Long before I thought of being a trial lawyer, I wanted to be a newspaper journalist. I studied journalism in college but when I graduated, I couldn’t find a writing job. As a reader of my president messages, perhaps you’re not surprised to hear this. At any rate, I went to law school as a fallback option, fell in love with trial work, and the rest is history.
Years later, I had the opportunity to marry my two interests of journalism and trial work when I served as senior legal analyst for CNN Headline News. My job was to comment on the legal news of the day, and often on the lawyers who made it. It seemed to me that there were two kinds of lawyers in the news: the advocates who told their clients’ stories and the lawyers hungry to publicize their own success.
The best lawyer/advocates understood that the real story, the appealing story, was their client’s human interest story – the one that highlighted overcoming obstacles and faith in the justice system. Those were the stories that didn’t rely on sensationalism to sell the story, but were sensational in and of themselves and ultimately succeeded in connecting us with the story and the cause.
As trial lawyers in the courtroom, we also tell human interest stories. Our goal is to visually and verbally paint a picture for the jury that is so vivid and clear that they can’t help but view the circumstances before them through the eyes of our clients. We strive to take jurors on a journey through our clients’ experiences, highlighting the highs and the lows, and leaving them at the end wondering why our clients’ lives were disrupted so unnecessarily and what they can do to help.
We are the storytellers, but our clients are the stories and that is an important message to remember in our profession.
Imagine, for a moment, that a jury has just returned a very favorable award to one of your deserving clients. Before you take
any calls or talk to any reporters, ask yourself this question: What headline would my fellow trial lawyers and I like to see in tomorrow’s news after I give this inter view? If your only goal is to get a front page, evening news-leading sensational headline, then you will most certainly boast about the size of the verdict and your prowess as a trial lawyer. On the other hand, if your goal is to tell your client’s story in a way that shows that the justice system worked and that your client was fairly compensated, then you will share much the same story that you shared with the jury just hours before – during the trial – a story that is not about dollars, but about securing justice for a deserving victim.
At the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association, we work hard to improve the public image of trial lawyers through public service efforts and lawyer education. What we can’t do, however, is offer the opportunity for you to re-record your post-verdict interview with that reporter after your great verdict. And we can’t fix the headlines that result from it. You don’t generally get a second chance to tell your client’s story to the media. If it’s not explained the first time, the jurors may know that your client deserved the award that was given, but the community never will.
The public perception of trial lawyers is slowly changing, though not as quickly as any of us would like and certainly a far cry from an overnight transformation. We play a large role in determining how quickly we flip the association with the phrase “trial lawyer” from pejorative to positive. We represent the downtrodden, relentlessly pursue justice and serve as the key to the courthouse door for those who would otherwise be left without any recourse for harm done to them. Our public statements and media interactions should reflect that.
I write all of the above to ask you this: Please be cognizant of the fact that every time you speak about your clients, your cases and our profession as a whole, you are shaping tomorrow’s news – whether you like it or not. It is tempting to shoot for the above-the-fold, front-page headlines with boasts and big numbers, but don’t forget that the most impactful stories are the human interest stories. It is there that your clients’ courage and the story of justice done in our civil justice system will get its due. And it is in human interest stories that the truth about the important role of trial lawyers in our society will be revealed.