Trial Lawyers: Choose Your Next Word Carefully!

After three years of law school, you’re expected to be a wordsmith. You make your living with words, so it’s important to choose your words carefully when speaking to judges and jurors. You want to avoid words that invoke resistance from jurors, and choose words that make it easy for them to buy.

Today you’re going to begin building the vocabulary list for your trial. Your vocabulary list will include the preferred words that you’ll purposely use in trial (because they best tell your story), as well as a list of the words that you will avoid using because they’re weak words or they detract from your message. Here are three quick tips for creating an effective vocabulary list for trial:

1. Create Your Vocabulary List
There are multiple ways to describe any fact or any situation. But which word or phrase will sell your case most powerfully? For example, here are the different vocabulary choices that a salesperson might make in a sales situation:

Rather than… Say this instead…
“Price” “Investment”
“Contract” “The paperwork,”
“The agreement”
“Buy” “Take ownership”

In this step, you’re going to spend some time creating vocabulary lists for your next trial. On one page, list the words that create the best images for you – the words you want to use during trial (for example, which sounds better for your case: “accident” or “crash?”) On the other page, list the words you want to avoid using. Here are some examples to get you started:

Negative Words Positive Words
“Drunk” “Impaired”
“Accident” “Crash”
“Cops” “Law enforcement officers”
“Machine” “Instrument”
“[DEFENDANT’S NAME]” “Defendant”

When building your vocabulary list, you’ll also want to include power words and phrases. For example, your opponents shouldn’t “say” anything. They either “claim” it or they “want you to believe…” They don’t “agree” to stipulated facts, they “admit” that those facts are true. If you don’t already have a copy of Roget’s Thesaurus at your desk, pick up your copy today, and then invest some time browsing for words that will add more punch to your case. Take a look at this example from a fraud case, and see the reason why so many attorneys, like an auto fraud attorney Denver area, can get the result they want with the art of words and expressions:

Instead of… Consider…
“fraud” “betrayed him”
“betrayal”
“double dealing”
“scammed”
“stabbed him in the back”
“cheated”
“deception”
“duped”
“bamboozled”
“deceived”
“buried the truth”
“pulled a fast one”
“plotted together”
“schemed”
“dishonesty”
“conned”
“swindled”

Don’t those words have more punch and hit you with more impact? Invest the time creating your vocabulary list, and you’ll reap massive dividends, especially if your practice focuses on a narrow niche of cases, such as D.U.I.’s, drug possession cases, or slip and fall cases. With a few well invested hours, you’ll be able to create vocabulary lists that you can use over and over again.

2. Eliminate jargon
In addition, you should eliminate the jargon that jurors don’t understand, as well as any “cop-speak.” What sounds official to us actually sounds pompous and asinine to our jurors. Here are some examples of other phrases you’ll want to modify or eliminate:

Instead of… Consider…
“Exited his vehicle” “Got out of his car”
F.S.T., L.E.O., D.R.E., B.A.T., B.A.C., B.O.L.O., P.U.F.O.D., C.S.T., etc. Use the full terms
“Officer Safety” “Because I didn’t want to get run over or get shot”
“High rate of speed” Speed is a rate, so it’s okay
to just say, “High speed”
“Tag”
(i.e. “ran the tag”)
“License plate”
“Transported” “Taken to”
“Extract” “Pull from,” “Remove”
“Proceed”
(“He proceeded to the intersection of…”)
“Went to”
“Observe”
(“I observed the vehicle swerving”)
“Saw”
“Fail to maintain a single lane” “Swerve,”
“Weave back and forth”
“Identify”
(“I identified myself as an officer…”)
“I told him who I was”

3. Eliminate “illegal” words
Finally, you should eliminate any words that will be properly objected to (and possibly cause a mistrial) because they’ve been “outlawed” by appellate caselaw (the following example relates to Florida DUI cases):

Instead of… Consider…
“Field Sobriety Tests” “Field Sobriety Exercises”
“Odor of Alcohol”
(alcohol has no smell)
“Odor of an Alcoholic Beverage”
“Pass,” “Fail,” “Standardized” You just can’t say these words
State v. Meador 674 So.2d 826
(Fla. 4th DCA 1996)

Right now, invest an hour or two to prepare your vocabulary lists. Don’t hesitate until next week, because you’ll never get around to it. Invest the time to prepare your vocabulary list right now, and you’ll dramatically improve the persuasive power of your arguments. Regardless of whether you’re trying to persuade a judge, a jury, an arbitrator, a mediator, or even your own client, make sure you’ve picked the words that best sell your case. Good luck!

The Most Dangerous Word in a Trial Lawyer’s Vocabulary

Do you know what the most dangerous word in your vocabulary is?

You say it all the time. It’s the most commonly used word in the English language. If you listen to any conversation, especially conversations between lawyers, you’ll hear this word more often than any other. More than any other, this word leads to claims of improper argument and unprofessional conduct. Which word is it?

“I.”

That’s right – “I.” The shortest word in the dictionary is also the most dangerous. But what makes it so dangerous?

“I” is dangerous because it leads to statements like “I think…” or “I believe…” Regardless of whether it’s an argument to the judge, a statement to the press, or an offhand comment during final summation, these seemingly innocuous phrases can have disastrous effects. The phrase “I believe” can overturn an otherwise valid verdict, or lead to disciplinary referral.

How did “I” become so dangerous? It has its origins in the English legal system. They call it the “cab rank” rule. Keith Evans, former barrister and author of Common Sense Rules of Advocacy for Lawyers, says, “if you are offered a case that is within your field of expertise, then, if the client is willing to pay what you usually charge and your calendar shows you are free to take the case – you don’t have any choice in the matter. You must accept it. If you turn it down you can be disciplined, even disbarred!”

The rule was designed to prevent loathsome clients from finding themselves without representation. It doesn’t matter whether you think the case is a winner or a loser, you are obligated to take up the cause and represent your client as best you can. The barrister’s personal feelings are irrelevant. He is there to argue one side or the other of the dispute, not to express personal opinions.

That view has been passed on to our American system, and codified in many of our professional codes. For example, the ABA’s Model Rule 3.4 of Professional Conduct states, “A lawyer shall not… ‘state a personal opinion as to the justness of a cause, the credibility of a witness, the culpability of a civil litigant or the guilt or innocence of an accused…'”

That’s the “official” reason why you shouldn’t state a personal belief in your case., and something that the Best lawyers america has to offer must keep in mind. Here’s a more compelling reason why you shouldn’t state your personal opinion in a case: It’s not persuasive.

Candidly, who cares what you think? It may sound harsh, but, in the courtroom, who cares what you believe? Unless the jurors personally know you and trust your opinion, why should they believe something you say? Simply because you said so?

The only lawyer that the jurors trust in your courtroom is the judge – your opinion doesn’t carry much weight. Yet many lawyers persist in sharing their personal opinions. Recently, I’ve heard the phrases “I believe…” and “I think…” on a regular basis. Here are three recent examples from criminal court:

  1. A defense attorney seeking a more lenient sentence for her client: “I truly believe that this is a case that deserves pre-trial diversion.”
  2. A prosecutor’s comment to the paper regarding the possibility of re-trying a defendant after a mistrial: “I think he is guilty of the charge, and he should be prosecuted.”
  3. An assistant public defender at a motion to suppress: “I believe that my client’s version of events is the more credible one, and therefore the court should adopt my client’s version as the more credible version.”

All of these comments were made by competent, experienced, and professional courtroom advocates. Yet somehow, they resorted to using one of the weakest argumentative devices available. It’s the same argument your mom resorted to when she couldn’t think of any other reason why you needed to go to bed: “Because I said so!” It wasn’t persuasive then, and it’s not persuasive now.

Think about it for a moment. Which idea do you prefer – the idea that someone else proposes, or the one that you think of on your own? Once you reach a conclusion on your own, you take personal pride in the conclusion. When someone attacks your conclusion you’ll not only actively disagree with them, you’ll cling even closer to your conclusion.

Jurors and audience members are the same. They like their ideas better than they like your ideas. Using “I” or stating your personal opinion shortcuts your persuasive powers. They aren’t going to believe something just because you say it’s so.

Ultimately, this just goes to show how important it is to do as much research as possible when seeking out a legal professional to act as your legal representation and defense. Moreover, researching a few different criminal attorneys in your area can help you to find the best possible defense lawyer for your case.

Not sure where to begin? If you are reading from Philadelphia, researching a few bucks county criminal attorneys online might be all it takes to help you to compile a shortlist of potential attorneys with the experience needed to handle your case.

Avoid the risks of a re-trial or a professional remand by omitting “I” from your vocabulary. Start by reading through the draft of your next presentation. Every time you see the word, “I,” strike it from the page. Can you replace it with the word “you”? Your jurors, readers, or listeners care more about themselves than they do about you, anyway. Give them what they want – talk about them. Approacyour argument from their perspective. When you strike “I” from your courtroom vocabulary, you’ll become one of the most persuasive attorneys in your courthouse.

(Well, that’s what “I” believe, anyhow…)

Can Jurors See and Hear Your Most Important Evidence?

If you try enough cases, you’ll eventually get your hands on “It.”   “It” is that amazing piece of evidence that makes or breaks your case.  “It” takes on many different forms:

  • The “Are you lying then or are you lying now?” prior inconsistent statement
  • The “I did it, and I’d do it again!” confession
  • The video of the “disabled” plaintiff easily lifting 50 lb. bags of mulch or participating in semi-professional wrestling matches
  • The “smoking gun” email that proves the defendant knew about the potential danger and decided to cover it up rather than recall the product

It” is that piece of evidence that you can’t wait to show to the jury.  You won’t have “It” in every case, but when you do, it’s a wonderful feeling.  You know that as soon as you show “It” to the jury, the case will be won.

But hold on just a second.  There’s something important you should know before you show “It” to the jury.

No matter how damning that prior inconsistent statement may be, it’s worthless if the jury can’t hear it.  Even if your video completely contradicts the plaintiff’s claims, it’s worthless if the jury can’t see it.  Some jurors are too embarrassed to admit they can’t hear the recording, can’t read your exhibit, or can’t see your video.  You need to be assured that they see and hear “It.”  Here’s how to do it:

My, what big ears you have!1. How to guarantee that the jury hears every word of your recorded statement. As you start playing the audio recording, cup your hand over your ear and make eye contact with each and every juror.  Non-verbally, you’re asking them if they can hear the statement.  If they can hear it, they’ll nod their heads in agreement or give you a “thumbs-up” sign.  If they can’t hear, they’ll give you a non-verbal clue to raise the volume (or maybe even tell you, “Turn it up, I can’t hear!”)

Here’s an added benefit: Making eye contact with each juror forces you to “check in” with them, so you can evaluate how things are going.

2. How to guarantee that the jury sees your video. Get to the courtroom early and set up your video display.  Turn on your video, then climb into the jury box.  Sit in every seat in the jury box so you can see what your jurors will see.  Do you need to crane your neck to see the video?  When you move to the end of each row, does it become difficult to see the video screen?  Is the screen too close?  Too far?  Make any adjustments now, before the jury gets here, so you can be assured that they’ll see your evidence.

Once you start playing the video for the jury, you’ll want to repeat the step outlined above to ensure that they can hear the recording.  While you’re making eye contact with each juror, track their sightline.  Can they actually see the video?  Are they actually looking at it?  If not, make any necessary adjustments so they can view your evidence.

3. How to guarantee that the jury reads your exhibit. If you’re presenting written exhibits to the jury (such as posters of the jury instructions or blow-ups of contract highlights) you want to make sure the jury actually reads your exhibit.  To make sure they have enough time to read it, quietly read through the entire exhibit to yourself twice. You’re already familiar with the exhibit, so you’re going to read through it faster than your jurors will.  After your second read-through, take a moment to make eye contact with every juror.  Look at their eye movement.  If they’re looking at you, they’re ready for you to proceed.  But if you see they’re still reading, don’t say anything yet.  Wait until everyone has finished reading before you or your witness say anything about the exhibit.

If you’ve done your homework, you already know how to make “It” admissible.  You also know when you should publish “It” for maximum persuasive effect.  Now just follow these simple tips, and you’ll guarantee that jurors will see and hear your most important evidence.