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Trials are war, and require reducing fear and stagefright

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Photo from website of U.S. District Court (W.D. Mi.).

Even though my own stagefright level by now is at a deep minimum, I still need to understand stagefright and ways to minimize it for my own ongoing journey, and for the sake of the witnesses that I present in court; and in relating with the judges, jurors, opposing lawyer and opposing witnesses with whom I deal.  Trials are war, and require reducing fear and stagefright.

Working in imperfect chronology, I reached my present level of low stagefright through having been on stage countless times as a trumpeter with school bands and other bands for ten years; through having performed magic shows for children’s birthday parties for several years; through presenting a few hundred trials to completion, including several dozen before juries; through having been on the radio every week for nearly two years with my former law partner ; and through having appeared many times before television and radio audiences ranging as high as the hundreds of thousands and possibly millions. Also of help are the jobs I have had that have required me to deal with a wide range of new people, including retail sales work, auditing internal Wall Street bank operations for a year before law school (of course, auditors’ presence unnerved plenty of employees in my midst), and, ultimately, my nearly two decades of trial work, and appellate oral arguments.

My low stagefright level also is thanks to my daily t’ai chi practice, which focuses its practitioners on being in the moment, and about the risks of weakness, severe injury and death from letting fear, nervousness, and worry make one unfocused on the task at hand and to miss sensing important opportunities to neutralize and gain advantage over the opponent, to harmonize an imbalanced situation, and to maintain balance when balance already exists. The ultimate boundary to cross in becoming fearless and strong before an audience is to shed all fear of death and physical harm.

Looking at it another way, it is critical to be calm in the eye of the storm. Of course, one is less likely to have stagefright when one is in good spirits, self-confident, and in good physical and spiritual health.

Also important for losing stagefright is to find a way to be comfortable in one’s surroundings at all times, including with the people around you and the physical environment, even in very unpleasant, stuffy, and lifeless-seeming environments. It is important to reach the level of non-duality where one’s feelings of well-being are internal rather than relying on external factors. To bridge one’s entry from duality to non-duality, it helps to make oneself feel at home anywhere. It would be nice, for instance, if my clients could put a family photo or other soothing picture at the trial table, but even if that is not possible, I want my clients to visualize that instead of being in a courtroom, they are in their living room, and that the judge and everyone else are my client’s guests there, even if uninvited guests.

Of further benefit is to be able to find a way to like something in most every person. By the magic mirror effect, Will Rogers — who said he never met a person he did not like — probable garnered infinitely more people who liked and listened to him than the angry ghost in Ghost who knocked newspapers out of people’s hands.

On my path towards eliminating anger, I try following the Dalai Lama’s approach of talking to everyone the same (as, apparently, did my hero Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., who “treated the Court’s janitors with as much respect as he did his fellow justices”), ideally to do it as kindly as I talk to my son or my most valued teachers. How often do we say and do things that hurt the ones we love the most? If I have trouble doing this all at once, I start doing my best to apply this approach of the Dalai Lama with my loved ones and friends; then with the people with whom I work; then with those who are not my opponents; then with strangers; then with judges; and then with opponents. By taking this gradual approach, it is easier to feel natural talking kindly to opponents when I am already talking kindly with everyone else. I am much closer than ever to feeling that we are all interconnected, and that any harm I unnecessarily inflict on others (as opposed to sometimes needing to inflict harm on litigation opponents to harmonize my clients’ situation) ultimately harms me.

All of the foregoing discussion will be of no help until putting it into practice, fully engaging the people with whom you deal, and remembering that a huge percentage of people are consciously trying to harmonize their own lives. However, nothing is more persuasive than being persuaded by example.

Eliminating stagefright and all fear, then, is not just about eliminating your own fears, but also about reaching the level of helping others feel comfortable and reduce their fears, in large part by being empathetic towards them. Trying solely to eliminate one’s own fears is a self-centered approach, and being self-centered, self-absorbed, and self-conscious feeds fearfulness. Part of not being fearful is to be less self-centered. Getting back to death, which is the ultimate fear of so many people: Would people be fearful of death if they were not self-centered and if they were to recognize that they play a very small  role in the scheme of life overall?

Fearlessness is not reached merely by ignoring or sweeping fears under the rug. To eliminate and dissipate our fears, we must first acknowledge, understand, embrace, confront head-on, and send away our fears. It might help to get to the point of looking at our fears — and all our other problems — as a dispassionate observer who acknowledges the fear but gets to the point of detachment and non-duality from the fear.

Consequently, keys to overcoming stagefright are being in the moment, enhancing one’s compassion, reducing self-centeredness, confronting fears head-on, feeling at home everywhere, feeling interconnected with everyone and everything around the person, finding happiness in one’s own life, learning to like something in most everyone else, and looking internally rather than externally for a feeling of well being. Jon Katz

Jon Katz – Criminal defense and DWI defense lawyer practicing in Fairfax County, Virginia, 703-383-1100, https://katzjustice.com.