Credibility and Charisma for Criminal-Defense Lawyers

If jurors decide cases based on beliefs reached early in the case, how can we best affect their decisions?

Ideally we will show them two things before the evidence begins: A story, and credibility.

Maybe we’ll talk some other time about telling the story—what makes a good story, and how to tell it.

Credibility is something that we should be attentive to every moment of trial. Every action—ours, our clients’, our staff’s, friendly witnesses’—should maximize credibility. Nothing will sink a case faster than lead counsel losing credibility with the jury. For that reason, if you can be the one to show the jury why the prosecutor is not to be trusted you win twice.

I consider credibility to be the same as trust to be the same as likability to be the same as attractiveness to be the same as charisma. In in-person transactions, if you like somebody you trust them and if you trust them you like them and if they are attractive (as opposed to repulsive; not just physically) they have credibility and if they have charisma you like them, find them attractive, trust them and give them credibility.

So let’s talk charisma.

When we hear “charisma,” I think most of us think of an innate trait. I’m convinced that it isn’t so. Some people are inherently more charismatic than the rest of us, but all of us can increase our charisma.

A reader recommended to me “The Charisma Myth” by Olivia Fox Cabane. I’d make it required reading for all trial lawyers.1 Cabane says that charisma has three components:

  • Power;
  • Warmth; and
  • Presence.

Different people have these things in different mixes, but all of us can work to improve all three of them.

Power can be physical (get in better shape, dress better), financial (nice watch), intellectual (know your stuff), or other sorts, as long as the power doesn’t detract from warmth and presence.2

Warmth is caring; you can’t fake warmth. You have to care about the jurors and you have to care about your client and the jurors have to see you doing both.3

Presence is being there. It’s mindfulness, being in the moment, being in the zone. It is giving your full attention to the thing you are doing and the people you are doing with. For a start, work on eye contact, open body language, and active listening.

As a bonus, all of these skills can be used in everyday life with normal people. If you work on improving your warmth and presence, your life will get better.4

I have given a talk on this to lawyers, and I’ve given a version of it to nonlawyers. The nonlawyers eat it up. When I talk to lawyers, there are inevitably some5 who take the time to come up to me afterwards and tell me that they “do all this stuff already” without studying it.

(A) It’s possible—I know some born trial lawyers who maximize their charisma instinctively;

(B) I highly doubt it—there are damn few of those; and

(C) Good for you; now go do more!


  1. In fact, for everyone who isn’t determined to live life as a recluse. 

  2. Some people confuse coldness or aloofness with the projection of power. Don’t. Rudeness is a weak man’s substitute for strength. 

  3. If you are dealing with a difficult person, Cabane recommends that you envision him with angel wings to feel warmth toward him. 

  4. Money-back guarantee. 

  5. Whatever I’m talking about, really. 

5 Comments

  1. You begin with the word “if,” and what little is left of the optimist in me hopes that the premise is often not true. I have no doubt that some jurors are at least predisposed to think a defendant is probably guilty or not guilty simply by seeing him or her (race, age, demeanor, tattoos, obvious unfamiliarity with neckties, the fact that he or she was arrested, etc.). In my own limited, three-jury experience I honestly believe that I avoided such prejudgment, but of course I could be deluding myself. I do admit to forming early opinions about the attorneys involved in one case, and your comments here address that important first impression.

    If you disagree with the following I defer to your training and experience, of course, and withdraw my suggestion, but two attorney behaviors really diminish my sense of their power, warmth and presence.

    The first is referring to the defendant as “my client,” rather than “Mr. Gonzalez” or “John Jones.”

    The second is stumbling through notes as if unfamiliar with them, which I suspect is lamentably unavoidable for over-worked, newly assigned public defenders and perhaps for all defense attorneys not part of a fully-staffed dedicated defense “team” paid for by a wealthy defendant. As a juror, this uncertainty about notes suggests, rightly or wrongly, that the attorney does not really know the case, and thus undermines the sense that the defense attorney knows the story in detail and is fully convinced of the defendant’s not being guilty.

    Yes, all of the skills you advocate are surely useful in everyday life, not just for salespeople, electoral candidates, and professors, but for anyone who interacts with anyone else.

    1. In my model, the premise is almost always true; I’ve added the link to an earlier post on the subject in the first sentence.
      Your observations about names and notes are, I think, good.

  2. As Irvin Yalom puts it, “the most elegant and complex instrument of all –the Stradivarius of psychotherapy practice is the therapist’s own self”. This is true for criminal-defense lawyers as well. Wonderful analyses from a brilliant, empathetic criminal-defense lawyer who has mastered his own Stradivarius with courage, creativity, and coherence.

    In addition to these formulations, I feel like the perfect recipe for a criminal-defense lawyer inside the courtroom should include simplicity, design, subtraction, and naturalness.

    Simplicity is what we keep and what we do remove from the defense. Unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotion, and story should follow.

    Design is the soul deep. A talented criminal-defense lawyer should have a naked approach like a Zen master. We are all humans; we are all story-tellers. Inside the courtroom, logic will never be enough. Jury members will tune into emotions, passion, enthusiasm, and being on the moment.

    Yes, trial lawyers should be compassionate, caring, enthusiastic, and generous persons by nature. However, in line with Mr. Bennett, I believe all these skills can be further refined by empathic listening and self-aware consciousness. The player who has perfected his finger lines will win out. Hence, master your instrument, master your music, then play! The rest will be an unbelievably rewarding journey beyond all expectations.

  3. I can vouch for the mindfulness being present, being there, it increases our chances of receiving information, processing it and give be best and most refined response.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: