Opening Statements for Attorneys

Recently Faith invited one of our speakers, Karen Kimmey of Farella Braun & Martel LLP in San Francisco, to write a chapter on Opening Statements for Faith Pincus’ book,Being Heard: Presentation Skills for Attorneys . Karen has spoken at our programs for many years, including at our Superior Court Boot Camp almost every year since 2011.

Karen’s expertise and ability to teach is what led Faith to invite her to write this topic for her book. We’re reprinting it in portions on the blog, to give you a taste of what is in the book!

The following is Part I of a three part discussion about Opening Statements, written by Karen:

Part I:

Opening Statements

The opening statement is the attorney’s first opportunity to tell the jury what the case is about and what the attorney expects the testimony and evidence will show.  It is also counsel’s first real opportunity to establish his or her themes and build rapport with the jury.  In order for an opening statement to be effective, it is critical that the attorney has carefully prepared, planned, developed, and practiced the opening statement.  The attorney should discuss his or her theory of the case.  The statement should include all of the uncontested facts as well as the client’s version of the disputed facts.  It should be non-argumentative, logical, simple to comprehend, and believable.  In short, the opening statement is storytelling.

Opening Statement Theme

Every opening statement should have a theme.  The theme shared in the opening statement should be revisited throughout the case, and should be reinforced by the evidence.  As a result, it is critical that the attorney is well prepared and has an intimate understanding of the facts, deposition testimony, witnesses, evidence, strengths, weaknesses, and jury instructions.  This intimate understanding of the complete case will help the attorney develop the theme that will assist the jury in remembering and understanding the case from the client’s perspective.

Ideally, the theme will be one that resonates with jurors and is consistent with their existing views on how people act and what motivates behavior.  The theme should be relatable and not legalistic.  For example, a theme like  “this is a case about a defendant who made a promise, but then regretted it and is now trying to get out of the deal he made” is more effective than “this is a case about whether two parties formed a valid contract.”  Even the most complex or technical case should tell a human story.

Opening Statement Strategy

In order to deliver a case winning opening statement, the attorney should be efficient, non-argumentative, trustworthy, persuasive and strategic. As far as efficiency, jurors are often anxious to hear from the witnesses and receive evidence.  In complex cases, the jurors may have been sitting around for days listening to the lawyers dig into their personal history and potential biases.  Candidly, by the time the jury in sworn, they are tired of hearing from the attorneys and prefer to see and hear something else.  As such, it is critical for the attorney to make good use of his or her time by providing the jury with a concise story of what occurred and what the evidence will show.   Counsel should aim to present the opening statement in as little time as he or she realistically can.  Rarely is it advisable to use all of the time permitted by the court for opening.

The opening statement is not argument.  An argumentative opening statement will likely draw a sustained objection from opposing counsel, frustrate the presiding judge, and cause the attorney to become distracted or flustered.  It is also important that the attorney does not oversell the evidence or testimony.  If the attorney is unable to deliver on the oversold evidence or testimony, opposing counsel will remind the jury at closing.  It is best to under-sell and over-deliver.  Of course, the opening statement is also not merely a neutral recitation of facts – it should persuade through a clear and strategic recitation of the facts, not through argumentative rhetoric.

Counsel should anticipate the weaknesses in the client’s case and, if the weakness is admissible, volunteer the information to the jury.  It is important that they jury believes the attorney is credible and honest.  Attempting to hide the weaknesses or the damaging facts may cause the jury to think that the attorney and the client are attempting to pull a fast one.

Before presenting an opening statement to the jury, counsel should review the opening with colleagues and others with little or no familiarity with the case.  If the case is not sufficiently large to justify a formal mock trial or retention of a jury consultant, family members, friends and law firm staff can be excellent sounding boards!  Obtain feedback on the proposed theme.  Push for honest reactions; explore the listeners’ questions and evaluate the effectiveness of the approach.

Channing

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