Brown & Little, P.L.C. » Trial » Practicing Like a Performance

Practicing Like a Performance

Roy Black wrote yesterday about practice. He discussed Steve Jobs and his obsession with preparation and practice, compulsively rehearsing for every presentation in order to make it look effortless. This is one of Roy’s suggestions for practicing:

Take notes as you practice, stop immediately when you notice a mistake or an uncomfortable moment and correct it. Analyze and re-analyze your presentation as you go. Make staging notes like cutting down on time on certain parts, and how to enunciate tricky words and phrases.

It strikes me that what Roy describes is certainly an important aspect of practice, but it’s really only half of one part of the big picture of effective preparation. Although I’m sure he does it in his own preparation, in his post, he never really explains that there is every bit as much a need to practice a complete performance as there is a need to stop and correct.

When I taught private music students, and also in my own practicing as a musician, it was important to break something difficult down into the smallest manageable piece. Do what you could do perfectly a set number of times. Only after achieving that number without any flaws could you move on. Next, you add more to what you’ve worked out, or you work on another section in the same manner. You keep building on what you know you can do right over and over again. Eventually, you are executing huge chunks repeated times at an acceptable level. That method is akin to Roy’s suggestion about stopping and analyzing, breaking the presentation down and trying to make each little part perfect.

His advice is great, and many lawyers should better take it to heart. Lawyers do all kinds of ridiculous things that could easily be fixed with a little extra attention to detail during practice. I’ve seen prosecutors who consistently misstate certain legal standards, ultimately destroying their credibility when the jury sees the statements don’t match the jury instructions, just like the defense attorney said in his overruled objection. I’ve seen defense attorneys who can’t keep witnesses’ names straight, killing for the jury any sense that those lawyers actually know the facts of the case. Methodical, attentive preparation like what I’ve described above is the best way I know to develop accuracy and consistency, but it will only get you half of the way there.

The other half, the thing that actually makes that type of practice work, is the ability to present the final product in its entirety. Being able to recite the facts in a persuasive way or having your standard explanation of the burden of proof down pat is nice, but delivering a highly persuasive closing argument is a much more difficult endeavor. Mastering the elements individually will only get you so far, and even though I tend to take a much more improvisational approach than Roy Black or Steve Jobs might, I still do several run-throughs as if the jury was seated in front of me. The things I know I’m saying or doing a certain way are exactly as they want them, thanks to the type of preparation described above, but I also know that I’m capable of seamlessly tying them together. Trial itself is just another run-through; it just happens to be in a courtroom with a jury in front of me.

Just as many lawyers fail to execute the big picture as fail to adequately fix the details. You’ve probably seen them, just like I have. They’re the ones who lose their way and have to walk back over the counsel’s table to look at their outlines. They’re the ones who time after time fail to keep the jury’s attention because of breaks in their delivery. It can be as damaging as any other error at trial, which is why practicing like a performance and not stopping to sweat the small stuff is just as integral a part of practice as mastering the minutiae.

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