagine how much less effective this deposition clip would be if it had scrolling text on screen to make up for a poor audio recording or poor courtroom audio setup.
7. Relate to your jury: We've successfully used Giant's Stadium, the Statue of Liberty and many other local landmarks to convey scale to juries. In the "magic grits" scene from My Cousin Vinny, Joe Pesci connects with a local Alabama jury over the cooking time of grits. Like in this scene, it is important to create a memorable dramatic moment, ideally touching on the most important part of the case. It is important to speak the local language, and it is critical to relate your knowledge of a local custom or landmark to something meaningful in the case. (Exact clip unavailable).
8. Don't go after the sympathetic witness. One witness can flip a case for or against you. Always ask yourself if the potential benefit is greater than the potential risk and act accordingly. This scene in Philadelphia is one of many examples from the movie industry.
9. Let silence do the heavy lifting. This has long been the advice of my mentor for having difficult conversations, and I think it applies just as well for the courtroom. In this movie classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, Gregory Peck delivers a now famous closing. Note how he uses pauses and silence as effectively as he uses words.
10. Tell a Story. You don't need Hollywood to remind you of the importance of storytelling, you need only refer back to our article on the topic: http://www.a2lc.com/blog/bid/53536/10-Videos-to-Help-Litigators-Become-Better-at-Storytelling
11. Ask open ended and provocative deposition questions. You never know what the witness might say. In this scene from Malice, Alec Baldwin's character famously lets his ego fly in this med-mal deposition.
12. Control your emotions. In this R-rated clip from Primal Fear, Laura Linney delivers her questions and her message with forceful emotion, yet you never get the sense she's lost control. It is good to show emotion, it just must always make sense to the jury why you would feel this way. If the gap between the story the judge or jurors are building in their heads, and the emotion you are showing is too great you can lose credibility.
13. Think about the courtroom like a director. To some degree, you have to deliver on the jury's expectations of drama. Fail to build a compelling story and you'll likely lose the case. Such was the case in the recent Apple v. Samsung dispute we wrote about here. Noted director of courtroom dramas, Sidney Lumet, comments on what makes the courtroom drama dramatic.
14. Memorize. Can you imagine if the lawyers were reading their closing statements here in this Law & Order clip? They would not work nearly as well. Still, we regularly see attorneys reading their openings or closings. Notes work great and are important to make sure nothing is missed. One Hollywood director friend of mine poignantly said, "you can memorize, but I prefer mastery. Master your subject matter. That way, memorization is not an issue." Good advice for actors and lawyers alike.
15. Project your voice. Follow the tips of this voice coach to learn how to project your voice better. Some of the best litigators I know use acting coaches, voice coaches, style coaches and more. As we inevitably move toward an era of more televised trials, these considerations will become more and more important.
16. Connect with the jury authentically. Paul Newman's closing argument in The Verdict is moving, memorized and authentic.
So, the question I often wonder about related to our courtrooms is whether Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall or Meryl Streep would deliver a better opening/closing than we professionals would? I think our job is to make sure the answer is no, and to make sure the answer is no, we're going to have to adopt some of their best techniques.
Other resources on an off A2L's website:
- Read our post on Telling Better Stories in the Courtroom
- Take an acting for lawyers workshop - here are several: one, two, three
- Find a local acting coach
- How trial consultants can help with closing statements
- How to draft a great opening
- Why opening statement is the most important in the case
- Download: The BIG Litigation Interactive E-Book