Watch Your Tongue! Why happy-hour language can be risky in the courtroom.
Interacting with law students and new lawyers energizes me. It’s important for me to share my experiences and my knowledge of jurors with others, and recently, I’ve had the opportunity to participate as a judge in a mock voir dire law school competition, and as a faculty member in a trial skills seminar for young attorneys.
The young adults I’ve encountered share some amazing traits. They are passionate about what they do. They are hungry to learn. They crave constructive criticism and concrete, specific suggestions for improving their advocacy skills. They want to do better. Gotta love that.
They also share a trait that has the potential to hurt their credibility in front of judges and juries. Many– not all, but many– have a tendency to use extremely casual language during their presentations. To be fair, these young adults were performing to a group of peers (not real jurors), and their conduct was certainly not worthy of sanctions, but that line between appropriately connecting with jurors and imparting a professional persona became a bit blurry.
I don’t mean to sound like a stodgy old ninny, but there are just certain words that really don’t belong in the courtroom. Especially not in a courtroom full of jurors.
Yes, we’re inundated with casual, happy-hour language in television. In print. In movies. In social media. In the workplace. In the war room. And sometimes, in a courtroom. But a courtroom full of jurors is a completely different animal.
The tricky thing about juries is this: we don’t really know them. We never do. No matter how skilled you are at querying the panel during jury selection, you will never know each and every panel member well enough to determine whether certain words or phrases will be influential, frowned upon or deemed offensive. Couple this with the universal expectation of jurors that attorneys demonstrate the utmost respect for the courtroom, and you can easily find yourself a bit of a quandary.
During jury selection and throughout the course of trial, you must be accepted by jurors. And to be accepted, you must be respected. But to earn the respect of jurors, you need to demonstrate respect for both the courtroom and the jury panel. If jurors fail to respect you, they will be much more resistant to accepting your trial story. Period. End of story.
I’ve always been a huge advocate of being yourself during jury selection and engaging in a real conversation with jurors. I also think it’s critical to leave the legalese at the doorstep when addressing jurors during opening, witness Q&A and closing. Building rapport with jurors is crucial– but it still requires a filter. While referring to someone as smart-ass might be a perfectly normal part of everyday conversation, if even one juror on the panel is offended by your word choice, you’ve not only damaged your credibility… but you’ve inadvertently damaged the credibility of your client.
You can still build rapport, connect and have a casual conversation with jurors without using happy-hour lingo. If you wouldn’t utter the word during a job interview or in front of a group of conservative church goers, then it’s probably a good idea to get out your thesaurus.
If in doubt, take the high road and adopt a more toned-down vernacular. The risk of offending even one person on the panel really isn’t worth it.
Choose your words wisely. Jurors will respect you for it.
Kacy Miller is president and founder of CourtroomLogic Consulting, a full-service trial consulting firm recognized by Texas Lawyer readers as one of the “Texas Best Jury Consultants” in 2010, 2011 and 2012. Kacy works with trial teams around the country by providing focus groups, mock trials, witness preparation, jury selection and a host of other services designed to guide settlement decisions and trial strategy. She is a published author, frequent speaker, and blogger on issues related to juries, trial advocacy and communication.