In Defense of Authenticity

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Friday, September 2nd, 2016
In Defense of Authenticity

This above all:
To thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

—William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3

Sitting on the bench in front of my rural East Texas office, I was talking with a man with a big white beard, a weathered baseball cap with a logo I could not quite make out, a cargo shirt, and casual jeans. He had a big dip of snuff in his mouth, and I noticed some of it running down his white beard. I was just out of court and dressed in my suit. A few people walked by and gave us odd looks. Perhaps they thought it was my dad or a fishing buddy. I do not know. I was too busy paying attention to what he was telling me.

What he was telling me was mesmerizing. The man I am describing was my consulting expert on a very serious felony case, and he had just finished interviewing my client at our local jail. Although we had discussed the case on the phone, I had never met him in person until that day. He is a renowned psychologist who has testified in literally hundreds of trials in multiple states as an expert witness. He was direct, thoughtful, insightful, and brilliant in his analysis of my client. And yet he looked like he was on his way to jump in a bass boat.

I doubt he looks like that when he testifies, but the fact that he was dressed the way he was and looked the way he looked gave me even more confidence that I had the right man for the job. Why? Because he was his “authentic self.” He was comfortable in his own skin and his own clothes and didn’t feel the need to dress up for me or carry a fancy briefcase to our first meeting. He was just himself. And I knew at once a jury would love him.

This got me thinking about myself and how I have tried cases over the years. When I first started in private practice, I would try different things. I would attempt different voice styles, different clothing styles, and I would always cut my hair short and shave my facial hair before trial. But as the years have gone on, I have come to realize that the effort I put into trying to “change myself” was wasted effort—because it was not authentic. It was not who I am. I sense looking back that jurors knew that.

I truly believe that, for the most part, juries are collectively smart. They are 12 or 6 people who come together from different points of view and different walks of life to become one voice. They watch and listen carefully. And I have come to see that what they are looking for in lawyers and experts is authenticity.

Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in the Scarlett Letter: “No one man can, for any considerable time, wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which is the true one.” It would seem to me that a bewildered lawyer begets a bewildered jury. Perhaps if we are true to our authentic selves then we might alleviate a jury’s questions about our true opinions of our case.

A jury may hate what your client is accused of or what they may ultimately convict him or her of, but what I have found after speaking with jurors at the conclusion of my trials (or those I have merely observed as a spectator) is that regardless of the type of case, they wanted the defense attorney to fight for the client. They wanted to know that the attorney cared, and that when that attorney spoke they meant what they said.

This seems completely understandable to me. If the jury senses that the attorney does not care then why should they care? In my opinion, you have to be authentic and genuine in order to care.

We have all had “that client” who causes us to cringe when we hear they are calling in to discuss their case. If you have a client you cannot generally tolerate being around or even talking to, try to find one thing that you like about them, latch onto that, and let that be your focus for letting your authentic self shine through. The jury will take notice.

Recently, there was an article in the Kansas City Star about a lawyer named J. R. Hobbs. The article demonstrated to me, again, the importance of authenticity in the practice of law. Mr. Hobbs is a prominent attorney in Kansas City who has defended some of the most notorious criminal cases in recent city history. But as Dugan Arnett, the author of the article, stated:

During his tenure practicing law in Kansas City, Hobbs has established himself as more Atticus Finch than Saul Goodman. He is also achingly polite, a little bashful, with a good dose of “aw-shucks” Midwestern humility to him. In Court, for many years, he would arrive wearing cowboy boots and a cowboy hat. “And it wasn’t because he was trying to portray this image,” says Matt Whit­worth, a U.S. Magistrate Judge who pre­viously spent more than two decades with the U.S. attorney’s office for the Western District of Missouri. “He just liked them.”1

As the author continued: “Inside the courtroom, respect for Hobbs is far-reaching. Juries love him, say those who’ve worked with him, because he makes them feel like they are part of the process.”

I recently tried a sexual assault case. My client had confessed to the police, but upon my advice, he pled “not guilty” because of some extenuating circumstances surrounding the offense. The jury convicted him after about 45 minutes of deliberations.

We elected to have the jury assess punishment, and I called Dr. Thomas Allen, another well-respected psychologist, to testify as to mitigation. I have had the pleasure of working with Dr. Allen on numerous occasions. He had interviewed my client and conducted clinical testing on him as well. During his testimony he stated that my client showed no signs of being a sociopath, that my client showed empathy, did not have behavioral problems growing up, did not abuse animals, and interacted well with others.

On cross-examination, the skilled prosecutor asked: “Dr. Allen, isn’t it true that someone can be a sociopath and still fake empathy, not have behavioral problems, not abuse animals, and interact well with others? Aren’t there certain people who are able to fool others into believing that they are not a socio­path?”

Now remember, I am in deep East Texas. As “Red State” as it gets. Dr. Allen paused, looked the prosecutor squarely in the eye, gave him a puzzled look, and asked: “Wait? Are you talking about Republicans?”

My heart skipped a beat. A jury box full of conservatives is a safe assumption around here. Prison it is. We are done! I thought to myself.

And guess what happened? A roar of laughter from the jury box. Dr. Allen turned and looked directly at the jurors, and he had a twinkle in his eye and an ever-so-slight grin on his face. One that couldn’t be faked. One that was truly authentic. And suddenly I knew the jury was with us.

Their punishment: two years probated and no fine. I attribute that success to Dr. Allen because the jurors sensed his authenticity and thus trusted every word he said. He led them to the correct decision.

Lance Secretan, a well-known expert in leadership theory, said, “Authenticity builds trust, and followers love leaders they can trust.”2

Be authentic. Build trust with the jury. And hopefully you can be the leader that they can follow to the correct result.

Notes

1. Dugan Arnett, “Meet J. R. Hobbs, K.C.’s go-to for a who’s who of criminals.” Kansas City Star, March 29, 2015.

2. “Unmask: Let Go of Who You’re Supposed to Be & Unleash Your True Leader,” Jeff Nischwitz (2014).