In this episode of Trial Lawyer Nation, Michael Cowen sits down with a special guest, Dr. David Ball. David is a trial consultant, speaker, and one of the “fathers” of the book “The Reptile in the MIST.” His name and his books have been mentioned on numerous episodes not only Michael Cowen, but many of our Trial Lawyer Nation guests. With several books of David’s to choose from, Michael can’t help but note how “David Ball on Damages 3” has been very useful in helping him craft opening statements and serving as an outline for many trials. He also highly recommends all trial lawyers have this book within arms-reach of their desk (more on this later in the episode). And for those trial lawyers who don’t know David personally, it is important to also note he has probably done more good for trial lawyers than anyone else in the industry.
Having started down his path many years ago, David’s mission of trying to help trial attorneys make complicated things clear, originally came from his background in theatre, where much of what he had learned in theatre has been extremely useful for trial lawyers. In fact, working with a more classical repertoire theatre with works from Shakespeare, he wondered how he could make those plays crystal clear for the audience who is listening to it and how it might relate to the legal industry. His conclusion? “I realized lawyers have 2 problems: 1. They’re boring as hell and 2. They’re not very clear about what they’re talking about.” Today David describes what he does as helping to strategize cases to maximize the principles of what we’ve learned in the neurosciences and apply it to how people really make conclusions, how decisions are made, how we know things, and how logic has very little to do with any of it. Essentially, working as a bridge between the neurosciences and the courtroom.
So, how do we get jurors to see things the way we want them to? Logic doesn’t deal with the law school version of tell them your case, they’ll understand your case, and if you’re in the right, they’ll give your client a just verdict. Justice has nothing to do with how people make decisions. How do we translate that into things you’re allowed to do in trial and in a way that will motivate jurors to do what we want them to do? David says, people don’t make their decisions on the basis of “justice,” but rather justice is simply the result of something you think you want. He goes on to explain why trial lawyers need to look at what they’ve got and then put this “stew” together into something someone REALLY wants, for it to end the way we want it to. The whole process of trial, as David describes it, is an alignment.
David continues to describe this alignment by combining solid research along with all the things he’s learned in theatre about what real storytelling is. The fundamental thing about The Reptile, he describes, is by getting the jurors to want themselves to be safe and live in a safe world, that becomes their want. He also points out that in order to get their want, he also needs to get his client’s “want,” which is money. Michael adds to this by stating the only power the jury has in the courtroom is to give or deny money in the case. David goes on to say that if the attorney is presenting their case well, jurors will understand if they give a good verdict it will make their world safer, but also giving a bad verdict will make their world a more dangerous place than it is now. In other words, once the jurors walk into the courtroom, they will be walking out with either a safer world or a more dangerous world, but it will never be the same way as when they walked in. Furthermore, David explains when you ask a client why they are doing the case, not only will they say it’s because they need the money (compensation) but they also want to make sure this won’t happen to anyone else. To expand on his point, David shares an example from his early years watching the trial of a case involving a wealthy woman in North Carolina, who was rear-ended and clearly didn’t need the compensation from the case. The answer the woman gave him when he asked her why she was going through with the case, even though it was painful, is priceless. And it helps us understand why even the smallest cases are important in making the world a safer place. David also talks about the points he describes to the jurors regarding their potential complicities in what they allow the defense to get away with and the affects it will have on others who face the same situations in the future.
Which leads Michael to pose the question, “how do we figure out what the jurors want?” David goes through a laundry list of things we know about what jurors want, including through focus groups and the neurosciences what motivates us to want something. Boiled down to its core, David explains this with a great example of teenage boys as jurors, which will shock you and make complete sense. And he wraps up with describing the fundamental drives that keep us alive, as well as the impact of disrespect and humiliation.
The topic shifts at one point to talk about when the other side brings in what they call an “independent medical examiner,” three lies in one person’s title, David jokes (sort of). Rather than disagreeing with their conclusion, David proposes you show what they did wrong in their methodology, to show they purposely arrived at the wrong conclusion. He goes on to show how the right types of questions posed to your own experts can further point out the flaws in their conclusions without the need to call the defense’s independent expert a liar. Michael also adds how it can be very effective to discuss the idea of a defense’s witness as “independent,” when they’ve been picked and paid for by the defense, in helping the jury not feel like their intelligence is being disrespected. David continues to talk about the difference between describing the defense as someone who may lie in order to protect themselves vs. someone who is disrespecting the jury by insulting their intelligence and the impact this can have on a jury. He goes on to point out how it is analogous to the difference between a doctor lying to a patient, where the patient might be being disrespected but the juror is not vs. a doctor getting on the witness stand and deliberately misleads the jury, and as such, disrespecting them.
One of the things David describes as loving about what he’s been able to do, is when he started writing his first theatre for trial book, there was nothing. Nobody was doing anything in the way of teaching major overall strategy and there were certainly no books on damages or doing it. He’d like to think that the Damages book helped give rise to this whole other industry. In one hand he should hate it, he created all his own competitors, and on the other hand it is the greatest feeling in the world for him.
David also suggests for every attorney to page through their Damages 3 book on a consistent basis to examine it through the lens of the case you’re working on currently, in order to see things you never saw before. He suggests this, mainly because so much information is lost after seminars and reading other books, because the only things you likely retain are the things which pertain to the case you’re working on right now.
Michael and David move on to the topic of the principles of persuasion and how David has brought his theatre experience into the courtroom. Revisiting the idea of “real storytelling,” David talks through the actual history of storytelling and how it has evolved over time. He points out why you have to make people want to hear the next part of the story, AKA “narrative thrust,” using “dramatic tension” to create tension between this moment and the next moment, and the next moment could be an hour away or two minutes away. Crafting what David describes as “forwards” where everyone sees the anticipated moment in the story and wants to hear it for themselves. He also points out these forwards are very case specific, very particular to the story, and it is a relatively sophisticated thing to do for people who are not natural born storytellers, but you can learn to do it. And he describes why the context in storytelling and where you put pieces of information in the story matter significantly to shaping the story.
Michael and David touch briefly on social media and a trial lawyer’s first amendment right, where it is important to note David believes if you are a trial lawyer, you have accepted a fiduciary responsibility to your client which trumps your ability to have free speech. He also believes society has become so divisive these days on social media and now face to face, where we now have the challenge of bringing both sides together to fight for an even greater cause. David uses the example of 2 people fighting, but when someone comes in and tries to do harm to them, they will both unite because they are both in danger and need each other to save themselves. The heart of such a scenario, is the aim of every trial lawyer when working with diverse juries.
Digging deeper into David’s theatre background, Michael talks about how he has yet to see a trial lawyer facing a potentially multi-million-dollar trial rehearse as much as a community theatre where 30 people may be in the audience. David shares how being a trial lawyer is the only area of public performance where they don’t rehearse. He goes on to suggest you cannot fully rehearse on your own and, a full rehearsal, means a dress rehearsal. In the same way you cannot have football practice without eventually having a scrimmage with another side. When you are on the stage, you have a million other things on your mind, you’re being “Hamlet.” When you’re a lawyer, you’ve got your peers, the judge, and the jury all watching you. It distracts your attention from where it needs to be, so you seem very nervous. You cannot be a leader of human beings when you’re very nervous. And the best lawyers are leaders of human beings.
The conversation ends with a discussion on charisma in the courtroom as well as David’s important work in the criminal defense industry. And after spending this episode with David, it’s clear to see why so many trial lawyers look to him as a powerhouse in the industry.
David Ball, who wrote trial advocacy’s best-selling strategy book – David Ball on Damages — is a litigation researcher and strategist with North Carolina’s Malekpour & Ball Consulting (JuryWatch, Inc.). He is the nation’s most influential jury consultant, communications expert, and advocacy teacher. His training is in science, engineering, and small-group communications, and he is a 30-year veteran of the professional theater.
Dr. Ball and his partner, lawyer/consultant Artemis Malekpour (firstname.lastname@example.org), consult on civil and criminal cases across the country. They are routinely credited with turning the most difficult cases into significant victories. They are the nation’s only trial consultants qualified to safely and comprehensively guide attorneys with Reptilian, David Ball on Damages, and David Ball on Criminal Defense methods and strategy. Their hundreds of brainstorming sessions – “WorkDays” – have become the gold standard for case-strategy development.
In addition to David Ball on Damages, Dr. Ball’s other landmark advocacy books include Theater Tips & Strategies for Jury Trials, Reptile (with Don Keenan), Theater for Trial (with Joshua Karton), Reptile in the MIST, and David Ball on Criminal Defense.
Dr. Ball has taught law students at North Carolina, Wake Forest, Pittsburgh, Minnesota, Roger
Williams, Loyola, and Campbell schools of law, and at Duke Law as Senior Lecturer. He’s an award-winning teacher for the North Carolina Advocates for Justice and the American Association for Justice’s National College of Advocacy. He has long been among the nation’s most in-demand of CLE speakers. His favorite job was taxi driver in the 1970s in Stamford, CT, and his Daddy was a Catskill Mountains bootlegger during Prohibition.
Dr. Ball is also a pioneer in adapting film and theater methods into trial techniques. His theater/film students have won Oscars, Obies, Tonies, and Emmies; his scripts have been staged at professional theaters off-Broadway, throughout North America, and overseas. He helped to lead the Guthrie Theater, as well as Carnegie-Mellon University’s renowned theater conservatory and, as Chair, Duke University’s Drama Department. His best-selling film and theater training book, Backwards and Forwards, has been the field’s standard every year since 1984, and is now in uses by trail lawyers as well. His crossover books, Theater Tips and Strategies for Jury Trials along with the new Theater for Trial, are the standards for the use of film and theater techniques in litigation.
Dr. Ball also wrote the cult classic film Hard Rock Zombies, though he made up for it by writing Swamp Outlaw, a novel about Civil War Era Lumbee hero Henry Berry Lowery, now under option for a motion picture. (TV viewers: Dr. Ball and Dr. Bull deny each other’s existence.)