Trial Ad 101: On Reading A Closing Argument at Trial

by Jamison Koehler on May 4, 2011


Sitting in Room 117 of D.C. Superior Court last week, I caught the tail end of a bench trial in which the defense attorney read her closing argument from a sheet of paper.

I have no idea how persuasive the content of her argument was because the delivery was so poor.  I had the feeling I was sitting in an introductory trial advocacy class at law school.

And when the judge interrupted her with a question, she seemed to be at a loss. Because the answer was not on the sheet of paper in front of her.  Because her mind had shut down as soon as she started to read.

And this was no junior attorney.

It is not that I am an expert on closing arguments.  Not by any means.  I am still a work in progress.  I will always be a work in progress.

And it is not that I myself don’t write out closing arguments in advance.  I do.  It is usually one of the first things I do in preparing for trial.

Writing things out in advance forces me to organize my thoughts and to find the right words. But then I put the narrative aside in favor of bullet points. Having already worked through the argument in my mind, I am confident that the right words will return to me as soon as I start to speak.

One of the things I liked best about the public defender’s office in Philadelphia was their recognition that there are many ways to be an effective advocate.  From the very first day of training, they told us that their goal was to help us to develop into the trial lawyers we were meant to be.  Some people are dramatic, pounding the table and pacing the room. Other people work better with more subtle approaches. You figure out what works best for you. Then you develop that style.

But nobody can ever get away with simply reading anything.

4 Comments on “Trial Ad 101: On Reading A Closing Argument at Trial

  1. I’m an appellate guy rather than a trial lawyer, but I feel the same way whenever I see someone read an oral argument.

  2. I see that plenty, as well, and it always astounds me. When you disengage from the jury or the judge, they disengage from you. Eye contact, reading the audience, and interacting with them are some of the most important and powerful parts of oral advocacy.

    Writing it out can be important, of course. I always write out my closings and openings, as well as key passages of any oral arguments I might have time to prepare. It’s a great tool for organizing my thoughts and crafting effective (I hope) turns of phrase. It’s nice to have a kind of script to rehearse. And it’s fine to have an outline to refer to now and then — nobody minds if you take a moment to gather the next thought. But you can’t just stand there and read to your audience.

  3. It is an honor to have “The Criminal Lawyer” visiting this site. I am a fan. Thanks for commenting.

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