In a Jury Trial, Legalese Can Be Fatal
Most professionals speak and write in language unique to their profession. That isn’t usually a problem when lawyers are communicating with lawyers (although it is less effective than plain English.) But when a lawyer needs to communicate effectively with a jury, legalese creates serious problems not only because the jurors do not know what your legalese means, but, even worse, because some of them think they know what some of these terms mean—but they don’t.
A Jury Can’t Think in Legalese
I’ve heard people who are fluent in a second language say that they began to reach fluency when they began to think in that language. As a lawyer, you think in legalese, and if you can’t think in plain English during a jury trial, you are in trouble. Here are a few legal terms to avoid when speaking to jurors.
Interest. If you say that your witness has no interest in the case, most jurors will think your witness is bored by the case, and wonder why they should listen to this person.
Evidence. After a trial ends, the jury leaves to deliberate. A few minutes pass, and court staff bring in the exhibits. Many jurors will think the exhibits are evidence, but the testimony they heard is not evidence, despite the judge’s verbal instructions to the contrary. Make sure both your opening and closing statements point out that testimony is evidence that the jurors must consider.
Plaintiff. While most jurors know who the defendant is, they are often confused as to who the plaintiff is. Just refer to the Plaintiff as Mr. or Ms. Whoever.
Prejudice. Most jurors’ understanding of this word is as it relates to racism, sexism, or homophobia. Use it in the legal sense and you’ll have them wondering who the racist or homophobe is you are talking about.
Hearsay. Considering how much time you spent trying to get your head around this term in law school, why in the world would you ever utter it to a jury?
If you think about it for just a few minutes, you’ll be able to come up with your own list of words you use often that jurors will not understand or misunderstand.
Every time you open your mouth, forget about the judge, other lawyers, and court staff. Focus 100 percent on being understood by the jurors. Don’t try to flip back to legalese when the jury is not in the courtroom. Once jury selection begins, and until the jurors are dismissed, banish legalese from your consciousness.
(Credit again to a book you should own: David Ball’s Theater Tips and Strategies for Jury Trials.)