David Ball Interviews Jim Perdue on Courtroom Storytelling

In the fall of 2023, renowned trial consultant David Ball interviewed one of the greatest trial lawyers of our time: Jim Perdue. Perdue spent over forty years traveling from one courtroom to the next, often pioneering many of the techniques that are now considered staples of the plaintiff’s bar. Before retiring to teach courses on advocacy and storytelling at the University of Houston Law Center, Perdue obtained numerous record-breaking verdicts for his clients and was ultimately inducted into the Trial Lawyers Hall of Fame where he joins many lawyers of note from Gerry Spence and Mark Lanier to Moe Levine and Thurgood Marshall.

In this hour-long interview, Ball and Perdue cover different techniques that Perdue tested and developed over the years and that he discusses in his latest book, Courtroom Storytelling.


Courtroom Storytelling - Trial Guides

[Courtroom Storytelling by Jim M. Perdue, available in both print and ebook]

Below are a few excerpts from the interview, edited for brevity. Click here to watch the free full interview.

On Focusing on the Jury

Jim Perdue: We can't go in the jury room and fight. [...] We’re teaching [the jury] how to fight. And you view it that way. That's one of the things that helped me change the way I approach things using the narrative. [...] I believe when you walk into that courtroom, you have to have one thought in mind. It is all about the jury. It's not about you. Even in some ways, it's not about the people you represent. It's about [the jury]. It's about them. And as you and Don Keenan pointed out so well, and [in] Reptile, I put it a little different way. I put it in the sense that: jurors sit there and they're thinking, what's in it for me?
David Ball: Mm-Hmm.
Jim Perdue: Here's this case that we decide, but what's in it for me? And, if you can identify what's in it for them, they become the protagonist then, in your story. The protagonist is not the people you represent using storytelling and dramatic terms. And so if the jury's the protagonist, every good story has to have an antagonist. Who or what is the antagonist? And some people would say it's the defendant. And I suggest, no, it's not the defendant. It is the risk that the defendant's actions posed. […]
David Ball: So the enemy is the risk.
Jim Perdue: Risk. It's what they did.
David Ball: And I want to get rid of it. Because that as a juror, because that's what's in it for me. I can get rid of that risk. [...] And you came up with that long before, I know you did [laughs] long before we started doing Reptile. And you were polite enough to sit there quietly and never say, wait a minute. I came up with that first.
Jim Perdue: Oh, I've admired you and Don for so many years. And, well, as you know, you did my first two focus groups. Don is the one who mentioned focus groups. And we had a big case. It was an obstetrical, brain damage, case as you recall. And you were kind enough to come down and show us how to do a focus group. And so we got our group together and presented the case. And with your advice and directions, we had, closed circuit TV in the room. And we went and listened in another room. And they showed us the direction. They did. They showed us the direction.

On Attorneys that Influenced Perdue

David Ball: Were there any particular attorneys as you were coming up that were a particular influence on you?
Jim Perdue: Yeah. Well, Richard Haynes, criminal lawyer [...] he was amazing.[...]
David Ball: [...] What did you take from him? Or what did he give you?
Jim Perdue: One lesson, and you'll see it in the book a lot, if you have something very graphic, like, I had a case involving a bad burns and an auto accident. I had some of the gruesome pictures you can imagine. We ended up settling the case after opening statement because they realized, I think, the risk to them. But, if you have gruesome evidence, pick out where you want to show it. [...] I learned that from Haynes. [...] [He was] an inredible lawyer. Well, he'd tried these criminal cases, and they would bring, the prosecution would bring these gory pictures in, [they] couldn't wait to show 'em to the jury.
And then the evidence would go on and get to another point. You gotta show the pictures again. Put those gory pictures up, and then they'd go a little way on prosecution, get those pictures, show those pictures, and [Haynes] said, “Great. They're killing their damn case.” Because things that are traumatic to us, disturbing to us, involve us, emotionally. You can only take so much of that. And it's like a film that just starts to fade.
And so, one of the things that I say in the book several times, if you've got that kind of evidence [...] I don't bring it out again in argument. If it's that strong, if it's that powerful, that two or three minutes they see that is gonna put it on that picture, it'll never be forgotten in their mind. And don't overplay those kinds of things in your case.
David Ball: Well, you know, how many times did JFK have to be shot for us to remember exactly where we were? Those of us who were old enough, something that is that piercing. You're absolutely right. And yet when it's over and over and over, look how calloused over we are to school shootings now. Because every time you turn on the news, there's another one, another one, another one, another one. Remember the horror? The first one, the first couple, yeah.
Jim Perdue: I call it gore overload.

On Storytelling and Witnesses

Jim Perdue: Talk to your witnesses. One of the things that I would mention today is one of the big mistakes a lot of lawyers old and young [make] is we don't listen. Well, learn to be a good listener. And so you take these people that are gonna testify, and you ask them, what are the things that they're gonna be able to say that's good, that will bring this person up in the minds of the jury? And they'll say things like, “Oh, he was such a hard worker. He was such a diligent worker.” And I would always let them do that. And then I would say, “Yeah, but why do you say that?”
“Why do you say that? What, what did they do? Not what they say. What did they do that would make you feel that way?” And they'd tell me, and I'd say, “Okay, when you go on a stand, that's what we're gonna do. We're gonna tell that story. We're not gonna talk in terms of this or that. I'm just gonna ask you some stories.”
So I've got storytelling, my trial story. [...] Juries will remember that story. Because we love stories. But if I get up before somebody and say, I'm going to give you a lecture on insurance, [it] blindsides [them] right away.
But if I get up and say, I want to tell you a story about this guy who didn't get the insurance he needed, and as a result he had a big loss, they'll listen to that. Stories work in parts of our brain that we can access so easily. But if we don't bother to access 'em, we don't get there. So it's story, it's story from beginning to end. Everything. It's always about the jury, rule number one. And then number two, it's about your stories….

Click here for the rest of the interview, and watch Ball and Perdue discuss even more insights from Perdue’s books and career.

More from Jim Perdue

Winning with Stories: Jim Perdue Live! - Trial GuidesThe Art of Storytelling - On Demand - Trial GuidesCourtroom Storytelling - Trial Guides