Vail Daily column: Show, don’t tell
January 17, 2017
It is traditional in the first year of law school that the 1-Ls (first year law students) form study groups. This is the same theory as silvery minnows huddling together in schools; strength in trembling numbers.
In any event, my small study group included Paul who has become a life-long friend. Paul was, to say the least, whip-smart, a load of fun, and imaginative as all get-out. I suspect ours was the only study group at the University of Some Discomfort that took study breaks to play Donkey Kong and Super Mario on the full-sized arcade games in Paul's tiny kitchen.
But I digress…
What I learned early on from Paul came on a sunny day in a moot court competition in the beautiful mock courtroom which stood resplendently on campus. By the way, the word is "moot," not "mute," which I have heard misused on many an occasion. "Moot," means "of little or no practical value," whereas "mute" means silent which lawyers — even budding law students seldom are. "Moot," as Allen Iverson might note, is "practice."
over the top
We were in a practice trial. I did the opening and Paul the closing. The hypothetical case involved an accident where our "client," a pedestrian, Mr. Jones, had been hit by a car driven by the mock defendant, Mr. Smith.
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When the play trial was over, Paul summed up to the "jury" which was comprised of conscripted 2-Ls and 3-Ls whose glum inattention broadcast that they each had better things to do.
"I ask," Paul said rather grandly, "in the name of justice and in all fairness to Mr. Jones, that you award him reasonable damages for his injuries, for this trauma, to fairly compensate him for this unconscionable intrusion into his life which has cost him so dearly and forever changed him." Admittedly, it was a bit over the top.
But then Paul did this.
"Imagine," he said, "When Mr. Jones was hit by Mr. Smith who was paying no attention, fiddling with God knows what instead of keeping his eyes on the road, 6,000 pounds of racing steel slammed into Mr. Jones and launched him" — and here was the magic — "from here" — he slowly paced off thirty feet across the courtroom — "to here." And then he stopped and sadly regarded the jury.
What he did was instead of saying "30 feet," instead of telling the jury it was 30 feet, he showed them. Thirty feet when paced off slowly, your heels clipping hollowly on a granite courtroom floor, is a mighty long way to fly through the air before landing on your noggin.
In the thirty-plus years that have somehow slipped away since then, I have borrowed this many times from Paul. While telling is fine, a picture is worth a thousand words.
A couple of years ago, I was defending a physician who a patient accused of injuring his back. I knew that it was bogus from the start but when some people think of law, they think of lotteries instead of justice.
The Bad Guy sued the doctor, claiming that his life was ruined. Though he was a young man in his thirties, he was so tortured by pain. He spent his days and agonizing nights constrained from even the slightest hint at labor. He couldn't, he said, even eek out a living, owing to the doctor's malfeasance.
What he could do though, was post his apparently enviably active social life on Facebook. And when we started rooting around on his social media pages, what we found were recent photos of the poor tortured soul carrying his rather hefty new bride in his arms, water skiing with aplomb, bowling and all manner of other activities that would wear out an Olympian.
Rather than telling the jury about the treasure trove we'd found, we decided instead to show them.
Showing vs. telling
Sure, sure, there were dry recitations from his expert and from ours. The jury heard all about stenosis, disc degeneration, herniation, nerve compression, scarification, blah, blah, blah and how we were sure that Mr. Bad Guy deserved an Academy Award for the show that he was presenting. To the jury's credit, the jurors mostly stayed awake.
Then we trotted out some 24 by 36 high-res glossies of the Bad Guy bowling, of the Bad Guy lifting 190 pounds of blushing bride, of the Bad Guy holding the ski boat tow rope with his tootsies while waving both hands to some imagined crowd.
Logic tells you — and told the jury — that these are not the kinds of activities a guy can do when he is so crippled by pain that he cannot summon up the strength to smack his fingers on a keyboard in order to earn a living.
When we showed the jury the pictures and asked the Bad Guy to explain, he found his tongue locked against his glottis. The jury woke up at our show-and-tell. You could see, and almost hear, the gears of logic turning in their heads. The pictures told a story that the dry dust of medical opinion did not.
Good attorneys tell. But the show is in the showing.
"From here," paced slowly, "to here," seems a lot further than just a fragile little number.
Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley with the law firm of Stevens, Littman, Biddision, Tharp and Weinberg LLC. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, family law, custody, divorce and civil litigation. Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at either of his email addresses, firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.