On television, the life of a trial lawyer life is always filled with excitement, isn’t it? For example, on a typical episode of Boston Legal, whenever Alan Shore goes to court, he either vigorously cross-examines a witness (and wins his case), or delivers an impassioned closing argument (and wins his case). After court, he returns to the office, where he gains a new client (whose case is always scheduled for trial tomorrow), strikes up a romance with one of the beautiful new associates, and then finishes the day by enjoying Scotch and cigars on the balcony with his best friend, fellow superstar lawyer Denny Crane.
That’s a typical day in the life of most trial lawyers, right?
In reality, the life of a trial lawyer isn’t that exciting, it’s stressful for everyone involved. I recommend a good lawyer to make court a stress-free process. Sure, we may spend more time in court than the TV lawyers do, but those superstar courtroom moments are few and far between. If you’re like me, much of your time in court is probably spent twiddling your thumbs, waiting for judges to call up your case.
Each week, I typically spend at least a dozen hours in court. Rather than let it become wasted time, I always try to keep my eyes and ears open for anything that might help you persuade jurors, win trials, or become a better trial lawyer. I also try to keep my ears open for any phrases that might detract from your ability to persuade or that might make you sound foolish. Over the past few weeks, there’s been one particular phrase that’s been grating on my ears. It’s a phrase that you’ve probably heard countless times in court. Heck, you’ve probably even said it (I know that I have) without realizing how much it can detract from your persuasive power.
Here’s the phrase: “As an officer of the court…”
“Wait a second,” you’re probably saying, “What’s so terrible about that? Doesn’t that phrase show proper respect for our role in the courtroom?”
Yes, it does, but the attorneys I heard weren’t using it to show deference to the court or respect for the profession. Look at how they used it:
“As an officer of the court, I wanted to let you know that I did attempt to coordinate depositions with Ms. Thomas, but we were unable to agree upon the meeting location.”
“I know this has been a contentious case, Judge, but as an officer of the court, let me say that I never asked my assistant to ignore Ms. Jenkins’ vacation schedule when planning the timing for motion hearings.”
“As an officer of the court, let me assure you that I met with my client several times before today’s plea conference to discuss the ramifications of his plea.”
Basically, they were asking to be trusted because of their position as an officer of the court. To boil it down to its most basic level, they were saying, “Trust me… I’m a lawyer!”
When lawyers draw attention to the fact that they’re credible because they’re “officers of the court,” it always causes me to question their credibility. I guess it’s the equivalent of a criminal suspect telling the police officer, “Officer, let me be honest with you…” When you hear him say that, what do you assume he’s going to do next? That’s right — you assume that he’s going to lie!
When someone calls attention to the fact that they’re being honest, we usually start to question everything else that they say. When a lawyer speaks in court, it is presumed that they’re telling the truth. But when you draw attention to that fact, it loses its persuasive power.
Judges shouldn’t be persuaded by your position or your title. Your credibility must be intrinsic. You need to demonstrate an “affidavit quality:” What you say must be true, simply because you are saying it. If you possess that “affidavit quality,” then you won’t have any need for superfluous (and unpersuasive) language. If you don’t have it, then no label exists which could make you credible.
The next time you speak in court, don’t rely upon your position or your title to persuade. Demonstrate that “affidavit quality” by letting your character and your credibility speak for you, and you’ll be the most persuasive lawyer in the courtroom.