About Me

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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Legally Speaking in Fiction and Real Life

Margot Kinberg, at her excellent blog Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, put up a fine post today on the role of public speaking in mysteries. She inspired me to think about lawyers in legal mysteries.

To be a trial or appellate lawyer is to be comfortable with public speaking for our courts are open to the public. Justice is to be seen to be done.

I am never surprised when lawyers speak articulately in mysteries. We try to speak clearly and directly contrary to public myth.

The flashing eyes and powerful baritone of Raymond Burr as Perry Mason dominated television 50 years ago.

What reader of mysteries and viewer of television mysteries cannot instantly recall the rolling phrases of Leo McKern as Rumpole of the Bailey staunchly defending the Timsons.

More recently, Matthew McConaughey in the movie A Time to Kill by John Grisham gave a memorable performance as the lawyer, Jake Brigance, defending an African American in the Deep South.

On paper who could not admire the suave Sandy Stern in Presumed Innocent and Innocent skilfully questioning witnesses and presenting arguments on behalf of Rusty Sabich.

In the novels of Robert Rotenberg taking place in the coutrooms of Toronto an ensemble of Crown and defence counsel are true professionals. They prepare well and find the weaknesses in the testimony of witnesses.

What fiction does not portray is that while real life lawyers are just as skillful as their fictional counterparts they are not as perfect.

Questions are occasionally mangled. I tell witnesses not to worry about perfection as I can guarantee them there will always be questions I wish I could have re-done.

Most difficult to re-create are closing addresses to juries. Seeking to persuade a jury does not often flow with the beautiful phrasing of fiction, television and the movies. The hesitations, adjustments to the reactions of jurors, the examination of notes, the cadence do not transfer well to print and screen. I try not to read addresses as you risk the connection of speaking directly to the jury by following a script.

Gerry Spence, famed American trial lawyer, describes his address to the jury in his book, How to Argue and Win Every Time, in the defence of Randy Weaver:

'I'm afraid I won't be able to make the kind or argument to you that Randy Weaver deserves,' I said.  'After nearly three months of trial, I'm afraid I won't measure up. I wish I were a better lawyer.'  As always, the fear began to slink away and the argument began to take its place, one that was to consume nearly three hours.  It was an argument that was honest, and angry and humorous, one that was punctuated with defects and false starts and syntax that would horrify any self-respecting English professor. It was an argument that was a real as I was able to be - an argument that, in the end, was to free my client."
Still Spence, in an address to a legal seminar on jury addresses, spoke about a closing for jury trials that he had developed that reads as well as it does to listen to (visualize his hands as you read):
"Here’s the story of the bird that some of you wanted to hear again. This is one I’ve used many, many times. It’s a nice method by which you can transfer responsibility for your client to the jury.
Ladies and gentlemen I am about to leave you, but before I leave you I’d like to tell you a story about a wise old man and a smart-alec boy. The smart-alec boy had a plan, he wanted to show up the wise old man, to make a fool of him. The smartalec boy had caught a bird in the forest. He had him in his hands. The little bird’s tail was sticking out. The bird is alive in his hands. The plan was this: He would go up to the old man and he would say, “Old man, what do I have in my hands?” The old man would say, “You have a bird, my son.” Then the boy would say, “Old man, is the bird alive or is it dead?” If the old man said that the bird was dead, he would open up his hands and the bird would fly off free, off into the trees, alive, happy. But if the old man said the bird was alive, he would crush it and crush it in his hands and say, “See, old man, the bird is dead.” So, he walked up to the old man and said, “Old man, what do I have in my hands?” The old man said, “You have a bird, my son.” He said, “Old man, is the bird alive or is it dead?” And the old man said, “The bird is in your hands, my son.” Ladies and gentlemen of the jury my client is in yours."

Who would not want Gerry Spence standing with you fighting for your liberty?



  1. Bill - Thanks for the kind words. And thanks for the fascinating discussion here of how public speaking fits into what lawyers do. I can't imagine a successful lawyer who doesn't learn to be comfortable speaking in public even if there are some hesitations or questions that one would like to take back. Those speeches are the way one connects with the jury, the judge, opposing counsel and so on. And I'm sure that learning to do that well is part of a lawyer's preparation. Thanks too for reminding me of some memorable book and TV performances by fictional lawyers.

    I didn't know that Spence had written a book about legal presentations but if anyone is capable of doing that well, he is. You've included some great stuff from that book, for which thanks.

  2. Glad you mentioned A Time to Kill, an excellent book and one that began my gobbling up of all of John Grisham's books for years and respect for him.

    So much is in that book, including opposing racism in the South, a good and principled book.

    Yes, Gerry Spence, an excellent lawyer. Used to see him on Larry King and other TV shows; he always made good sense.

    Haven't seen him for years. He is a character, but one that a defendant would want in his/her corner. Wonder why he isn't on TV much any more.

    That speech you cute sounds a bit like the late, brilliant Clarence Darrow in Inherit the Wind.

  3. Margot: Thanks for the comment. Spence is as good in print as he is in speaking. He is one of America's great lawyers.

  4. Kathy D.: Thanks for the comment. I expect Spence is less on T.V. because of age. He is now 84. There was a report of him conducting a trial last year.

  5. Gerry Spence's brother used to be a friend of mine, who lived in my city. He would tell us about his brother.

    Then he moved to Wyoming and set up a restaurant, thus no more reports.

    I think that Gerry Spence wrote some crime fiction.

  6. Bill, thanks for an interesting post and especially for writing about Gerry Spence. I did not know about him. The story of the bird was a first too. I believe courtroom trials are very different from the ones portrayed in books and films, sans all the melodrama particularly evident in Indian cinema. I suppose a trial lawyer has to speak with courage, coherence, and conviction to plead his or her client's case successfully. Is it possible for a lawyer to be at a sudden loss for words or suffer a bout of stage fright?

  7. Kathy D.: Thanks for the comment. You have contacts that surprise me.

    Spence has written some fiction but most of his writing has been about his experiences in the courts of America.

  8. Prashant: Thanks for the comment.

    Lawyers who struggle to find words in court or freeze do not last long in trials. They do not progress to handling major cases.

    Anyone can have a momentary lapse. All but a few lawyers have notes or a written plan before them so they have a reference while arguing or asking questions.

    Those with chronic problems become the lawyers who handle research or other legal work outside courtrooms.