On Developing a Trial Persona That Works for You

by Jamison Koehler on January 16, 2013

One of the first things they told us during training at the public defender’s office in Philadelphia was that, although they could help us develop many of the skills we needed to become successful trial lawyers, they could not help us with our trial personas.  That was something we had to develop for ourselves. And there was no one-size-fits-all approach. Experiment with different styles, we were told, and develop a persona that works for you.

Bryan Brown and Tom Key are two of the best DUI lawyers I have ever seen and, as a member of the National College for DUI Defense, I have now seen a lot of them.

It is not only that the two of them were almost single-handedly responsible for bringing down the District’s DUI program a couple of years back.  It is also that both are extremely effective advocates at trial, so much so that police officers have been known to get up and walk out the moment one of them walks into the courtroom. Nobody likes to be publicly humiliated.

And yet the two of them have very different – almost polar opposite – personas at trial.

Bryan Brown is the master at what James Shellow has described as the art of asking simple questions to elicit complicated answers.  Writes Shellow:

In part the art of cross-examining an analyst lies in asking apparently simple questions which do not have simple answers; or questions which may have one meaning to the jury and a different meaning to the analyst.  The simplicity may be conveyed by the questioner’s use of common parlance or slang; it may be conveyed by simple hypothetical questions; it may be conveyed by the suggestion that most people would know the answer.

Brown takes a Colombo-style approach to cross-examination. Although he seems to have bought a few new suits recently, he still wears those ratty brown shoes. His demeanor at trial is one of courtesy and deference, asking the bright and obviously qualified government witness to help him resolve his confusion. He seems just as surprised as anyone when the answers don’t seem to make any sense, prompting him to probe still further.

Tom Key is far more aggressive, both in substance and in style. Unlike Brown, Key has got that former-military-man thing going on. He is well-groomed with a crew cut and nicely tailored suits. He is a little bit less deferential to both the court and the witness, sometimes continuing his questions after an objection has been sustained. And his questions are rapid fire, direct, and relentless.

Two different styles; same result. And what could be more gratifying than seeing a hostile witness squirm on the stand?

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