Creating a Successful Roadmap at Trial


It’s fantastic being back on the road. Zoom projects were great and can still be, but there’s nothing like being in the room with ten to twelve strangers debating serious topics, struggling to understand highly complex information, and then figuring out how to use that information to convince others in the room that they are right. It’s a frustrating, entertaining, informative, eye-opening, funny, and humbling experience.  From Seattle to Miami, Oakland to Trenton, and Houston to Chicago, two things are abundantly clear: 1) people are people; and 2) people are different. What?!

Here’s what I mean: no matter the case or the place, ALL people, regardless of education, training, age, and experiences, need and must be provided roadmaps for understanding your case. Roadmaps are created through framing and organization. While all people need the roadmap, depending on where you are, some stops might look a bit different.

The number one thing we are told by attorneys about their cases is that it’s “really complex” (i.e., highly technical, really involved, too complicated, etc.), which they believe means that there is no way a jury will adequately understand it and be able to reach the “right” decision. There is no doubt that some cases are more complex than others, but there is also no doubt that attorneys make cases way more complex than they need to be. Good, effective framing is grounded in the questions your jury are ultimately going to answer.  Every aspect of your case needs to be run through the filter of “How does this help them answer X?” You need to figure out what is and isn’t important or what your jurors need to understand and be able to rearticulate in deliberations to fight for your client, versus what they do not.

Framing sets the parameters of what you need to include to build whatever it is you’re building. Warning – silly analogies coming – if you’re building a house, then you don’t need a long explanation about the necessity of wheels. If you’re building an airplane, then skip the tutorial on garages. I know it’s not that simple, but it can be if you are constantly asking yourself, “Do jurors need to know this?” Or “Do jurors need all of these details?” Often the answer is “No,” and the only reason you’ve included it is: 1) you like talking about it, 2) some member of the team thinks it’s important, or 3) your client is making you do it. Just remember, everything you add that is unnecessary clutters your case and means you’re relying on jurors to figure out what is and isn’t important. You can’t get mad about them making the “wrong” choice when you didn’t make the choice easy for them in the first place.

Organization is also a necessary step to reducing complexity and aiding retention. It’s using signposting during opening or in witness examination; it’s “chunking” information into mini-tutorials and sticking with the labels and language used for each of those “chunks.” It’s telling jurors (over and over) how the information being presented relates to the questions they will be asked on the verdict form. It’s providing jurors with the means to get them from point A (no knowledge) to point Z (a verdict in your favor).  Here are a few examples (perhaps obvious, but often overlooked): “In my opening I’m going to address 5 issues: [label and number them]. First, [label]…. Now that we’ve talked about [label], let’s talk about the second issue [label].”  “As you know Dr. Thompson, at the end of this trial, the jury will be asked what the proximate cause of the accident was. So, let’s explore that a bit now….” “Mr. Smith, I’ve talked to the jury about the 5 primary issues in this case – [label and number], and I’d like to go over a few of those with you. Let’s start with [label and number].”

Bottom line (another way to signal to your jury that you’re about to give them the “why this matters” or “what this means” summary), understanding and retention are achieved when you do the hard (and necessary) work of creating a framework that focuses your case on the goal to be achieved.

Which brings us to: People are different. The mock jurors in Shreveport were different than the mock jurors in St. Louis. Those in St. Louis were different than those in San Francisco. Yes, they all needed a roadmap as discussed, but the maps had different “stops.” While the roadmap relates to the ability of your jury to reach the desired destination, understanding the different stops relates to the motivation of your jury to reach the destination. We say all the time that jurors must be both “armed” and “motivated.” Arming is another way of talking about framing/organization as it means that you’ve effectively given jurors the ability to remember and rearticulate your key arguments in deliberations. Motivation relates to jurors’ willingness or desire to fight for you. Motivated jurors will not back down nor give up.

To understand their motivation, ask yourself: What values are part of the culture? What local events are happening that impact how community members view particular issues? What are the social norms? What divides or unites the members of this community? The same framing does not work everywhere, the same presentations do not work everywhere, and even the same presenters do not work everywhere.

Start with framing and organizing, but then tweak the stops depending on your trial venue. Conduct research in the venue to find out where you undermine people’s motivation because you were unaware of a cultural norm you just violated, or you used language that was a trigger. But be aware that  phony attempts to “be one of them” are as bad or worse. There is a fine line between understanding and patronizing. Bottom line, do the work and research ahead of time to build the best road.

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