You only get one chance to make a first impression.

Whether you like it or not, jurors will judge you based upon their first impressions.  Your first impression affects how much jurors listen to you, how much they like you, and whether or not they’ll find you credible.  A bad first impression isn’t necessarily set in stone, but it takes a tremendous amount of effort to overcome someone’s initial “gut reaction,” so that means a negative first impression can taint every other interaction you’ll have with jurors.

So, if first impressions are so important, why do so many attorneys present such lousy first impressions during opening statement?!?

Think about the last 10 opening statements you heard.  Out of those ten openings, how many times did someone take advantage of the power of “primacy” and create a powerful first impression?  Probably not many, right?  In most cases, attorneys completely waste the first moments of their opening statements.  How many times have you heard an opening statement that started like this:

  • “An opening statement is like a roadmap…”
  • “Before I begin, let me remind you that what Mr. Wadsworth said is not evidence, and what I say isn’t evidence, either…”
  • “My name is James Minster, and it’s my privilege to represent Kyle Lauten…”

(Yawn!)

What a wasted opportunity!  The first moments of your opening statement serve the same purpose as the first line of a book: they should grab the jurors’ attention and give them a reason to listen to you.  Think how great novels grabbed your attention with their opening line:

  • “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” (Anna Karenina)
  • “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing.”  (A River Runs Through It)
  • “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”  (David Copperfield)
  • It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way-in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”  (Tale of Two Cities)

    (Dickens not only knew he how to start a novel, he knew how to finish one, too.  Check out the closing line: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.”)

[Those lines are a lot better than, "May it please the court," don't you think?]

Don’t waste the initial moments of your opening with drivel or blather.  Instead, you should follow the advice of my friend Pat Siracusa, who says lawyers should “punch a juror in the mouth” (figuratively, of course).

What he means is that your opening salvo should grab the jurors by their collars, pull them in, and give them a reason to pay attention to everything else you have to say.  A great way to grab their attention is to begin with the equivalent of, “I’ve got a story I want to tell you…”  Here are some examples you can adapt for your own cases:

  • “It’s a warm July afternoon.  Mike Thompson thinks that he’s going outside to fix his sprinkler system.  But he’s mistaken.  His neighbor has been drinking, and he’s got other plans for Mike…”
  • “It’s an early spring morning, and Julie Malcolm’s life is about to be changed forever…”
  • “Let me take you back to an early December morning, just three years ago.  There are only two more weeks until Christmas, and 7 year old Bobby Sheridan is eagerly awaiting tonight’s trip to the mall where he’ll get to sit in Santa’s lap and tell him exactly what he wants for Christmas.  But because of a driver who is more focused on his Blackberry than where he’s driving, Bobby will never get to tell Santa what he wants.”
  • “Mike Richards is a proud man.  Too proud.  And pride can lead a man to take crazy risks.”
  • “It’s early March of last year, and Roger Wooden is the most successful salesperson in his company.  He’s also the only gay salesperson in his company.  And his co-workers can’t get that fact out of their heads.”
  • “Lisa Hammish exercised every day.  She ate healthy foods.  She didn’t drink.  She didn’t smoke.  She took exceptional care of herself and she was in excellent shape.  But on a late Sunday afternoon in February of last year, none of that would protect her…”
  • “This is a case about a young child’s eyes.”

The first words of your opening may be the most persuasive words of your entire opening statement.  Use those words to grab the jurors’ attention and draw them in.  If you can do that, your first impression will positively impact the entire trial.

Tell us what you think

4 Comments

  1. 1-21-2009

    hi,

    your pointers are very interesting…

    Pleading is like telling a story..the difficulty is, just keeping the momentum going!

    Richard

  2. 4-15-2009

    Perhaps by better educating the public as the generations pass we can breed out the unnecessary emotionally compelled bullshit in the court rooms and base cases on pure facts rather than tugging on jurists heart strings.

  3. 4-19-2009

    @david

    What you seem to be hoping for is a reversal of human nature…that has little to do with the legal system.

    Some good advice here, I’ve heard this said before, and it does well to be said again. Any time you speak to a group, be it jurors or a roomful of post-grads, you’ve got about 30 seconds to hook em…then all you have to do is keep the line taught and reel them in:)

  4. 4-10-2010

    There are no pure facts, just perceptions of events.

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