In my latest trial advocacy book, Turning Points at Trial, I interviewed thirteen of the greatest lawyers in the country such as Robert S. Bennett, Alan Dershowitz, Mark Lanier, Tom Girardi, and Bryan Stevenson to learn the secrets of their success.
This is the first blog post in a series that explores some of the most important lessons I learned. The first one I want to share with you is how Mark Lanier develops a theme for his opening statement. If you are new lawyer, you might not know that Lanier may very well be the greatest trial lawyer of this century. He recently won a $9 billion verdict for a single plaintiff to add to his lengthy list or accolades.
Lanier shared with me two secrets. First, he does not wait until the night before trial to develop a theme for his opening statement as most lawyers mistakenly do. He begins working on it months before trial because he believes it is such an important tool to persuade the jury. Second, he finds a theme that will resonate with the jury and motivate them.
In his first record setting verdict that brought him into the national spotlight, he was trying a case against Merck for selling Vioxx, a pain medication, which caused Bob Ernst to have a heart attack. The venue for the trial was Angleton, Texas, a small town near Houston. He needed a theme that would empower the jury.
Instead of confusing the jury with scientific studies and using complicated legal words, he delivered an opening statement using plain English that cut right to the chase with a powerful theme. How did he get the jurors’ attention?
He told the jury that being in the jury box was like being on the television show CSI, except that this show was CSI Angleton (the town where the trial was being held). He told them that they were detectives. He argued that neither the judge, the plaintiff’s lawyer, nor the legislators could bring Merck to justice, only the jury. Like CSI, Lanier told the jury that he would bring them the clues so that they could use to solve the mystery of whether Vioxx was a dangerous drug and hold Merck accountable. Lanier even told the jury that “this was your calling.”
Fortune magazine reported that Lanier took on Merck with “merciless, spellbinding savagery.” Lanier would win a $253.5 million verdict. Long before your next trial begins, think of a TV show or movie like Lanier did that the jury can relate to and empower the jurors to make a difference.
For the three most important cases you have, begin today thinking of a theme that will grab the jurors attention. What is the most important idea in your case that the jurors can relate to? Use that idea to create a bond with the jury. For Lanier, he wanted the jurors to join him as detectives in a search for justice. With some planning, you will be able to find a theme that is just as exciting. Good luck!