Trial lawyers talk too much.

We want to be persuasive, impressive and beloved in the courtroom. The judge should think us brilliant. The jurors should be on the edge of their seats, waiting on our every word.

These are good goals, but to reach them, we have to break bad habits.

In law school, we were praised for using long, dense phrases. We were taught to state our position, and then state it again, and again. Brevity was not taught or encouraged.

And now we think the more we talk, the more likely a jury is to believe what we say.

But your word count at trial doesn’t matter. Using big words and long explanations alienates jurors and wastes their time.

The truth is that the most powerful and persuasive arguments are often short, simple, and concise.

It takes great discipline for trial lawyers to be short and concise—myself included. That’s why after more than 35 years in courtrooms, my trial prep still includes reading the Gettysburg Address.

Why trial lawyers should read the Gettysburg Address

Most folks do not know that the principal speaker at Gettysburg on November 19th, 1863 was not Abraham Lincoln. It was Edward Everett, a famous politician and the President of Harvard, who was considered a “spellbinding” orator. Lincoln and Everett traveled to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania that day to dedicate a national cemetery because of the tremendous death toll of the Civil War.

That day, Everett spoke to the crowd for two hours. No one remembers a word.

Lincoln’s speech was 10 sentences and 272 words. In 2 minutes, he struck a chord that resonated with his audience and reverberated through centuries.

Later, Everett said about Lincoln’s speech:

“I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

The Gettysburg Address

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Lincoln Memorial - trial lawyers learn from Gettysburg

Lincoln’s lessons in brevity   

1. Lincoln reminded the audience of the ideals on which our country was founded using two simple, profound words: Liberty & Equality. Identifying ideals and tying them to our shared history is a strong opening.

2. He issued a challenge to their patriotism, noting that the founding principles of our nation were under attack, and the audience was in danger. He made it personal.

3. He identified our young country’s Civil War as a referendum on democratic government, giving it larger global significance. He linked the personal to the universal.

4. He used the power of 3 (a familiar tone to trial lawyers): “We cannot dedicate – we cannot consecrate – we cannot hallow – this ground”. A more recent example of this, from President Obama’s first Inaugural speech: “ … we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”

5. He used contrast effectively, by comparing “those who here gave their lives that this nation might live” – maybe the ultimate contrast—life vs. death. People are naturally attracted to opposites: opposites create energy.*

6. In his final sentences, he made a call to action. Because he had involved his audience—he spoke with them, not at them—it was well-earned.

Remembering what Lincoln did with the Gettysburg Address puts my trial preparation into perspective. It reminds me that a few short sentences can pack a tremendous punch.

The lesson for trial lawyers: making a short, strong argument takes more courage and preparation, but it is worth your time.

Attorney Kevin Coluccio, Seattle Washington

* Rick Friedman has written an entire book on this topic; I recommend it for trial lawyers. Polarizing the Case: Exposing and Defeating the Malingering Myth