Courting Insight: Body Language on Trial

By | Dec.12.13 | Communicating, Daily Dispatch, Law Practice Management, Skills

The most brilliant trial attorneys seem to have a natural instinct for reading people, knowing intuitively what a nod from a juror or glance from a judge implies. For the rest of us, there’s this handy cheat sheet that breaks down some of the most common body language exhibited in the courtroom. You can use it to modulate your own behavior, train your client, or gain additional insight into opposing counsel, judge and jury.

While a lot of it is common sense, these tips from body language expert and trainer Traci Brown will give you another tool in your arsenal — and a potential advantage when what is not being said is just as important as what is.

You. In the courtroom, attorneys typically focus more on what they are saying rather than what they are showing. Be aware, says Brown, that your jury is watching you all the time. You need to exude trustworthiness. One tip is to never cover your mouth when talking — in body language lingo it is a sign of lying. You also want to show that you are in control of the situation. Making yourself look bigger, for example, by putting your hands on your hips and spreading your legs, implies dominance. Or, tent your fingers, which shows confident power. There’s a fine line between aggressiveness and power, however, so be sure to temper your movements with plenty of steady eye contact.

Client. Of everyone in the courtroom, clients probably need the most training on body language. Here’s what you can do with yours. First, make sure they are dressed respectably in a way that looks consistent with who they are. (That means if your client spends his days underneath the chassis of a car, don’t outfit him as if he were a Harvard professor.) Next, have them sit up straight — good posture goes a long way. Before they go to court, have a talk about acceptable courtroom behavior. They need to appear interested and engaged in their case. This means no fidgeting, no letting eyes wander around the courtroom and no nodding off, even at tedious moments. Often the best way to avoid these behaviors is to encourage them to listen, really listen, to everyone who is speaking so that they remain connected to what is going on in the courtroom.

Jury. Just as the jury always watches you, you also have an opportunity to watch the jury. They generally tend to move one way or another en masse. Observe them to see what they are open to and what they are not. They also rather quickly become a tight group, so if you can persuade one juror, you can start to persuade all of them. Watch closely to find out who the real leader is, then address your arguments to him or her. Create a connection by matching and mirroring the leader’s body language.

Judge. Judges are tricky because they dislike even the scent of manipulation. The best advice is to behave as naturally as possible with them — no false outrage, no grand gestures, no carefully orchestrated movements — and be a leader in the courtroom. Watch the judge for facial cues, such as a raised eyebrow, a minor frown, a clouding of the eyes, and make it your responsibility to help everyone in the courtroom feel more comfortable. If you step in and set the tone almost the way a good host of a party does, you will look like a leader. And when you look like a leader, you have just increased the odds of things going your way.

Mary Ellen Sullivan is a Chicago-based freelance writer who writes frequently about the arts, music, travel and women’s issues, with a specialty in health care for more than 30 years. She is the author of the best-selling book “Cows on Parade in Chicago,” as well as several travel guides, and has been published in The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, Woman’s Day, Vegetarian Times and other publications. She also writes a blog about joy called “On the Wings of the Hummingbird.” 

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