Medium Happy – Putting a Face on the Corporate Client at Trial

Winning at trial, whether by jury or judge/arbiter, relies on authentic witnesses who tell credible stories. Great legal argument might bring home a victory, but the telling of events must come through witnesses with personal knowledge. Plaintiff lawyers know this well. A “victim” able to tell a compelling story wins a case. When working with a corporate client, I prepare the corporate witnesses to appear with a consistent and trustworthy “face” in the courtroom.

In the early stages of a case, the litigation team identifies the key actors and decision-makers with knowledge of the dispute. Preparing a witness for a deposition is very different from the preparation necessary for trial testimony. As trial preparation begins, the key “witnesses” are often from disparate corporate divisions who are uninformed about the mission and goals of the trial strategy. Even the most senior corporate executives are unprepared for the rigors of the courtroom. I work with these witnesses to bring out the authentic person and to improve communication skills that are effective with the jury. The best “corporate” witnesses become self-aware, positive, good at building rapport and willing to admit missteps. At trial, witnesses must be good story-tellers, appearing open, comfortable and conversational with the jury.

From the moment a witness enters the courtroom, the witness is being evaluated by the jury. A juror’s first impression of a witness is rarely revised during the trial. Facial expressions, hand gestures, stride, and even how the witness arranges himself at counsel table account for over 50 percent of the cues that form that first impression. Facial expressions should be moderate, but not neutral. I strive for “medium-happy.” Hand gestures are visuals used for emphasis and signal the “energy” of the witness. Visiting the courtroom with the witness prior to trial is a necessary part of witness trial preparation. A witness should practice rising from the gallery, moving to the witness stand, and sitting in the witness chair as many times as necessary to reduce the anxiety of working in an unfamiliar environment. Posture in the witness chair is also important to convey comfort and integrity. Sitting up with a straight back, square shoulders, arms at 90 degrees on the arm rest, and soles of the feet on the floor is a practiced skill. As a seasoned trial attorney working as a consultant, I conduct mock trial examinations that help the witness build confidence in these physical skills and help the trial team “see” and “hear” the witness in a different way.

Finally, witnesses need to be comfortable with silence. Like a personal trainer, I teach corporate witnesses to sit still and yet appear vibrantly alive, conveying confidence without appearing arrogant. Corporate witnesses who exude competence and confidence are credible witnesses who build trust with the jury. Witness preparation can make or break a victory in the courtroom. Improving the subtle, non-verbal cues helps the jury listen with their eyes when the witnesses tell the corporate story in the first person.