Atlanta attorney Lloyd Bell stands before the jury, prepared to give his opening statement. But instead of reintroducing himself or his clients, a stroke victim and her husband in a medical malpractice case, Bell sets a scene:
"It's Sunday morning, shortly after midnight, and we are at the home of Shawn and Janice Evans," Bell begins.
"Jan and Shawn are in bed asleep.
"Ow!" Bell's howl pierces the courtroom, as he grabs his head and slumps over.
A pause, for the jury, for everyone, to piece together what just happened.
Still clutching his forehead, Bell continues. "Jan sits up in bed, holding her head. She throws off her covers, puts her feet on the ground, and she walks across the room." Bell pantomimes each action, taking jurors on a journey through the brain aneurysm Evans suffered and the events Bell says led to her debilitating strokes.
Narrative doesn't fully describe Bell's opening. It's powerful performance that brings the jury as close as possible to the events at the trial's heart. It's as much theater as traditional opening statement. And it's effective: In the Evans case, it served as an explosive leadoff to a seven-figure verdict. Over the years such openings have bolstered Bell's reputation as one of the state's top trial lawyers.
Bell embraces the theater of the opening. Reenacting an accident, he says, pulls the jury into the case in a way a more traditional statement cannot. "Jurors, I believe, are deeply visual creatures, like we all are," Bell says. "No kid goes to school for tell day. It's always show and tell day."
The technique also ensures he grabs the jurors' attention and holds their focus throughout his opening. "Trials are theater and while effective theater creates suspense, it also creates surprise. Any story is more effective if there are points where something surprising happens," Bell said.
"In an opening, the jury is resigned to be there, sitting patiently... ready to hear a bunch of blah, blah, blah from a talking lawyer. It surprises them when they see an attorney willing to take some chances, as long as it advances the story."
While Bell's embraced the technique in his openings for the last six years, he's employed variations of it for more than two decades, stretching back to a mentor who taught him an attorney's own body can be one of the most effective demonstrative exhibits to walk a jury through the events of a case.
His openings are especially effective in premises liability cases, he says, when he can reenact a client's fall and all the circumstances surrounding it, though on at least one occasion the tumble looked a little too realistic. In one case, where he reenacted an especially hard fall and briefly continued the opening from the floor to illustrate its severity, "I started to see the jurors' heads popping over the jury box to see if I was OK."
But his openings go beyond catching the jury's attention. They offer a vivid, compelling version of his story in which jurors can invest themselves, without Bell straying into argument or using florid language. "I believe we're all taught to do it the wrong way in law school. We're all taught to speak a certain way, and certain tricks, and what's expected," Bell said. However, "If you present the facts of what happened with exhibits, tell your story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, the jury is much more likely to embrace (your version of events)," he said, "It helps them own the conclusion."
Bell believes the imagination is the only limit to the ways an opening statement can persuasively tell your client's story. "Access your creativity, push the envelope," he advises. "The jury will see that level of commitment in the lawyer, and it will translate" in the jury's work.
Email Arlin Crisco at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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