The psychology of advocacy

The trial advocate should remember at all times that ‘Human beings are far more video than audio. The way we collect most of our information is through our eyesight…Intent listening is something we do with surprisingly rarity…What most lawyers ask the fact finders to do in court is to use their second best device for gathering understanding. And the fact finders do it: on the whole they do it well. But since we don’t tie blindfolds on them, they don’t switch off their best information gathering device… People who have studied the psychology of communications have some terrifying statistics for us lawyers. Examples:

  • 60% of a message is conveyed by body language and visual appearance generally.
  • 30% of the message is conveyed by tone of voice.
  • Only 10% of a message comes through the words used.
  • Only 10% of what people hear gets remembered. If, on the other hand they see something connected with what they are hearing, as they are hearing it, they remember 50%.

Lawyers tend not to know these statistics, just as they don’t seem to realise that they are operating all the time in the Video dimension.’ (Common Sense Rules of Advocacy for Lawyers by Keith Evans).

In his book the Golden Rules of Advocacy, Keith Evans adds,

‘[At trial what the judge normally has to do] is decide which parts of the evidence [he] prefers. An advocate’s job is to lead his or her fact finder to a preference and thus to an opinion…Your fact finders may arrive at their preference and their opinion entirely as a result of thinking. But that’s not very likely, is it? Even trained thinkers like us, in choosing between two conflicting witnesses, often ask ourselves what our gut reaction is…The process of getting to a preference and an opinion involves both – thinking and feeling. In a trial by judge alone you are before a trained thinker: here there may be more thinking than feeling involved in the search for preference or opinion. I say “may be” because that isn’t by any means certain. Judges are human too…You see lawyers behaving as if their fact finders had no feelings at all, whereas it is their feelings you should be reaching out to all the time. Your job is to make them feel , as well as think, that they prefer your version. It is your task, in total honesty, to lead them to this. And if you take this as your starting- point all sorts of guidelines present themselves.’

‘Judges, as human beings, are not immune from vanity. It is, then, “always a good principle of advocacy” for counsel to base his submissions on the previous decisions of the judge trying the case, since, as Lord Donaldson MR has acknowledged, “nothing appeals to judges quite as much as something which they have thought of themselves”. Little has changed since Quintilian advised all aspiring advocates in the first century AD that “we shall win the goodwill of the judge not merely by praising him, which must be done with tact and is an artifice common to both parties, but by linking his praise to the furtherance of our own case.’ (Advocates, by David Pannick).

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“The Advocate and the Expert in a Testamentary Capacity Claim”, the paper serialised in the monthly Newsletter of the Association of Contentious Trust and Probate Specialists (ACTAPS), of the talk I presented at their Annual Spring Seminar on 7 April 2016, at Charles Russell Speechlys in the City of London is also available to download on the Publications page: click on the link ‘HANDOUT’.