Impression Management, part 2: Snap Judgments

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal (January 31, 2018, page A9), “The Mistakes You Make in a Meeting’s First Milliseconds,” by Sue Shellenbarger, prompted me to think about first impressions in the courtroom. And, particularly, the jurors’ first impressions of the attorneys. While the attorneys’ first impressions of jurors and witnesses, both fact and expert, are important, my first thoughts were how the jurors perceive the attorneys. As the article points out, impressions are often formed quickly, as soon as people see each other for the first time. In many situations, this occurs when a person enters a room where they are met by people whom they would like to perceive them in positive terms – the article focused on walking into a job interview. In a courtroom, it is more likely that the attorneys will already be in the courtroom awaiting the entry of the venire members, whom they need to “like them” or, at least, not dislike them. In reality, attorneys need to realize that, upon arrival at the courthouse, they are “on view” and potential jurors may see them in the parking lot, the security line, or the hallways. Impressions may be formed with any of these encounters, but most likely it will happen when the venire arrives in the courtroom and the attorneys are busy with last minute organization and preparations. As busy as the attorneys are, it is important to realize that this critical time will be sufficient for first impressions to be formed. The article reported research showing that snap judgments about others’ trustworthiness are wrong more often than people may think, yet they happen persistently. Whether from stereotypes or facial features or expressions, overall impressions are being formed. Facial features include whether a person’s mouth is turned upward, as if smiling, or downward, seemingly frowning. Other factors may be whether the person looks harried and stressed, that is, disorganized. We have seen many attorneys appearing stressed, discombobulated even, as they prepare for mock trials – scrambling at the last minute, and often in intense discussions with subordinates to get ready for a presentation. One can only imagine how this would be magnified in a courtroom where the attorneys literally operate at center stage, with all eyes on them. Attorneys must realize they are being scrutinized for cues to their honesty by those called upon to make judgments about them, and their clients. Being cognizant of this is critical to representing the client in the way that client deserves.

I routinely remark to the attorneys who are my clients that the jurors are the “only perfect people in the world.” That is, when one’s fate, and the fate of one’s client, rests in the decision made by a jury, the jury’s decision is final. Furthermore, the jury’s final decision may or may not be based on the facts of the case, logic, common sense, or the amazingly clever legal arguments made by the attorneys. Juries are, by definition, comprised of people and people often do things for reasons other people believe are incorrect. In my job as a jury/trial consultant, I have had the opportunity to interview thousands of mock jurors and hundreds of actual jurors (when permitted by the Court) regarding their impressions of the case on which they served. There have been countless times when the juror I am interviewing informs me that he/she really liked the attorney for one side of the case, but intensely disliked the opposing attorney, thus, it was easy to decide the case in favor of the attorney he/she liked. It has rarely happened that a juror tells me he/she disliked an attorney (or the attorney’s client) but overcame this dislike and decided the case in a manner that benefitted the object of dislike. Given that first impressions convey considerable information about people we meet, whether these impressions are, in fact, right or wrong, it should come as no surprise to attorneys that they are being judged by the jurors in much the same way as they are judging the prospective jurors to determine their fitness to serve on the jury for their case. If the attorney looks disheveled, angry, or mean; appears incompetent and disorganized; or does not seem to respect his/her client, the jurors’ snap judgments are likely to result in a no win situation for the attorney and his/her client. The important thing to remember is that it doesn’t matter how well prepared one is, how strong one’s case is, or how smart one is; what matters is the perceptions of these factors by those who will be deciding the outcome of the case: the jury. First impressions count!

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