Other than voir dire, your opening statement will be your chance to have each juror’s undivided attention. This is your first opportunity to make a solid impression on the jury, to lay the framework for the theme of your case, and to explain the facts of the case in an understandable way. In order to put together a compelling opening statement an attorney must do several things.
Tell a Clear Story
Your primary job in opening is to ensure the jury understands your client’s position in the matter. Thus, you must present a clear picture of the case and facts. This is your chance to tell your client’s story. While closing arguments are traditionally thought of as the arena to use persuasion, opening statements, when done right, are no less persuasive. Order your facts in a way in which tells the client’s story most persuasively and which explores your themes of the case.
Relate the story to everyday events or acts that the jury can understand. You should highlight the major event/s, participants, disputes, burden of proof and damages. Do not get lost exploring ancillary facts as you risk losing the jury along the way. If you bore the jurors during your opening statement they are likely to be less engaged and involved when finally get to present your witnesses and evidence. The keys? Be clear, stay out of the weeds, and be as brief as possible.
Tailor Your Opening to Your Specific Jury
Know your audience. This is a crucial issue in delivering an opening statement. Be sure to note any statements made during voir dire that give you clues into the jurors’ educational background, their genders (both traditional and chosen gender), ages, employment, and family status. Each can be used to adjust your opening to fit your audience’s best learning methods. If you speak to a person in their language, it is more likely he or she will understand and by extension, believe your client’s story.
The majority of the time, the jury deciding your trial will contain people without any legal experience and without the background necessary to comprehend technical issues in your case. Remember that while you have lived with your case for a long time, the jurors are hearing it for the first time. Thus, craft an opening story that is understandable, that does not use jargon, and allows the jury to come around to your way of thinking. When you are trying a case involving highly technical issues or subjects, reduce the complex subject matter/s to straightforward concepts and prepare a wordlist of technical terminology with definitions a lay person can understand.
Avoid the Perception of Concealment and Present the Case Weaknesses Too
Do not shy away from any damaging facts or potential weaknesses in your case. Ignoring the “bad facts” in your case can permanently damage your credibility with the jury. Confront any problematic issues in a way which works into your client’s story. Keep your explanation of any problematic or bad facts to concise and simple. Address them and move forward. This way, the jury is not shocked when these facts are presented by plaintiff’s counsel and witnesses. Addressing any such problematic issues early on lessens their overall impact and power.
Avoid Making Promises You Cannot Keep
Finally, do not over-promise. Be sure you present the jury only the facts you can get admitted into evidence. Failure to deliver on promises or statements made during opening can lead to loss of credibility. Further the jury will be disappointed if they were promised something in opening and it is not addressed or “resolved.” Finally, any fact you mention in your opening that you fail to prove can be commented upon negatively by opposing counsel. Thus, if there’s any doubt about whether or not you will be able to prove something, leave it out of your opening.