September 26, 2023

Podcast - Position and Movement in the Courtroom

The Trial Lawyer's Handbook: A Courtroom Preparation Podcast Series

In this episode of his "The Trial Lawyer's Handbook" podcast series, litigation attorney Dan Small discusses how position and movement in the courtroom can impact a case. Mr. Small highlights six basic tips any trial lawyer can follow to build confidence and success in the courtroom.

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Mr. Small is also the author of the new American Bar Association (ABA) book Lessons Learned from a Life on Trial: Landmark Cases from a Veteran Litigator and what They Can Teach Trial Lawyers.

Where you stand and how you move around the courtroom aren't quite as important as the content and the manner of your delivery. Still, they matter. Nothing about your physical presence should be distracting or irritating, and your movements should help support and reinforce your message, not take away from it.

Here are some basic points to keep in mind:

1. Know the judge's requirements

They can vary widely from one courtroom to another, one judge to another, one region to another. For example, if the judge requires lawyers to examine from the podium, you don't have any real choice. You may be able to modify how and where you stand behind the podium, but still, it's pretty limited. Some judges are obstinate about this. Others are more flexible.

2. Don't hide behind the podium

During openings and closings, the podium should be placed front and center before the jury. If you can, get out from behind the podium and stand alongside it. It's a more natural and open position and will make you look more relaxed. It's especially important to do this if you are physically small, you can get lost behind the podium. Don't worry, you can still glance at your notebook from time to time.

Remember, the podium is not there to prop you up. Don't lean on it. And don't grab onto it with a death grip. Use it as just one more tool in your toolkit, in a courtroom.

3. Give thought to where you stand

If you're allowed any movement, give it some careful thought. Every courtroom has its own special geography. Still, most of the time, you should stand in a conventional place.

For openings and closings, you want to stand directly in front of the jury box — not too close and not too far.

For direct examinations, the witness will always be looking at you. You want to make sure that you are more or less where the jury is. If you can sit in the jury box, that's where you want to be. You can't, but you can try and figure out where to sit so the jurors' attention is on the witness, and the witnesses' attention is on the jury. Stand at the far end of the jury box, but not in front of it.

For cross examinations, everything changes. You should be the focus of attention. If the courtroom geography permits, you may want to take center stage from time to time and move around.

4. Ask to approach the witness

If you want to approach the witness, that's fine, but ask permission first. Some might think it's petty to ask the court for permission just to approach the witness. But which is better for the jury to see: the judge barking at you for approaching without asking, like you don't know what you're doing, or the judge respectfully agreeing to your requests to approach, and maybe eventually telling you, "That's OK, counsel, you don't have to keep asking."

5. Don't move too much or too little

You probably know already whether you tend to be stiff when you speak in public. If so, work hard to fight it. Try to look as natural and composed as possible. Like many things, this is something you can improve with practice.

Some people speak more freely and comfortable when they are moving around. But don't move too much. It's distracting, or even annoying. Moving your arms, hands, head or shoulders is generally preferable to moving your lower body, but any kind of constant movement, such as pacing, is a problem.

It's natural to be nervous, and just as natural to have a nervous habit or two. But you're on stage, and the jury is watching everything you do, so you need to understand what your habits are and control them. Everything we do in a courtroom should have a purpose and a message.

Movement can be most effective when it's done with contrast. If voices are raised, a near-whisper can be very effective. If there's a lot of movement, stop and stand still for a moment. Moving toward the witness can show interest or can show aggression, moving away can show reflection or disdain.

6. Be aware of distance

Don't get too close to the jurors. They won't like having you invade their personal space. Don't get too close to the witness. Except when absolutely necessary, don't stand next to the witness during your examination, and do so only with permission of the judge.

The principal problem on direct examination is that if you stand too close, you and the witness will turn to each other and have a private conversation. Both of your voices will naturally drop, so it will be hard to hear you, and the jury is cut out of the deal. The principal problem on cross examination is that the witness may feel intimidated. That's fine, but if it's too much, the judge won't like it and will tell you to back away.

Professional actors and directors understand the importance of movement. They spend a great deal of time conceiving, planning and practicing it. You're in court to persuade, and to win. Use all the tools you have for that purpose, including your position and movement in the courtroom.

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