We all know body language sometimes speaks louder than words.
A smile of reassurance can attract new clients. A look of disinterest can drive them away.
Nowhere is nonverbal communication more important than in the courtroom. A trial is a form of theater, with you as lawyer playing a starring role. When you are speaking – and even when you aren’t – eyes are on you, taking note of your facial expressions, posture and hand gestures for clues on how you feel about the events unfolding around you.
6 Tips From a Pro
Allison Leotta is a former federal prosecutor and the author of five novels, including , which was cited in , the Oprah Magazine as one of last year’s best summer books.
She says her 12 years of trial experience taught her the importance of demeanor.
“But law schools don’t have classes in body language, and a surprising number of trial lawyers never learn this lesson,” she says in this ABA Journal story.
Here are some of her tips:
- Stay in character, even when you don’t have a speaking role. “Your audience – the jury – is watching you from the moment they walk in, long before you say anything. Their only entertainment is watching you. They can’t check their phones, talk to one another or even lift their rears from their assigned seats. They’ll notice everything you do and draw conclusions about who you are.”
- Look in the mirror to study your neutral, resting expression. “Is it really neutral? Or does it look like you just argued with your spouse? The key to good courtroom demeanor for men and women is to appear trustworthy. If jurors think you’re unpleasant, they’re less likely to trust you.”
- Try to maintain a subtle, composed smile at all times. “Practice in the mirror. You don’t want to look like a crazy person. But you might discover that a subtle, practiced smile looks friendlier and exudes more confidence than your natural expression does at rest. There’s truth to that 1980s deodorant slogan, ‘Never let them see you sweat.’ Your star witness buckles under cross-examination? Smile your subtle, practiced smile. Unexpected testimony shocks you? Subtle smile. If you frown or rock backward in surprise, a juror might conclude that you think your case has been undermined. If you keep your neutral, subtle smile, it instead says: ‘Everything’s going my way, just as I expected, all part of my master plan.’”
- Kill them with kindness. “Be nice to everyone in the courtroom. Kindness makes the world a better place, and it makes you a happier person. But if that’s not enough to convince you, consider this: Kindness makes you more likely to win your case. When jurors think you’re a good person, they’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and ascribe good motives to what you say. If they think you’re nasty or dishonest, they’ll discount everything that comes out of your mouth.
5. Be like Clint Eastwood. “Look out for the jurors in the box. If Juror No. 3 is having a coughing fit, suggest a break or ask the judge if the juror can have a cup of water. Bless sneezes. An attorney who represents the National Enquirer told me about a trial in which the tabloid was sued by Clint Eastwood. During the actor’s testimony, an elderly juror sneezed. Eastwood stopped in the middle of his sentence and turned to the juror, meeting her rheumy brown eyes with his piercing blue ones. ‘God bless you, ma’am,’ he said. As she melted, the attorney for the magazine knew he’d lost the case.”
6. Work on your tone of voice. “I struggled for years to find mine. I was torn at different points between seeming too young, too academic or too strident (another female pitfall). You want to come across as smart but not smarmy, warm but not cloying, passionate but calm. It’s a difficult balancing act for anyone, but it’s especially tough for young lawyers and female litigators.
Eventually, I found my sweet spot, talking to jurors as I would to my mother-in-law: a smart, empathetic woman I loved and admired and who brought out the best side of me. Think about someone in your life such as this. Stephen King writes his books toward an imagined ‘ideal reader.’ Make your closing argument toward an ‘ideal juror’ who you respect and like and who brings out the best in you. If you’re not sure you’re hitting the right tone, try to practice your opening on your own mother-in-law. The advice you get from a nonlawyer can be eye-opening.”
Your body language can hurt your case or help it. The key is being aware of the message you’re sending.
What tips would you add to this list?