The True Heroes in the Courtroom - a review of Twelve Heroes, One Voice

12 Heroes 1 Voice
Reviewed by Kenneth H. Levinson in Trial (Summer 2012)

As trial lawyers, we are inundated with books, articles, seminars, and even apps to help us present our cases better. Many of us even study "nonlawyer" books on cognitive science, decision-making, storytelling, and metaphors to improve our skills. There are mountains of information covering broad expanses of subjects, so how do we choose what to read given our limited time? Well, I recently finished a fantastic book by one of the best trial lawyers in the country, Carl Bettinger. Every lawyer who presents his or her client’s case to a jury should read Twelve Heroes, One Voice. Though coming in at a slim 169 pages (including ten pages of exercises), his book is packed with useful help for us all.

Many lawyers believe the best way to present a case to a jury is to show the plaintiff as a hero — or that the lawyer is heroic. Bettinger shows us the better approach. We must empower our jurors to "save the day, and thereby become heroes" (p. 7). The lawyer, in turn becomes the mentor, leading the jury on its heroic path.

Bettinger begins our journey with storytelling. We learn the structure employed by filmmakers and how to employ it at trial. The hero, such as Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, starts in an ordinary world. Then one day, after going about his business, an inciting event occurs (the incident in our case). The hero doesn’t want to leave the comforts of his or her life (jury duty!), but with the help of a mentor like Obi-Wan or Gandalf in The Hobbit (the trial lawyer), the hero (our jury) recognizes what must be done. The hero must confront the villain (I can imagine who you are thinking about now!). This confrontation involves the elimination of old beliefs (frivolous lawsuits, greedy lawyers, doctors fleeing the state). The final act (a fair verdict) returns the hero to the ordinary world with the solution to the problem the story posed.

After learning about structure, we explore some of the characters that make up the story. The hero is generally well liked and is often an underdog; the hero must be selfless. Our villain, on the other hand, puts himself first – above the community, outside of the rules. The mentor’s "first responsibility is to help the reluctant hero to cross the threshold and enter the new world" (p. 18). However, only the hero can save the day. Victims are those harmed by the villain’s conduct. It’s not too much of a stretch here to find our victim. Lastly, we learn about the classic "jester" or "trickster." She is the person who speaks the truth (the witness who knows the true effects of the injuries).

Next, we are shown how to use the tools of the story and the hero for all aspects of our trials. Bettinger provides wonderful insights through the use of his trial transcripts along with color commentary. We learn how to set the stage for our heroes early in the case during jury selection. The jurors have left the comforts of their lives and entered this new world. The mentor or lawyer points out that the hero is special and now has exclusive powers in this new place.

We further see how to help guide our jurors during the trial itself. Bettinger tells us that an opening should do the following:

  1. Show and tell the events to the jurors using a story format (the hero-centric structure), which the jurors’ brains are programed to recognize.
  2. Identify and round out the principal characters in a way that makes clear that the defendant is the villain.
  3. Identify your client in heroic terms, so that the jurors can begin rooting for her, but make clear that your client cannot do this by herself.
  4. State the central problem of the story.
  5. Foreshadow the need for the jurors to solve the problem by showing that the defendant is the villain and putting a value on the villain’s wrongdoing (p. 86).

We then continue this method through witness sequencing and examinations – not by telling, but by showing our client’s story. Bettinger suggests "getting the witnesses off the stand to show what happened, and use the courtroom as a stage" (p. 107).

My favorite part of the book, though, deals with closings. "It is now time for the jurors to fully inhabit their roles as heroes. It is time for them to save the day" (p. 139). Bettinger shows us the tools that will help our jurors on their hero’s journey. Perhaps knowing the verdict ($54.1 million) skewed my view but I loved the following portion of his closing: "Res-Care, Inc., and Res-Care New Mexico say you don’t have what it takes, you don’t have what it takes to stand up and stand out and to ring a bell. You don’t have what it takes to be heroes. I say differently" (p. 152)

If I can be a mentor for a moment: buy this wonderful book. Learn to empower your jurors to become heroes. Tell them the story that lets them write the last chapter of justice for your clients.

Ken Levinson is a trial lawyer in Chicago, Illinois. Ken believes that every lawyer who goes to court for the injured and their families is a true American hero.

Reproduced by permission. ©2012 Trial (Summer 2012) All rights reserved.