Themes: Part 9

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e. Establish Sense of Humor

One of the complaints about attorneys is that we appear unapproachable and are basically stuffed shirts. One of the best techniques for establishing approachability, credibility and common ground with the jury is through the use of humor. Neither the purpose nor the technique is to tell a joke or to attempt to entertain. The purpose is to simply establish in the minds of jurors that we have a good sense of humor.

Of the eight categories of humor: surprise, exaggeration, understatement, pun, irony, sarcasm, climax and anti-climax, the best techniques for demonstrating a sense of humor would be to utilize surprise, understatement or irony. Obviously avoid exaggeration, puns or sarcasm, which, if taken wrong in the context of a trial, could reflect very badly on the attorney’s credibility. The techniques of climax and anticlimax may also detract from the seriousness of the proceedings.

The most appropriate time to use humor is during voir dire examination while initial impressions are still being formed and before the serious matters at issue are undertaken in the trial in chief. Humor may also be used in trial during particularly long, boring testimony offered by the opposition in order to demonstrate to the jury that you share their boredom and offer the humor as a brief respite. Demonstrating a sense of humor in colloquy with the court may also be helpful to demonstrate your good relationship with the court as well as your sense of humor.

You may purposely choose to inject humor into direct examination as a means of humanizing your witness or under cross examination as a weapon against the adverse witness. In direct examination of an expert witness, counsel made a mistake, which was promptly pointed out by the opposing counsel. As direct examination resumed, counsel apologized to his witness for the mistake and then inquired “Doctor, is that the first time you’ve seen an attorney make a mistake?” to which the doctor responded, “no, but it’s the first time I’ve seen one admit it.” The judge, jury, witness and counsel all laughed at the witness’ remark. This served the valuable purpose of humanizing the witness, demonstrating his sense of humor and demonstrating that the attorney had a sense of humor and could take a joke of which he was the butt.

Some attorneys use sarcasm successfully as a weapon on cross examination. However, this is tricky and should only be used if it fits your particular style and you appear to be comfortable with it.

One of America’s greatest advocates, Tom Alexander of Houston, wields the weapon of sarcasm with grace and style. For example, in cross examining a doctor in which Alexander’s theme was that the doctor had performed unnecessary surgery, he began with the question “Doctor, are you aware that you are known as the fastest knife in the West?”

In cross examining a doctor who had been established to be a very frequent testifier for the plaintiff’s bar, defense counsel stated: “I’ll be brief, Doctor. I know you are needed in several other courtrooms.”

However, the rule remains that the purpose is to demonstrate a sense of humor, to humanize the attorney, or to humanize the witness rather than to entertain the jury.

f. Anecdotes

Personal anecdotes are a great storytelling device. We all use them in telling a story to make a point in a conversation with friends. They are just as effective in conveying a message to a jury and have the added advantage of enhancing the approachability and the humanity of the attorney. For example, a lawyer arguing the wrongful death case of a father who had left a widow and a six year old son. Using classic storytelling techniques, he related the following occurrence:

We see the young child as he stands on the platform at the train depot looking up at his father and thinking how big and strong he looks in his army uniform; we see the pride in his eyes as he looks around at all of the other soldiers waiting for the train and realizes that his dad is the best soldier of them all; we see him as the conductor calls “all aboard” and dad hugs and kisses mom and lifts the youngster in his arms as he thinks how lucky he is to have the best dad in the world; we see him as dad, with tears in his eyes, makes him promise to take care of his mother and mind her until he gets back from the war; we see him as he waves good-bye, his dad climbs aboard the train and rushes to the nearest window; we see him as mom raises him up to the glass so he can put his lips against the glass and give his dad one last kiss good-bye; we see him standing hand in hand with his mom and waving and waving and waving until the caboose is out of sight and only the trail of smoke remains; we see him bravely trying to hold back the tears, without success, as he realizes that he is the man in the family now and must not cry in front of mom; we see him 22 months later enter the living room as the man delivers the telegram to mom, the telegram that says that dad will never be home again.

I can describe that occurrence to you with such vivid detail because the soldier was my father and I was the young man on the train platform. It was 50 years ago but I remember it as if it were yesterday. So when I tell you that I know what this young man has lost in losing a father, I speak to you from my heart and my experience.

g. Quotes

Quotations, when skillfully but sparingly placed in the argument, can also be an effective tool for conveying a complex situation to the jury. The quotation should come from a source that the jury automatically accepts as gospel on the point that counsel is attempting to make. Common sources for quotations are: 1) The United States Constitution, 2) The Bible, and 3) Notable heroic figures, such as Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill, 4) Poetry, 5) Prose and 6) Song Lyrics.

(1) Prose – By carefully selecting well known prose or poetry, we have the advantage of choosing language which already has the rhythm and the rhetorical devices built in. The idea is to pick and choose phrases from prose or poetry which create a link of commonality between counsel, client and the jury. The more familiar the prose or poetry that is used, the stronger the bridge of commonality that will be built.

Consider, for example, the wonderful prose “What is a Boy?” Obviously we would not choose to quote this in its entirety. The idea is to pick and choose useful phrases which apply to your particular case.


Between the innocence of babyhood and the dignity of manhood we find a delightful creature called a boy. Boys come in assorted sizes, but all boys have the same creed: to enjoy every second of every minute of every hour of every day and to protest with noise (their only weapon) when their last minute is finished and the adult males pack them off to bed at night.

Boys are found everywhere–on top of, underneath, inside of, climbing on, swinging from, running around, or jumping to. Mothers love them, little girls hate them, older sisters and brothers tolerate them, adults ignore them, and Heaven protects them. A boy is Truth with dirt on its face, Beauty with a cut on the finger. Wisdom with bubble gum in its hair, and the Hope of the future with a frog in its pocket.

When you are busy, a boy is an inconsiderate, bothersome, intruding jangle of noise. When you want him to make a good impression, his brain turns to jelly or else he becomes a savage, sadistic, jungle creature bent on destroying the world and himself with it.

A boy is a composite–he has the appetite of a horse, the digestion of a sword swallower, the energy of a pocket-size atomic bomb, the curiosity of a cat, the lungs of a dictator, the imagination of a Paul Bunyan, the shyness of a violet, the audacity of a steel trap, the enthusiasm of a firecracker, and when he makes something, he has five thumbs on each hand.

He likes ice cream, knives, saws, Christmas, comic books, the boy across the street, woods, water (in its natural habitat), large animals, Dad, trains, Saturday mornings, and fire engines. He is not much for Sunday School, company, schools, books without pictures, music lessons, neckties, barbers, girls, overcoats, adults, or bedtime.

Nobody else is so early to rise, or so late to supper. Nobody else gets so much fun out of trees, dogs, and bruises. Nobody else can cram into one pocket a rusty knife, a half-eaten apple, 3 feet of string, an empty Bull Durham sack, 2 gumdrops, 6 cents, a slingshot, a chunk of unknown substance, and a genuine supersonic code ring with a secret compartment.

A boy is a magical creature–you can lock him out of your workshop, but you can’t lock him our of your heart. You can get him out of your study, but you can’t get him out of your mind. Might as well give up–he is your captor, your jailer, your boss, and your maker–a freckled-face, pint-size, cat-chasing, bundle of noise. But when you come home at night with only the shattered pieces of your hopes and dreams, he can mend them like new with the two magic words–“Hi, Dad!” See p.23, infra.

(2) Poetry – Poetry, if carefully selected, can be a very useful tool in conveying a message to the jury. If you can find poetry which coincides with and conveys your theme, the jury can be persuaded that your theme has a commonality which has been adopted by the poets and should also be adopted by the jury. We must be cautious in the selection of abstruse poetry which must be studied to be understood. Remember that the jury is receiving the poetry only through the auditory channel and does not have the opportunity to read the poem and study its meaning. By making a careful vocal presentation of the poem, counsel may also reach the kinesthetic channel by invoking the feelings of the listeners. Jim Perdue, in his excellent book, Who Will Speak For The Victim, has suggested the following lines of poetry from “The Broken Wheel” by Edgar Guest. Consider the effective use of this wonderful poetry in a case in which a defective product has been placed on the market by the manufacturer:

We found the car beneath the tree.

The steering knuckle broke, said he;

The driver is dead; they say his wife

Will be an invalid for life.

I wonder how the man must feel

Who made that faulty steering wheel.

Perhaps the workman never saw

An indication of the flaw;

Or seeing it, he fancied it

Would not affect his work a bit,

And said; It’s good enough to go –

I’ll pass it on. They’ll never know.

It’s not exactly to my best

But it may pass the final test;

And should it break no man can know

It was my hands that made it so

The thing is faulty, but perhaps

We’ll never hear it when it snaps.

Note the effective use of short words by Edgar Guest in order create impact, combined with the use of longer words to achieve rhythmic flow. Of the 121 words in the poem, 99 (82%) are one syllable.

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