If A Literary God Wrote An Appellate Brief . . .

What would his sentences be like? Would they read like his prose, if the prose that he wrote read like this?

“It was this look on the face that (slowly) turned left to look at her from the ambulance–a face that in the very most enuretic and disturbing way both was and was not the face of the husband she loved — that galvanized Jeni Roberts awake and prompted her to gather every bit of her nerve together and make the frantic humiliating call to the man she had once thought very seriously of marrying, an associate sales manager and probationary Rotarian whose own facial asymmetry — he had suffered a serious childhood accident that subsequently caused the left half of his face to develop differently from the right side of his face; his left nostril was unusually large, and gaped, and his left eye, which appeared to be almost all iris, was surrounded by concentric rings and bags of slack flesh that constantly twitched and throbbed as irreversibly damaged nerves randomly fired — was what, Jeni decided after their relationship foundered, had helped fuel her uncontrollable suspicion that he had a secret, impenetrable part to his character that fantasized about lovemaking with other women even while his healthy, perfectly symmetrical, and seemingly uninjurable thingie was inside her.” (Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, “Adult World (I),” p.153.)

Scary? Sure, if you’re the appellate justice’s long-suffering clerk. You might wonder, then, why legal writing guru Bryan Garner took the time to interview said Literary God–David Foster Wallace–about persuasive legal writing, before the LG’s untimely death by suicide in 2008.

Well, wonder no longer. As highlighted in a recent article by Garner himself in the ABA Journal, it turns out that, although his fiction is often . . . er . . . challenging, DFW has something to say about persuasive writing, not only from the perspective of an innovative novelist, but also as both an essayist and an academic. Among the things he said:

“So when I teach nonfiction classes, I spend a disproportionate amount of my time teaching the students how to write transitions, even as simple ones as however and moreover between sentences. Because part of their belief that the reader can somehow read their mind is their failure to see that the reader needs help understanding how two sentences are connected to each other—and also transitions between paragraphs.

I’m thinking of the argumentative things that I like the best, and because of this situation the one that pops into my mind is Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” If you look at how that’s put together, there’s a transition in almost every single paragraph. Like: “Moreover, not only is this offense common, but it is harmful in this way.” You know where he is in the argument, but you never get the sense that he’s ticking off items on a checklist; it’s part of an organic whole. My guess would be, if I were an argumentative writer, that I would spend one draft on just the freaking argument, ticking it off like a checklist, and then the real writing part would be weaving it and making the transitions between the parts of the argument—and probably never abandoning the opening, never letting the reader forget what the stakes are here. Right? Never letting the reader think that I’ve lapsed into argument for argument’s sake, but that there’s always a larger, overriding purpose.”

I’m looking forward to the book that contains the fruits of this interview, Quack This Way: David Foster Wallace & Bryan A. Garner Talk Language and Writing. Royalties from the book will apparently support the David Foster Wallace literary archive housed at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

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Five Psychological Principles of Jury Persuasion

It is no accident that Thomas Mauet’s Fundamentals of Trial Techniques is the best regarded textbook for trial advocacy, at least among professors and adjunct professors who use a text at all. I kept a fair number of my law school textbooks, but the only one I’ve consulted more than once in 20 years of practice is Mauet’s Fundamentals.

In his chapter on trial strategy, Professor Mauet introduces us to some basic psychological principles which come into play when presenting evidence and argument to jurors. I’ll highlight five good ones here.

1.  Jurors are primarily affective, not cognitive, thinkers. This is probably a huge generalization, but a useful one. Mauet writes: “People have two significantly different decision-making styles. Most people are primarily affective, not cognitive, thinkers. Affective persons are emotional, creative, impulsive, symbol oriented, selective perceivers of information and base decisions largely on previously held attitudes about people and events.” (Id. at 376.)†

2.  Jurors use attitudes to filter information and reach decisions they believe are sensible and fair. We rely on attitudes, values and believes “to filter conflicting information. Our attitudes subconsciously filter information by accepting and remembering consistent information, by ignoring, minimizing, or rejecting inconsistent information, and by distorting inconsistent information to make it consistent with our attitudes.” (Id. at 377.)

3.  Jurors reach decisions quickly, base them on relatively little information, and then resist changing their minds. Just when you thought a jury trial was the perfect forum to resolve a technically complex dispute, such as a patent fight or generally accepted principles of accounting, it turns out that “[j]urors cannot absorb, understand, and retain most of the information they receive during a trial, particularly if most of that information comes through oral testimony. Sensory overload occurs quickly. To relieve the internal stress this problem causes, jurors reach decisions quickly by basing them on relatively little information that their attitudes have subconsciously filtered and received.” (Id. at 377.)

The key for a trial lawyer, then, is to identify the jurors’ “psychological anchors” and “state them in a short, attractive, memorable way that is consistent with jurors’ attitudes and beliefs, and incorporate them into each stage of the trial.” (Id. at 377-78.) For more on this, see my discussions of the Rules of the Road here. This is also consistent with the underpinnings of the Reptile strategy, discussed here.

Why do jurors resist changing their minds? Just as the rush to judgment is fueled by the desire to reduce internal stress caused by sensory overload, the steadfast adherence to their initial decision also helps reduce internal stress. “[I]nconsistent information causes cognitive dissonance–internal conflict and stress. Jurors subconsciously solve this problem by rejecting new information.” (Id. at 378.)

4.  Jury decision-making is influenced by the personality characteristics of individual jurors and how they will interact as a group. Mauet describes three types of jurors: leaders, followers and loners. Recognizing the leaders is key. “Opinion leaders usually have a higher education level and have positions of authority or expertise in their work. Leaders may be authoritarian personalities and often dominate jury discussions; the three most vocal jurors typically control more than 50 percent of the deliberation discussion. Particularly in longer trials, jurors form subgroups around opinion leaders.” (Id.)

Followers  . . . well, they follow the leaders. But loners are worth worrying about. “Loners . . . have no particular interest in either interacting or agreeing with other jurors. Loners who seem withdrawn because of recent traumatic experiences frequently become punitive jurors.” (Id.) Yikes!

5.  Jurors are influenced by medium variables. The message here is that jurors absorb what they see exponentially better than what they simply hear. Mauet writes, “When the medium is oral testimony, clear, simple common English with a smooth, confident delivery and reinforcing kinesic and paralinguistic cues significantly affect how jurors receive, accept, and retain the communication. . . Since communication is approximately 60 percent kinetic (appearance, gestures, body movement), 30 percent paralinguistic (voice inflection), and only 10 percent word content, trial lawyers must learn to read the kinesic and paralinguistic cues that jurors send during voir dire, witnesses send while testifying, and lawyers send throughout a trial.” (Id. at 380.)

Visual exhibits are hugely important. “Visual exhibits also have extraordinary retention properties. People retain about 85 percent of what they learn visually; retention of aural information is only about 10 percent. Hence, exhibits that pass the ‘billboard test’ — clear, immediate, and attractive — have an extraordinary impact on jurors.” (Id.)

With these psychological principles in mind, we can see why voir dire is so important, as is the packaging of messages, particularly anything that is complex or likely to trigger jurors’ long and closely held attitudes and beliefs. Good luck.

†All citations are to the Third Edition.

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