What Makes a Lawyer Persuasive

What makes a lawyer persuasive?

I asked my third year law students for criteria they thought were important in judging the winner of a persuasion exercise I was developing. The students’ responses (totally anonymous) approached the problem from three angles. The following point system was most likely developed by someone who had been a juror at least once!

  • 4 points off for a speaker who bores the listener to the point they can’t pay attention.
  • 3 points off for anyone who annoys the listener to the point it distracts their impartiality
  • 2 points off anyone the listener doesn’t feel she can trust
  • 1 point off anyone who strikes the listener as inept
  • 1 point given if the listener believes the speaker’s logic
  • 2 points given if the speaker seems trustworthy
  • 3 points given if the speaker is likeable
  • 4 points given if the speaker is amusing or interesting or compelling.

Note that competence and logic are in the one-point range. Very astute for a law student. Credibility, likeability, trust and effective presentation rank the highest in this point system. Responses from other students showed a fairly consistent inclusion of both content and style. A typical list included:

  • Sufficiency and adequacy of evidence
  • Simple, logical arguments that are easy-to-follow and do not patronize
  • Consistency within the argument
  • Confidence in presentation
  • Creativity
  • Adequacy addressing the central issue
  • Addressing and refuting opponent’s position
  • Believability
  • Argument supported by legal authority
  • Maintaining credibility
  • Good ol’ fashioned flare for the dramatic without being melodramatic

And some of the students posed questions to assist in determining the relative persuasiveness of the presentation, such as

What was the listener’s gut reaction? Was the presentation sincere? Did it seem overly rehearsed? Did it evoke a response? Was that the response intended?

How well did the speaker combine logic, credibility and appeals to emotion? Was the use of these three elements appropriate? Could other appeals have been better used?

How much did the speaker change the listener’s opinion or beliefs? Was speaker able to change a non-believer to a believer?

Was the presenter an effective speaker? Did he use appropriate gestures, movement and emphasis? Did she avoid errors such as aimless wandering, weight shifting and excessive throat clearing?

Whose argument was more memorable? Did the speaker have a central theme or focal point?

Whichever approach suits you best – points, lists or questions – you can become more persuasive in the courtroom by viewing your own presentation through the eyes and ears of the jurors, as these students have.

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