During our first week of law school, we were told by a professor that law school would ruin all of our favorite legal tv shows and movies. The professor told us that we’d watch the shows and realize just how far from reality they are. I agree with that — some shows are pretty far fetched and they emphasize things that just wouldn’t happen in real life (you’ll rarely see a jury consultant in any of my trials like in “Bull”). Yet, there’s also some things we all see in legal (or non-legal) shows or read in legal and non-legal books that lawyers can use everyday.
Going through law school can cause funnel vision for many lawyers. They think the world operates one way, when in reality it sometimes works a lot like the things you see in TV shows and read in books. After graduating from law school I realized I’d been living in a bubble — I knew some latin phrases and knew how the law worked, but fancy latin phrases and all the legal knowledge in the world won’t get you far with many of the juries I’ve appeared in front of. After passing the bar exam I had all the legal requirements necessary to practice law: A law degree and a law license. What I’ve learned, and what many other attorneys have learned is that those two things will only get you so far if you want to be a good trial lawyer.
Since I passed the bar nearly eight years ago, I rediscovered books and tv shows both related and unrelated to lawyering. Some of these books/shows are for entertainment and some have to be studied. When I read any book, whether it’s for fun or for personal development, I always try to find something useful that I can put into practice. The same with shows, too. I was having a discussion with a relative recently and he asked me if I watched certain law-related programs, like Law & Order, or read books by John Grisham, and then used some of the things I learned from those books or shows in trial.
I recalled what that law professor told us so many years ago and that got me thinking: Even though some of the shows or books may be far fetched, I think there’s some things lawyers can learn from them. So, I told him that if I see or read something that I think will help my client in a case, I’ll use it (as long as it’s permitted by the rules for my profession and the rules for trial). For instance, take a show that is completely law related: Goliath.
I won’t spoil the show for you if you haven’t watched it, but there are some things from Goliath that I think any lawyer could use (and not use) in their law practice. For instance, the main character, Billy McBride (played by Billy Bob Thornton), does all kinds of things that make me cringe — whether it’s how he tries to get clients or how he gets belligerent with judges. It’s a show, though, so some of that’s for entertainment value. However, Billy McBride does some things that made me smile — he took on a big corporation and exposed fraud and deceit, and he did so against all odds.
The one big thing I took from the show and think anyone (lawyer or not) can learn from the show is when McBride gives his closing arguments. One of the points he makes to the jurors is that he’d love to show the jury how criminal the big evil corporation was. He’d love to convict them of the crimes they’ve committed. He’d love to prove to them beyond a reasonable doubt that they were guilty of those crimes. But, he doesn’t have to. He doesn’t have to prove anything beyond a reasonable doubt in his case. What exactly does this mean and why is it important?
Well, as McBride explains, in a civil case, the person bringing a lawsuit has a “burden of proof” — they have an obligation to prove their case to a certain standard. We can’t just waltz into court and point the finger at the defendant and say “he did it, now make him pay!” We’re from the “Show Me State,” and we have to show the jury we’re right. So, when I talk with juries at the beginning of a case, I explain that in criminal cases the burden of proof is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” That’s a really high burden/obligation. We don’t want to convict innocent people, so the Prosecutor needs really good proof that the defendant is guilty. The jury has to be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty. In a civil trial, though, the burden is “more likely than not,” which is a much lower burden than “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
For example, if I want to prove something in a criminal case as a prosecutor, I need to make the juror believe that there’s no reasonable doubt (you’re 99% confident) about the defendant’s guilt. In a civil case, I have to convince you that more likely than not this thing happened and more likely than not when it happened, injuries occurred. I typically explain that while beyond a reasonable doubt might be 99%, more likely than not is more like 50.01%. If you’re on the fence about something, but you’re tilting more to one side, then that’s more likely than not. We want you off the fence and on one side if the burden is beyond a reasonable doubt!
So, even though we sometimes want to show the jury that a person did a reckless/negligent thing beyond a reasonable doubt and we want the jury to convict the defendant, we don’t have to. Just like Billy McBride explained in Goliath, that’s not our burden. We’d be going against the law and rules if we tried to do so. The law of the land is that (in auto cases) my client only has to prove that her wreck was more likely than not caused by the other driver, and that her injuries were more likely than not caused by the wreck. You can have some doubt, you can even have some reasonable doubt, but you still may find in favor of my client.
Are there legal shows you enjoy and have questions about? Feel free to join in the conversation or email our firm: firstname.lastname@example.org
Image above credited to Amazon.