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Persuading as just folks, without the airs of Hermes ties and gold cufflinks

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One day during my year working for New York City’s Irving Trust commercial bank before starting law school, I walked into Tiffany’s in Manhattan on a Saturday to buy a friend a wedding gift, figuring I’d get a crystal bowl or some other doo-dad under one hundred dollars, not knowing what else to buy my friend. As soon as I walked in, I was ready to walk out. The airs of salesmen in expensive watches and expensive ties tapping pens on the counter to indicate they had a customer was a put-off. They seemed to be performing for an audience that was not for me.

That could have been more my perception than reality, but perception is key in trying to persuade jurors, judges, and anyone else.

My experience at the Tiffany store was quite a contrast from my impromptu visit two years earlier to the flagship store in Paris of the high-quality jewelry chain founded by namesake Fred Samuel. A family member knew him, and I figured I would stop by when in the neighborhood on a Saturday summer afternoon before returning home from a few weeks in Europe before my last year of college. I had recently taken the graduate business school exam, not yet sure whether to attend law school or business school, and was interested in meeting a local business success and always liked the opportunity to speak in my French second language. Upon entering the store, I found Fred dusting or sweeping the store, coming across as a regular man who had succeeded in business but did not see himself as above or below anyone.

I introduced myself, we spoke in French a few minutes. At some point he told me about a relative who had died, I think his son.

Fred came across as a regular everyman. Billionaire Warren Buffett seems the same. As cantankerous as he was often reported to be, Steve Jobs never seemed to lose contact with that part of himself who in his young twenties walked seven miles once a week to a Hare Krishna temple to get at least one good meal for the week. Even if they are wearing expensive gold cufflinks and the best silk neckties, their humanity seems to melt through the distraction of both.

The late trial lawyer Robert Ritchie would think nothing of graciously saying "I’ll pay", when the restaurant bill came at a large table of NACDL conference attendees and when he had not even seen the price of the wine that everyone had ordered. At the same time, Bob was able to diffuse tension at a police station by merely pouring himself a cup of day-old coffee as just folks.

When I attended the Trial Lawyers College in the summer of 1985 at Gerry Spence’s Wyoming ranch — where all of us pitched in cleaning up the kitchen, mess hall or bathroom — I reached down to pick up my writing pad from the big barn floor one morning, and instead stabbed myself with a big wooden splinter that wedged itself between my fingernail and adjacent flesh. Gerry Spence, probably one of the century’s greatest trial lawyers, was nearby, so I asked him if he had anything to help pull out the splinter, and he handed me his leatherman with some suggestions on how best to dig it out. He was already very wealthy, very famous, and regularly on television, but in that moment, he was just folks talking to me about removing my splinter, just as I understand he is always just folks before jurors, in the most real sense of the world.

My pre-law school year with Irving Trust had me rubbing elbows with plenty of regular people, from those who would never attend college to those who attended college and earned very good incomes but still were regular folks. My experience working with a wide cross section of people was an important break from being mainly with students and professors while in college, and students and lawyers while in law school.

If jurors, judges or anyone else catches wind that a lawyer feels superior to them, or feels entitled to the most expensive clothes, expensive cars, and fanciest hotels, that will backfire against the lawyer. We are all born naked and leave the earth without taking any possessions or money with us. There is nothing wrong with buying nice goods and services with the money we honestly and ethically earn, but that is but icing on the cake of life. Moreover, jurors retire to bare jury rooms — where good trial lawyers want them to spend as much time as needed to reach the right verdict — without even food or drink unless the court security person arranges it. The persuasive trial lawyer should take the lead in shedding any airs of being entitled to high-falutin’ creature comforts.

A key component to persuading as a lawyer is to be selfless and to serve everyone, not only the lawyer’s client, but also the jury, the judge, everyone else in the courtroom, and the truth. Lawyers tied to silver spoons belong in their well-appointed corporate offices, but not in the courtroom.