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?
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. 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:
- A defense attorney seeking a more lenient sentence for her client: “I truly believe that this is a case that deserves pre-trial diversion.”
- 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.”
- 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.
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. Approach your 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…)