September 01, 2016

How Do I Trust Thee? Let Me Count the Ways: Attorney Credibility in the Courtroom

How does a trial lawyer present a case without falling victim to jurors' negative preconceptions about lawyers?

Ann T. Greeley and Lindsay Eriksson

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Human beings begin any decision-making process, like a trial, with their own pre-existing biases and experiences. These shape how they judge people and the situation at hand. Jurors have told us that they start out with a relatively low expectation that attorneys are trustworthy. Many potential jurors express agreement with the widely held propositions that “plaintiff attorneys manufacture lawsuits to make money” and that “corporate attorneys just defend the bad behavior of big companies.” So how does a trial lawyer present a case without falling victim to these preconceptions? By winning a jury’s trust.

As experienced jury consultants, we’ve come to believe that the real key to being trusted in the courtroom is credibility, not likability. Credibility is a combination of trustworthiness, expertise, professional demeanor, and communication skills. Personality has little to do with these qualities. There is no silver bullet to establishing credibility. Nonetheless, some behavioral and thematic dos and don’ts lead jurors to find a higher level of credibility in lawyers.

To discover these dos and don’ts, we’ve developed a 58-question survey testing potential jurors’ perception of attorneys. Their reactions fall into four broad categories:

  1. Rapport: How friendly, warm, and courteous is the attorney?
  2. Competence: How organized and intelligent is the attorney?
  3. Public speaking skills: How clearly does the attorney explain complex matters?
  4. Annoying qualities: Is the attorney fidgety or nervous? Does the attorney exhibit distracting tics or mannerisms?

Our database contains ratings across a wide variety of criminal and civil cases from venues across the country. It was developed with attorneys playing roles, not in real trials. We combined this data with our work in real trials, and summarized what we’ve learned for this article.

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