By Michael G. Terry of Hartline Dacus Barger Dreyer
Michael Terry has been a personal injury trial lawyer for more than 30 years, trying virtually every type of personal injury case, including a personal injury class action. As a partner in Corpus Christi office of Hartline Dacus Barger Dreyer, Terry has represented corporations, insurance companies and individuals, both as a defense attorney and as a plaintiff’s attorney.
Rule #1: You cannot blend, just don’t offend them.
I live in South Texas and I have watched people from Chicago and other places come in and try and pretend like they are one of us. They buy a pair of boots and they can’t walk correctly. They sound like they just stepped off the set of [the 1980s era TV series] Dallas. We know that they are not from here. They are not one of us. They try real hard, but what they do is they offend, because they look like they’re mocking the people that they are before.
You are what you are. You cannot become one of them, don’t try! Just don’t try and blend. It’s just not going to work.
But by the same token, you don’t want to offend people. In coming to a place like Chicago, I would be leery of making any reference to the Chicago Cubs and their inability to get to the World Series. I just wouldn’t do it at all, even though I could say “I’m from Houston, Texas and I’m here to tell you, going to the World Series is not that big a deal. It’s over before you know it and you never win.” I wouldn’t do it because I do not know what it means to people in Chicago. You have to be careful of the local sensitivities and your local counsel will help you.
The truth is, you just need to be true to yourself and avoid trying to butter up your jury and making reference to them in ways you think are helpful. You can’t blend. Don’t try to do it. Just don’t offend them.
Rule #2: Find the power behind the throne
Every one of us knows, there is someone in the courtroom that tells the judge what to do. There is someone in the courtroom that the judge goes to for advice and counsel. There is someone in the courtroom that tells the judge who’s good, who’s bad, who’s on first, who should be trusted, who is dishonest.
You need to find that person. And you need to make certain that that person is your friend. You have no idea of the impact that kind of communication has on the judge. Because in the county where I live, I know that the judges rely on court staff to tell them what’s going on. I’m sure it happens everyplace, everywhere. Make the power behind the throne your friend.
When you’re in front of a judge in one of these counties, he is not a judge, he is the king, or she is the queen. You cannot influence these people because they don’t answer to you for their position. You don’t vote; you don’t contribute to their campaigns. You don’t persuade the senator who appoints them; you don’t have any control over the judge.
I always make a point of going to the judge and saying, where do you want me to stand? Where do you want me to sit? When do you want me to rise? Even though my local counsel has told me all that I need to know about interrogation of witnesses in that county, I ask the judge, because I want him to know I will do whatever he tells me about his courtroom. I want the judge to know that I will abide by the rules he sets.
Rule #3: Talk to jurors like General Motors and General Foods talk to consumers.
I am from broadcasting, and I can tell you that the secret to persuasion is found in the commercials you watch every day and every night on television. You need to distill from those commercials the essence of persuasion. When you go to these little counties, you need to make a point of following it. It is something that you probably do by instinct as a trial lawyer. But when you go someplace where you are outside your comfort zone, you need to do this on purpose.
The rules are very simple. You must be able to distill your case into a simple, declarative sentence. You must be able to identify something where the jurors can perceive that their self-interest is at stake and will be satisfied if they find for you.
You need to express yourself initially in an incongruous fashion; something that no one expects. People hear the unusual.
You need to have confidence in your position that they can experience and you need to have empathy. If it is not apparent that you believe and want them to do the same, they will never find for you.