By Melissa M. Gomez
Special to The Legal
You can't change the core of who a human being is. No witness coach, theatrical trainer or lawyer will be able to accomplish this, no matter what kind of witness preparation you do.
Seems pretty intuitive, no? Regardless, many attorneys call me to discuss the kind of image they need the key witness to portray to fit the case strategy. But then when I meet with said witness, I find that the strategy of the case is incompatible with who that person is. In these cases, it is not just the witness who needs work -- it is the case itself.
The goal of witness preparation is not to change people. The goal of witness preparation is first, to understand who the witness is, what his or her natural communication style is like, and how that style interacts with the unnatural context of giving testimony.
So, when you are dealing with a case in which one witness's testimony is critical (a doctor in a medical malpractice suit, for example), it is extremely important to have a good understanding of who that person is and make sure the strategy you choose takes who he or she is as a person into account.
There was a case for which I was called in to prepare a doctor for trial. He was a primary care physician accused of failing to diagnose liver cancer. I watched his video deposition. The doctor was quirky, to say the least. He came across as socially awkward and robotic. He was definitely the kind of doctor who was into the science of medicine. He had that intellectual, nerdy quality about him.
When I met with him, I just started off having a conversation about the case and how he was reacting to it. Through this conversation, I started to get a sense of who he was and how he communicated on a day-to-day, outside-of-testimony context. Still quirky, but not so robotic. I stared to get a sense of where the work needed to occur and what was just "him."
In this case, there were two things that needed work. The first was helping the doctor get comfortable in his own skin while in the weird and wacky communication context of testimony. Once he was able to put his perspective into bigger-picture messages and gain a bit more familiarity with the communicative environment of courtroom testimony, the robotic characteristic of his answers abated, and we were left with a quirky, yet endearing, science guy.
Then, we worked with the trial team to provide case messages that embraced our doctor. Our message was one of "science-based medicine," which fit well with the image of this quirky science guy we had as a client. Verdict: No negligence.
In essence, before witness preparation can be effective, we must first understand what can be affected. It is in the space between the core of the human being and the reaction to giving testimony where the work can occur. Dealing with just the surface (i.e., how a witness sits, where she looks, etc.) does not get to the real issue. Trying to change things that are a part of who that witness is as a person is an exercise in futility.
It is not about changing a person to fit your case. It is about making a case that fits the person you represent.
Melissa M. Gomez is a jury consultant and owner of MMG Jury Consulting. She holds a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. Her experience includes work on hundreds of jury trials in Philadelphia and across the country, with a focus on the psychology of juror learning, behavior and decision-making. If you have questions regarding jury psychology that you would like to see addressed in this blog, contact Gomez at email@example.com or call 215-292-7956.