There are many reasons but one common misconception is that you can’t help a witness much, especially a bad one. After all, you can’t teach a pig to sing. I doubt, for example, that anyone could change how Rob Ford, the corpulent and crack-smoking ex-Mayor of Toronto comes across. He is who he is. I agree we can’t change someone’s personality, but I disagree that we are powerless to help their testimony. We can help more than we think, even challenging witnesses.
Do you remember the movie The King’s Speech? The setting was England in the 1930s. Lionel Logue was a speech specialist, an Australian émigré, brought on as a last resort to help the Duke of York, the future King George VI, with his terrible stammer. Every specialist in London had tried to help but failed. One well-regarded but obviously clueless doctor had the Duke fill his mouth with marbles and attempt to speak, claiming that this method had helped Demosthenes with his speech impairment.
Yet Lionel succeeded, even though he had no medical degree or speech therapy training. He didn’t even have a high school degree. He left school at age 16. He was a third-rate amateur actor and an elocution specialist. He did have experience and considerable success in helping World War 1 veterans who had speech impairments as a result of shell-shock.
How did Lionel do it? I can think of four reasons and they all are relevant to preparing a witness. First, he understood that the source of the stammer was largely emotional and not just a physical or mechanical impediment. The Duke’s father had been a gruff, impatient Victorian parent. If that wasn’t reason enough to cause problems in a young child, he also had a nanny who treated him abusively for a number of years. Lionel knew that emotional trauma was the usual cause of stammering and so his approach to treatment was broad. It addressed the whole person and not simply the narrow symptom. The healing had to start from the inside.
Second, Lionel believed in himself and his methods. He had a track record of helping stutterers. He had the confidence and conviction that he could help the Duke.
Third, he understood how long it would take. There would be no quick fixes. To get enough coaching sessions he had to build a relationship and win the trust of the Duke (and his wife).
Finally, he believed in the man, the man behind the crown – in his character and courage and potential greatness. Belief is infectious. It builds confidence and trust. Without that support the Duke may never have come to believe in himself or overcome his fear or found his voice.
If Lionel can help, you can too. Don’t undervalue your ability to help. You don’t need to be a shrink. I don’t have a Ph.D. or witness degree. I’m a lawyer. You are capable of helping even a challenging witness. If you’re a parent or tutored a student or coached a team of eight year olds, you most likely have the skill set.
However, what you absolutely do need is Lionel’s mindset. You need to believe that you can help (or get help). Not all witnesses are likeable or smart or even truthful but you can’t just throw up your hands in despair because the witness is challenging. What do you think it’s like for Hollywood movie directors? I’m sure it’s harder to manage high-strung actors than high-strung witnesses. An actress, supposedly Marilyn Monroe, once said:
“I’m selfish, impatient and a little insecure. I make mistakes, I’m out of control and at times hard to handle. But if you can’t handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don’t deserve me at my best.”
You also need to really want to make a difference. Candidly, not everyone has the patience for this sort of work, and if you don’t particularly like a witness, it may be difficult to want to give your best support. Finally, you need to reserve the time, that scarcest of resources. If you don’t have the time or you need an independent voice or you have what you believe is an incorrigible client, then you can call in “air support.” Just don’t give up on the witness without trying. There are some who are beyond help but there are many more who just need time.
PRACTICE TIP: Be honest with yourself about a witness. If you don’t like him or don’t seem to connect with him, bring in another lawyer (or consultant). Don’t try to do it all by yourself. You’ll get impatient and that won’t help.
The King’s Speech movie poster image is owned by The Weinstein Companies. I display the image only for educational purposes and under the fair use legal doctrine. The movie storyline of Lionel Logue preparing the King for public speaking is a useful analogy and teaching tool for a lawyer preparing a difficult witness. This blog is non-commercial. The poster image is from Wikipedia.