Three Things Lawyers Can Learn From Teachers

(This article was written by Michael L. Slack and published in Texas Lawyer magazine on August 6, 2014.)

Think back to a favorite teacher, one who could turn complicated and confusing theories into simple pieces of knowledge. Applying that knowledge to the problem at hand, and voilà! Problem solved. Compare that teacher to one who was so wrapped up in academia that she refused to lower herself to the students’ level, believing that simple explanations were for simple minds.

Trial lawyers occupy the same position in the courtroom that teachers do in the classroom. It’s their job to identify and simplify key, complex elements of the case before speaking to a judge and jury. Trial lawyers should model courtroom teaching after the teacher who measured success by the students’ interest and who knew students could grasp complex subjects through effective use of simple communications. Here are three things lawyers should learn from teachers.

1. Understand the audience. If the trial lawyer is the teacher, then the members of the jury become the students. A lawyer must understand the technical aspects of the case—and the minds of the jurors—long before he or she steps into the courtroom.

Failing to grasp the technical aspects of a case results from failure to put in the time and effort needed to break down the information available in the evidence. Before jury research begins, lawyers must be clear on the information, so that they are able to explain to and educate the jury and the judge. Take heed of Albert Einstein, who supposedly said, “If you can’t explain it to a 6-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.”

Once the lawyer understands the complexity of the case and has simplified it sufficiently, then it’s time to begin jury research. Understanding the demographics of the potential jury members is necessary, just as a teacher must understand something about his or her students’ backgrounds.

Start with focus groups to learn what evidence your listeners will understand right away and what evidence requires special background and instruction. The focus groups don’t have to be overly sophisticated. For example, you can organize an informal focus group on a Saturday or one evening after work.

Given the amount of polling and research political groups do, it’s relatively easy to access detailed information about potential jurors. Look for educational levels, work experience, professions and trades, religious orientation and any other demographic that could impact the client’s case.

Once armed with that information, test and retest themes and concepts with different focus groups. Jury research should produce a strong understanding of the individuals’ knowledge base. Keep in mind, there is no such thing as a case too complex for a jury. After proper jury research, a lawyer can simplify any technical case for any educational level. This is not something that can happen in a cram session or by pulling an all-nighter. Take the time necessary to conduct good, fundamental jury research.

2. Use demonstrative exhibits effectively. It is the lawyer’s responsibility to use powerful demonstratives to their fullest potential. Poster boards should be as simple and easy to understand as possible. They are there to add value to the case, not distract jurors from the evidence.

Think of the demonstratives as teaching tools to keep the jury interested and engaged. PowerPoint is often not that tool. Typically, PowerPoint is not as effective as boards because the jury is unable to refer back to earlier slides.

Use the demonstratives to tell a story. But remember that a storyteller does not need to share all evidence or definitions at the very beginning. Present that information in a manner that moves the story along. Teach the jury as the story evolves. This will focus jurors’ attention on the evidence as the lawyer presents it to them and prevent them from struggling to remember a definition provided at the beginning of the case.

3. Educate and elaborate with witnesses. Another piece to add to the story is the technical or teaching witness. Teaching witnesses educate the jury and elaborate on vital concepts. They are often experts on the subject of the trial, like an economist or a psychologist. They know the technical aspects of the case and are able to simplify it for the jury. If they don’t, then it is the lawyer’s job to simplify it through clarifying questions—much the way a classroom teacher asks questions of a student who’s dancing around an answer.

Similarly, a trial lawyer uses the storyteller witness to provide a narrative of the facts during direct examination. In some cases, the storyteller witness can also be the technical witness. Think of Bill Nye the Science Guy. His ability to teach children—and some adults—about science through simple yet engaging stories, analogies and examples is what a trial lawyer should emulate—not to mention look for in a witness. Recalling what Einstein said, simplifying the story enough for a 6-year old does not mean the lawyer or witness needs to sound condescending or patronizing to the jurors. It is important to be likeable. Showing an interest in sharing knowledge helps to achieve that.

Finally, regardless of how complicated the case is, the smart trial lawyer will remember that he or she must present it in simple, succinct language. If the attorney completed the homework, exhausted the jury research and effectively communicated the case’s complexities to the jury in an understandable manner, he or she might just earn an A+.

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