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Friday, March 28, 2014

Why Are Lawyers So Dramatic: The Sequel

Since posting about dramatic lawyers yesterday, I've received some thought-provoking emails from friends. I thought I'd follow up on the post with some additional thoughts.

First, to those of you who commented favorably on my new status as a centerfold, especially given my age, girth, and so forth: Thank you. It is heartening to know that we centerfolds have supportive networks of friends and family who will be with us throughout the process.

Second, on the subject of drama, my friend and colleague Tom Leggans provided some great insight. Tom is an Assistant United States Attorney and a member of our trial advocacy faculty at SIU School of Law. He is a phenomenal trial lawyer and teacher. Here are Tom's thoughts:

I think the real problem with the lawyers your interviewer was describing as overly “dramatic” wasn’t necessarily that they were dramatic but  that they were being inauthentic.  I have seen lawyers who many might describe as dramatic if they weren’t also being so authentic.  The authentic  ones are not ever described as dramatic by people in the courtroom.  People call them “passionate.”  I have a colleague who is like this.  You don’t dare ask him about a case he’s working on because he will tell you.  And tell you.  And tell you some more.   He is authentically wrapped up in his cases.  He gets animated when he talks about them.  We have all suspected for years that he may well be crazy.  Juries inevitably love him.  I think jurors know when they are seeing the real deal and when they are watching a person who is only parroting the way he or she has seen lawyers portrayed in popular culture. I think expectations of clients also play a role in this. I have seen lawyers who receive CJA appointments (i.e court appointments for indigent defendants)  act entirely reasonable in that setting who suddenly  become Al Pacino in ". . . And Justice for All" when they are on retainer. So. . .

I have seen plenty of lawyers who are contrived dramatic.  They don’t come across the same way that my colleague does.  

In teaching my students, I tell them, in the first session, that the best advocate they can be is their own true self. I emphasize the importance of presenting the case unfiltered through any other persona besides their own.   I have a favorite drill I use when I see a student “acting.”  I didn’t invent this drill but what I do is I have them stop and make a note of where they are in whatever they are doing.  I then have them get off the subject of whatever they are doing and I tell them to start telling me about the funniest thing they have ever personally seen.  When they are well into the middle of it and obviously speaking in their true “voice” I tell them to pick back up where they were in whatever they were presenting and to keep that “voice.”  I have had success in this approach.

I like Tom's substitution of the word "inauthentic" for "dramatic." It does a better job of describing the root problem that my interviewer had identified. The jurors in her trial felt like they were objects to be manipulated by the attorneys; there was no authenticity.

Tom's point also ties in to a point that Mark Caldwell made about our role as advocacy teachers. He wrote: We teach participants to come out of their shell. They need to tell stories. They need to use words that generate visceral reactions. But they need to be human. For some, this is a contradiction in terms. He went on to observe that in group settings, many of us display more energy and enthusiasm that we might in a one-on-one conversation with someone else, as if a switch is being turned out.

I think the comments from both Tom and Mark are in harmony. Of course we want our students to use effective communication techniques. That's why we teach advocacy, after all. We've all been able to share transformative moments with our students in advocacy classrooms. Those transformations occur because we are able to diagnose a problem and suggest the appropriate tool to fix it. But those techniques are not a substitute for authenticity, for being human.

I have a student on my trial team who has made remarkable progress as an advocate in the past two years. He isn't the most polished advocate on my team, but he is the most comfortable in his own skin. He is genuine and authentic. We've been able to use various advocacy techniques to help him improve his speaking voice, eliminate distracting mannerisms, use purposeful movement and appropriate gestures, and so forth. He has improved in his ability to anticipate and respond to objections. He keeps his composure in the courtroom in a way that he could not two years ago. What I feel best about is that none of this has come at the cost of his personality. He has never tried to develop an artificial courtroom persona, but rather to become a more effective version of himself. Jurors absolutely love him. He is vulnerable, but it is not a contrived vulnerability. He comes across as genuine, rather than someone trying to use a technique that will make him appear genuine.

I'd love to get some more comments and discussion about teaching authenticity. And I commend to you Tom's authenticity drill that he lays out above.


  1. I have found that the "quest" for authenticity is not only a key component of the advocacy teaching process, it is the process. Everything else at some level is nothing more than blocking and tackling - in a word fundamentals. Fundamentals must be mastered to allow the person to come out. Why? Because fear of failure blocks our authentic selves. We teach the basics to remove the fear. There are other types of fear though that have nothing to do with being unsure of what to do, and everything to do with who you are. I have been playing lately with that internal journey and how it reflects back into both my representation of others and my teaching.