Month: April 2018

Clinical legal educationDiversityGenderJudicial listeningLitigation

Beyond formal rules of evidence

Last year the Wall Street Journal wrote about problems with sleeping jurors. Brooklyn law professor I. Bennett Capers’ new article Evidence Without Rules, forthcoming in the Notre Dame Law Review, points out a much more pervasive issue: all the information jurors take in when they are awake.

The rules of evidence strictly limit what jurors can consider. They are have been “understood, and continue to be understood, as all-seeing, all-encompassing gatekeepers, checking all of the information juries may hear or see for relevance and trustworthiness.” Capers shows this view to be inaccurate and incomplete:

The assumption is that the rules are all-encompassing, unbounded. But the truth is far different. To be sure, the Rules of Evidence place limits on some of the information jurors hear and see, such as witness testimony and exhibits, the type of information that is formally announced and introduced as evidence by lawyers. Other evidence, however, passes by evidentiary gatekeepers practically unseen and unnoticed. Jurors use it to decide who was right and who was wrong; who committed a crime and who did not.

It is this other evidence that “breeze[s] unchecked” past the gatekeeping function of the evidentiary rules. And, Capers argues, “[i]f the goal of evidence law is ‘that truth may be ascertained and proceedings justly determined,’ then that objective is frustrated when outputs turn on improper and unchecked inputs.”

He gives three major examples pertaining to all the players in the courtroom—parties, witnesses, attorneys, and others:

  1. Their dress
  2. Their demeanor
  3. Their race

First, dress—for example, glasses, which can be used for a “nerd defense” but may also make white-collar defendants look more guilty. As to the role of glasses, the article left me actually speechless with a jury consultant’s advice: “savvy lawyers should spray a defendant’s glasses with PAM cooking spray so that the jury cannot see the person’s eyes, at least when the lawyer fears the defendant might come across as ‘shifty-eyed.’”

Second, demeanor—Capers points out that the lawyer can use nonverbal behavior to supplement or tear down testimony. It was this aspect of the paper that seemed most connected to the topics here on this blog. A lawyer’s demeanor can serve as a kind of “performative listening” that doesn’t just elicit testimony but gives some kind of statement in its own right:

Consider the lawyer who drums her fingers on the table while a witness testifies on the stand, or rolls her eyes or raises a skeptical eyebrow. Or the lawyer who quietly nods along at a certain point in a witness’s testimony. . . . They are in effect vouching for witnesses, or in the case of opposing witnesses, implying a witness is unworthy of belief. They are offering the equivalent of opinion testimony without themselves swearing an oath or taking the stand.

The way the lawyers sit aligned with their client or put a protective arm around the client is itself a form of opinion evidence, Capers argues—unacknowledged evidence that would violate Rule 404(a) if it were considered “evidence” in the first place.

Third, race—which connects with demeanor evidence but is of course much broader. As to demeanor, which has proven crucial in death-penalty juries’ deliberations, the impact of race makes jurors worse at reading faces: “Several studies have found that how jurors interpret facial expressions depends on the race of the juror and the race of the defendant; not only do we have trouble with cross-racial identification; we have trouble with cross-racial identifications of remorse.”

The impact of race also makes jurors worse at remembering the facts fairly:

[In one study,] participants invented aggressiveness when the actor was black, [but] actually failed to remember evidence of aggressiveness when the actor was white. In short, it is not only in cases involving minority defendants where race matters. Race also matters in cases involving white defendants, whom jurors are more likely to view as presumptively innocent, and cases involving white witnesses whom jurors deem presumptively credible.

Beyond these three factors explored in the articles, there is, of course, sexism such as jurors’ bias toward male experts as more authoritative, bias toward people with families, bias against the use of an interpreter, and male bias against overweight women. “Outsider accents” are viewed as less credible, whereas neutral and especially British accents gain extra credibility.

The question Capers struggles with is what to do about all of this. Given the almost impossible bar of overturning a jury verdict, even on evidentiary issues formally recognized as evidence, the basic effect is “What happens in the jury room stays in the jury room.”

And he points out that existing instructions may exacerbate the problem. Telling jurors to decide based on what they “saw and heard in court” may “giv[e] them tacit approval to consider anything they hear or see—including the dress of witnesses, or the presence of supporting family members, or the defendant’s demeanor even if he does not testify—so long as they do not consider as evidence anything the court explicitly prohibited, such as the questions of lawyers.”

Capers goes on to suggest a stronger admonitory instruction, phrased in concrete, plain language. He also suggests providing jurors with an evidentiary checklist of the witnesses and the documents. Capers’ suggestion here fits well within insights from cognitive science. For example, Daniel Kahnemann coined the phrase “WYSIATI”: What You See Is All There Is. Under WYSIATI, people rely heavily on affirmative information in front of them. Thus, an affirmative list of what the evidence actually is could direct attention toward the evidence actually presented and away from the natural tendency to fill gaps using other cognitive shortcuts.

Capers’ most radical suggestion is to redefine the scope of evidence itself. Under his proposed definition, evidence would include “anything that may come to a juror’s attention and factor into a juror’s deliberation.” The implications of such a definition seem vague at times. For example, he says that a rape victim’s clothing might trigger a 403 issue with the risk of unfair prejudice. But there is an aspect of personal autonomy in how people dress for court; if clothing could be prejudicial enough to trigger 403 then could it somehow come within the court’s discretion to order someone to, say, put on a sweater or take off a sweater? This reminded me of the incident from a couple of years ago where a weather reporter was asked to cover up, on air. And what should a judge do with flamboyant courtroom observers in high-profile cases, for example the Tex McIver trial that just wrapped up in Atlanta:

Capers answers most such questions by relying on detailed jury instructions. Footnote 153 in the article cites scholarship that instructions are not futile and do make a difference, especially when repeated and explained clearly.

I appreciated the realism at the end of his article, acknowledging a possible counter-argument: Why does any of this matter? Why shouldn’t jurors consider all that stuff, as they always have? Drawing on Critical Race Theory and his own professional and personal experiences, Capers out that dress, demeanor, race, and all those other factors are not neutral:

Who benefits from the status quo when we pretend dress does not matter, or demeanor does not matter, or the presence of family members does not matter, or language ability or up-speak or race or gender does not matter? Who benefits? And who does not?

Dispute resolutionJudicial listeningLegal communicationNonverbal communicationPublic speaking

Silence for lawyers

Silence.

That was the heart of Emma González’s speech at March for Our Lives on March 24. After a introductory remarks, she named the 17 dead and the small experiences in life they would never partake of again. Then she stood, silent, for the remainder of six minutes and 20 seconds—the time it took for the gunman to kill and then escape at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High. The Washington Post called it “the wordless act that moved a nation”:

The absence of language, the extended pause for contemplation, remains a rare thing in public discourse, and even rarer onstage. A moment of silence is the ritualized form of respect we employ on many occasions to mark tragedy, but it’s usually only a moment. González’s silence was an act that felt, in its way, radical. It was as if she dropped the mic — yet a mic was still in front of her.

The length of the silence is what made it more than rote. Long silences challenge the senses and the mind, reflected in an art critic’s visual and auditory hallucinations within a “supersilent anechoic chamber” on exhibit at the Guggenheim in New York.

Silence in these political and artistic contexts operates as rhetorical Silence. On a more pragmatic note, addressing silence with a lowercase “s,” Bret Rappaport recently published “Talk Less”: Elloquent Silence in the Rhetoric of Lawyering, 67 J. Legal Ed. 286 (2017). He quotes Che Guevara:

Silence is argument carried out by other means.

When silence is done correctly, it brings a “participatory dynamic between speaker and audience” in which the audience fills in the unspoken premise of an argument. In his article Rappaport goes on to describe background and techniques of silence. He lists three kinds of silence: simple silence as when you stop speaking so someone else can take a turn, silencing another by not allowing them to speak, and the “eloquent silence.” The article focuses on the latter. Silence can be eloquent when it violates expectations, leads the audience to understand a shared meaning, and is understood by the audience as directed at them. (Here he cites Purdue professor Barry Brummett.)

Rappaport goes on to show that silence enhances thinking by moving past quick, intuitive reactions to the world. Awkward silences can also yield better results in negotiations because the counter-party feels compelled to fill the silence, perhaps to their detriment. Silence also functions as flattery and, since by definition it means not talking, it reduces the risk of unintentional revelations.

Rappaport breaks down examples from movies and well-known trials (O.J. Simpson of course). He says early on that his argument for lawyers is remedial: silence as a “lawyer’s tool [is] one too often unappreciated or outright ignored.” For lawyers who wish to become more powerful public speakers or achieve better strategic results by saying less, I recommend Rappaport’s article.

I also recommend closing all other tabs, notifications, and alerts to watch the full-length version of Emma González’s speech at March for Our Lives.

 

 

 

 

Law schoolLegal communicationLegal educationLegal skillsLegal writing

A digression: re-learning to swim

While attempting—as an adult—to learn how to swim properly, the experience gave me a whole new appreciation for what 1L legal writing students go through. The idea of adults trying new things in middle age is a whole genre, found in a variety of essays and books, e.g. What I learned as the worst student in the class and Guitar Zero: The Science of Becoming Musical at Any Age. Law students may or may not start law school in their 40s, but they do bring beliefs, methods, and habits that may or may not help them adjust to legal writing. On this, my final class of the year teaching 1L legal writing, here are some thoughts.

swimmers-swimming-race-competition-56837.jpeg

What you already know—or think you know—can block your learning.

I already “knew” how to swim. As a child, I took just enough swimming lessons to say I could swim. The P.E. teacher stood in the pool and led us in a lot of bobbing up and down, some survival sidestroke, and a little freestyle. Swimming was not an embedded part of my hometown’s culture, though. The local country club closed down and was bowled over to make a Super Wal-Mart. My exposure to swimming over the next 30 years consisted of watching the Olympics. As a result, I had some mistaken ideas.

Take breathing, for example. It seemed like a good idea take stop kicking and just kind of coast while breathing to the side. Swimming is supposed to seem effortless, is it not? This idea was really, really wrong. I also thought I should breathe on alternating sides—a belief that is not wrong, but also not necessary for a beginner. Other issues were far more important to address, such as body rotation and not putting my palm out like a stop sign.

Mistaken and distorted beliefs afflict beginning legal writers as well. Everyone in law school has some kind of writing background, even if it’s been years in between. Memories of long-past writing lessons may bubble to the surface. Some of these memories are good. Yes, a paragraph should have a topic sentence indicating what it’s about, followed by details. That was true in fourth grade and still valuable now.

But some of the writing memories are bad, at least for legal writing. Law students often come at legal writing brandishing a thesaurus because they don’t want to sound repetitive and, they fear, simplistic. In fact as experienced legal writers know, “elegant variation” (a term coined by Richard Wydick) may introduces ambiguity, which most of the time in legal writing is very, very bad. New legal writers should put the thesaurus away and focus more on reading legal language with a legal dictionary at their side. Experienced legal writers can certainly use the thesaurus; they know which words can be varied and which cannot. But that’s the wrong thing to emphasize at the beginning, just as alternate breathing is a skill to save for later in one’s swimming process.

Skills are like muscles.

What you do becomes who you are. Based on years of running, my legs were pretty strong even if orthopedically challenged. But swimming quickly revealed an upper-body deficit. My arms were accomplishing almost nothing. In fact, using arms actually slowed me down at first, as compared to kicking alone.

Similarly in taking on legal writing, students’ past experiences will have contributed to their strengths and weaknesses coming into the course. Those who have been writing lengthy liberal arts papers are more likely to be comfortable bringing in sources, generating content, and highlighting ambiguities. Those who have been working in business may be very comfortable with summaries up front and concise recommendations.

These strengths of each disciplinary background come with weaknesses as well. Spotting ambiguities is necessary but not sufficient to create valuable, reliable legal advice. Concise summaries and recommendations may not go far enough to help a lawyer or client understand the relevant legal context and possibilities.

Learning a new variation of a skill doesn’t mean ignoring what has worked in the past, but it does mean being willing to reflect and modify. Professor Teri McMurtry-Chubb has written a handbook for translating various disciplinary backgrounds into strong legal writing in Legal Writing in the Disciplines: A Guide to Legal Writing Mastery.

It’s harder when people are watching.

Not knowing how to do something can feel very embarrassing. Swimming around other actual swimmers was a psychological obstacle. I would leave the pool rather than share a lane. I saw other people—kids and adults—working with swim coaches. Part of me wanted to get some advice too, but I felt really embarrassed.

When I finally let a swimming coach see me swim, her advice made a world of difference. She quickly diagnosed and suggested specific, effective corrections for the mistakes I was making.

Similarly in beginning legal writing, it can be excruciating for some students to share their work, or any of their thoughts. Raising a hand is the last thing many students would do. Even turning in early assignments just to the professor can be stressful. Just the thought of letting someone reading a piece of writing can interfere with the writing process.

But most of the time, almost everyone in the room is dealing with the same questions and issues in their work. Sharing one’s work is a huge step towards getting a genuine assessment of its strengths and weaknesses. No matter how bad the first attempt, it won’t be the worst piece of legal writing an experienced professor has ever seen. And it probably has some predictable patterns that can be recognized and re-shaped to create much more effective work.

Working with a coach is great, but the coach can’t do it for you.

The coach spent 45 minutes with me and vastly improved the efficiency of what I was doing in the water. She showed me what I needed to be doing with my arms and legs and breathing, correcting my misconceptions. She also let me know about some of the conventions of swimming that didn’t seem important to me but in fact are important to real swimmers. For example, you always touch the wall. Stopping a few inches short because “whatever, it’s just a few inches,” is not what real swimmers do.

As the lesson went on, my brain started to overload and my body started to tire. I got frustrated and may have dropped a particular profane word. The coach could have given me more advice, but I couldn’t learn. She ended with a gentle admonition: “You just need to swim. Are you going to come out here and practice?”

Students must have a similar experience when meeting with their legal writing professors. Skillful feedback can help a new legal writer cut through a lot of ineffective habits. The professor can help the student understand that some practices—such as sticking with the same legally significant term instead of resorting to the thesaurus—need to be accepted for the student to become a real legal writer.

But there’s only so many writing points that a writing conference can cover. At some point, the student (understandably) has maxed out on taking advice. And then the student has to leave the conference, go out, and just write.

Sometimes you need a break. Sometimes you should keep going.

Swimming is really, really tiring. And people who are tired make mistakes. With swimming, at best this means slowing down. It can also mean a noseful of water and coughing fit in the middle of the lap lane. At such moments, the best thing seems to be just to calm down and reset for another try.

And so it is with learning legal writing. Sometimes the writing muscles just get tired. Just sitting at a computer does not lead to writing. As John Wooden once said, “Don’t mistake activity for achievement.” The writing activity in marathon writing sessions may be particularly vulnerable to mistakes. And the problem there is not just sloppy or confusing writing but substantive mistakes that could affect legal advice to a client.

But that does not mean quitting at the first sign of fatigue. It doesn’t mean all mistakes signal break time. Any athlete must push the boundaries of fatigue to improve. As an adult-learner in the swimming world, my workouts are pathetic by lifelong swimmer standards. But challenging myself to do an extra lap or another short set will be what moves me forward.

Similarly with writing, pushing through the frustration is often crucial to making actual progress.

Accomplishment comes in tiny moments at first.

Breakthroughs can be subtle. At some point I started stretching out in front of me and “pulling” more water. (See how I used the word “pulling”? I am pretty sure that’s a real swimming word!) I was able to rotate in the water instead of swimming like a floating ironing board. Progress was slow, but the time in the pool made a lot of difference, and I knew I was getting better.

Similarly for new legal writers, real progress can be halting at first: Read a case and highlighting an important quote. Make an outline and look at how it has a point A without a point B (yikes!). Write a sentence and realizing that it is too specific to start a new paragraph; it’s a detail, not an idea about the law. Nobody else will be there to see these brief flashes, but they are so important.  The progress is subtle and private—but real.

The lesson and the learning are never really “finished.”

I’d like to say I’m a great or even just a strong swimmer now. That’s just not the case. But I’m a lot better. I wear a one-piece, cap, and goggles, and take a lane. I will continue to consult coaches from time to time and work on my own.

Learning legal writing is much the same. At the end of a year in legal writing, the transition is underway but incomplete. There is much to learn from the experts and from continued effort and experimentation. My hope for the students is that they know what to do to get better. My hope is that they feel the satisfaction of gaining a new skill.

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