Persuading with a Sense of Humor
Now with 99 Percent More Funny!
by Trent Latta
Okay. The legal profession is a justly serious one, given the potential impact hat an attorney’s conduct has on other people. But those of us who are only average-minded individuals may have to rely on more than just our analytical powers to win over a judge or a jury. Indeed, my legal arguments
have about as much force as a fruit fly has on a bag of anvils.
So, for some attorneys, a sense of humor is worth its weight in spinning bowties.
Time and again, it is proven that there is a durable persuasive quality to exercising
comic flair inside the courtroom. You can see where this is going. That’s right: attorneys should wear more novelty neckties.
All right, maybe not. But attorneys can gain mileage with judges and juries by cracking a joke or two. Likability and a sense of humor go together like gin and tonic: separate, they’re good, but together, they’re even better. (Indeed, tonic water alone is surprisingly refreshing and gin is a home remedy my grandmother uses to balance her humors.) These scientific facts aside, it is true
that a person with a sense of humor is
often more liked. And a person who is better liked is also considered more credible
and trustworthy, and thus is more able
to persuade. If you’re not convinced, just
ask any one of my friends: none think I’m
funny, none like me, and none ever believe
me. See? It’s science.
Comedy is incredibly dependent on timing and presentation, neither of which an
attorney has much control over in a written document. And always keep this in
mind: an attorney’s work product is what
is paramount. If your briefs are sloppy and
not well-written, if your case law is not correctly cited, and if your arguments are not
sound, you will never gain traction with a
judge or a jury and no amount of balloon
animals or squirting boutonnières will
prevail for your client.
Chin up, and rising adroitly, he proudly
said, “May it please the court, the jury,
opposing counsel, and my briefcase.”
Uproarious laughter filled the courtroom
and just look where Justice González is
now: quoted in NWLawyer!
Poke Fun at Yourself — Not Others
Washington State Supreme Court Justice
Steven González agreed during a recent
interview (another good persuasive technique: name-dropping) that a sense of
humor can be a valuable persuasive tool.
But it must be done properly. An attorney
should never make a joke at the expense
of another person and should never resort
to crude humor: a joke that is not well-received can set an attorney back further
than a good joke will move her forward.
Instead, according to Justice
González — my good friend, Justice
González — self-deprecation is possibly the best, and safest, form of hilarity
when addressing a judge or a jury. Justice
González recounted for me a situation in
which, during a jury trial, he stood for the
first time to address the court and jury
only to trip, face first, over his briefcase.
The Right Time to Use Humor
Using humorous writing in a legal brief,
on the other hand, is, much like sarcasm,
difficult. So, of course, the rule to follow
when writing briefs for the court is this:
include jokes, a lot of jokes. Personally, I
season all my pleadings with funny words
from this list: pro bono, law blawg, penal,
koopbrief, hung jury, and usufruct. I also
try and cite as often as possible the landmark New York decision United States v.
11 1/4 Dozen Packages of Articles Labeled
in Part Mrs. Moffat’s Shoo-Fly Powders for
Drunkenness, 40 F.Supp.208 (W D.N.Y.
1941). If neither of these tactics work for
you, then you can follow Washington Post
columnist Gene Weingarten’s advice and
always put the funniest word at the end of
the sentence underpants.
But in all seriousness, it is the common advice of judges and practitioners
that humorous legal brief writing, again
like sarcasm, should not be attempted.
Why Laughter Helps
According to the humorist Dave Barry,
“A sense of humor is a measurement of
the extent to which we realize that we are
trapped in a world almost totally devoid
of reason. Laughter is how we express the
anxiety we feel at this knowledge.”
Barry’s definition is accurate. And not
just because I couldn’t find a better quote
to use for this article, but also because it
includes easily understood words, in Eng-
lish. More importantly, Barry’s definition
is apt because as much as the legal profes-
sion is a serious one, it is also — and possi-
bly for that reason — an anxiety-provoking
one. And when a cornerstone of an attor-
ney’s job is to bring reason to seemingly
reason-less situations, what better way to
bridge that gap than with a few pratfalls?
So laugh a little. Or better yet, make
someone else laugh, preferably a judge
or a jury. Perfect your sense of humor and
you might start counting your legal vic-tories not with notches on your trial bag,
but with chuckles. And Justice González
might even return your calls. NWL
Trent Latta is
an attorney with
the Seattle law firm
McDougald & Cohen P. S. He can be
contacted at tlatta@