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Persuasion through being open, without revealing secrets nor all weak spots

Virginia criminal attorney on the power of being open

Fairfax, Northern Virginia, criminal lawyer/ DWI attorney pursuing the best defense

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At the Trial Lawyers College, I learned that its founder Gerry Spence is at once an incredibly powerful persuader, very in touch with his strengths and weaknesses, and ready to reveal his vulnerabilities. This started out as simply with Gerry’s voicing his disappointment that “Nobody picked me!” after we each were to pair up for an exercise in opening up ourselves to each other.

On the flip side, Steve Rench — who was my main motivator for attending this four-week trial lawyers program miles from the nearest paved road — exhibited few vulnerabilities. He said he had no pain, compared to pain having positively motivated Gerry in many ways.

At the Trial Lawyers College — where we did not harp on elegant language — one key phrase about persuasion was “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.” Others should not be expected to open up to us any more than we open up to them. In the jury room, we want jurors to open up to each other. If a trial lawyer hides his or her concerns about his or her case, the judge and jury will pick up that the lawyer is hiding something, perhaps thinking the lawyer is hiding something bigger than what s/he is really hiding. How does a judge, jury, or prosecutor trust such a person?

Being run by humans, the Trial Lawyers College has its own strengths and weaknesses. The best thing that attendees can take from the Trial Lawyers College — as with all self improvement programs — is to trust more deeply in their own abilities and to let them flourish. Among the attendees who excellently took that to heart was my roommate Bob Hilliard, who in response to my skepticism about much of the seeming disorganization early on in the college responded “Something’s happening.” Bob continued on his very successful trajectory as a person and lawyer.

Bob’s “Something’s happening” response was quite the counterpoint to another attendee who described Gerry as a Svengali and another who referred to the college as Gerry Spence’s Mind F*ck, seeing that we were urged to become better trial lawyers by first becoming better people, which cannot happen without fully revealing us to ourselves, and here involved fully revealing ourselves to each other at the college, with the understanding that we would keep these revelations in confidence and not use them against the people making the revelations.

Of course, everything in life and in persuasion must be balanced and harmonized. In the process of a trial lawyer’s revealing himself or herself to the judge, jury and prosecutors, the lawyer does not want to bore them, lecture them, reveal client confidences nor attorney work product nor attorney battle plans that must remain confidential, nor reveal vulnerabilities that will harm more than help the client. Moreover, clients want to see their lawyers as genuinely strong, not as weaklings whimpering about, so the lawyer needs to warn the client if the lawyer is going to be admitting personal weaknesses in open court.

An example of putting limits on revealing our vulnerabilities is the unsolicited email I received from a lawyer I had never met who poured his guts out to me about how he had recently been hired for a particularly serious felony case in my neck of the woods and was scared. He sounded in over his head, and apparently turned out to be the same. Lawyers need to beware teaming up with other lawyers who will be in over their heads, lest the other lawyer pull the able lawyer under water along the way, unless the less able lawyer hands over the reins of the case to the more experienced lawyer, and takes the role of learning and participating at the right pace.

Another example of putting limits on our vulnerabilities is my advising my clients not to let the opponent see my clients sweat nor fear. Part of persuading in criminal defense is for the opponent and everyone else to see the criminal defense lawyer and his or her client as a fearlessly powerful united front that will not take any crap from the prosecution side. When my client knows that I am my client’s devotee and my opponent’s nightmare, my client is more on board with such an approach.

Once the persuader lets himself or herself be open and reveal some of his or her vulnerabilities, the results can be magical. Then, the client or potential client can trust in the lawyer not to be slam the client down with a snide lawyer comment about the client’s addressing the client’s concerns about the case. Nor, for that matter, will judges, jurors or prosecutors try to protect themselves from snide comments from the criminal defense lawyer, because a person revealing their own vulnerabilities is less likely to turn on those who reveal their own vulnerabilities.

When the criminal defense lawyer drops posturing and moves into being open — backed up at all times with full preparedness and strength — judges, jurors, prosecutors, police, and opposing witnesses are more likely to pay attention to the criminal defense lawyer rather than focusing on being ready to defend against any low blows from the criminal defense lawyer. Part of persuading is being truly listened to, and not tuned out, so by the criminal defense lawyer’s being open, the other parties to the conversation are more likely to be open themselves to the criminal defense lawyer.

The power of being open is nearly unlimited. When we are open, we are less focused on trying to control affairs nor the situation, rather than seizing opportunities and working to direct and redirect affairs to the best advantage of our clients and ourselves. When we are open, we sense, see and hear the diamond dust that might be covered in the vomit coming out of the opponent’s or judge’s mouth, rather than only seeing and smelling the vomit. When we are open, others are more willing to walk into the circle of our communication, trusting that the door will remain open for them to depart as well.

When we are open, we learn of possibilities and paths that we would otherwise have missed. We learn of our own strengths and others’ strengths and weaknesses that we did not know existed. We lose our ego, which is a barrier to engaging with and persuading others.

When we are open, we shorten our safety buffer zone so must be all the more ready to defend ourselves right at the border, but we also gain much in the process.