Reviewed by Kory Queen
I don’t think I am overselling it to predict that this book will guide if not outright define the remainder of my legal career. This isn’t one of those "how-to" guides meant to map out a practical step-by-step process for preparing witnesses, i.e., the kind of book that is already nearly dated by the time it reaches the shelves. Instead, what Jesse Wilson presents is a philosophy of litigation—a fungible overarching theme that belongs in virtually every injury case. It’s called the victim-to-victor approach, and it involves "transforming your client from the person who has lost everything into the person who has over-come what has been taken from them and is defined by that victory."
It’s not intuitive, the idea of framing a case around a client’s wins rather than losses, and to be honest, I was skeptical of the idea when Wilson first introduced it as his thesis. Wilson quickly proved himself with vivid examples taken from real cases, and the thesis transformed in my mind from something dubious and ill-advised to an indispensable tool. One might be tempted to think that a Juilliard graduate with a background in theater and no legal education is venturing well beyond his expertise trying to instruct lawyers on how to present their cases, but Wilson’s success stories speak for themselves, not to mention the elegant, punchy logic of his argument.
Take, for instance, the case of "Amanda" described in Chapter 3, "Victim to Victor: Your Witness’s Role." Amanda was not doing well with focus groups. They observed her sullen demeanor as she described her injuries and losses, and they cared nothing for her. She struck them as weepy and unapproachable. Trial was fast approaching, so the plaintiff’s attorney brought in Wilson for his trial consulting expertise. Wilson sat down with Amanda and dug into her life, in search of something very specific: the source of her joy. What drives her? What defines her? During this inquiry, Wilson discovered a woman who educates children from rough backgrounds and views herself as their protector. "For most of them, I’m all they’ve got," was how she put it. With that in mind, Wilson transformed Amanda’s view of herself from someone who lost everything to someone who goes on fighting for her children despite what her injury took from her. Not what she lost; what was taken from her. It’s hard, but she’s strong, and she persists. She will not let the injury stop her from doing what she can for those children, even if it’s not as much as she was able to do before, those children still need her. Armed with this story and a hopeful rather than broken view of herself, Amanda secured a substantial jury verdict. Rather than being put off by Amanda the victim, sad and sullen, the jury rooted for Amanda the victor, strong and persistent.
The most captivating feature of Wilson’s book is the numerous conversations he describes where he helps clients discover their victor stories. Far beyond merely winning their injury cases, Wilson helps clients discover their ideal selves. No longer restrained by the fiction that they must appear broken beyond repair to secure the big verdicts, Wilson helps clients identify their inner victor and present that to the jury. In doing so, however, he also helps them identify something genuine within themselves, something they will surely cling to for the rest of their lives. It’s not simply for show. There’s a real victor in there, and Wilson challenges us to find it. Wilson even demonstrates how he found the victor in a client who was rendered paraplegic and lost her brother in a tractor-trailer collision, and what an extraordinary victory that was. It gives me chills just thinking about it.
Another striking feature of this book is that Wilson’s thesis doesn’t apply only to our clients. It also applies to expert witnesses and even to adverse witnesses and parties. Injured clients are certainly the central feature, and Wilson doesn’t address experts or adverse witnesses until around two-thirds of the way through. Still, the application to those other kinds of witnesses is elegant in its simple logic as well. It also once again defies conventional methods. After all, our experts are meant to come in with dry professorial analysis, aren’t they? Boring perhaps, but credible. And shouldn’t adverse witnesses be painted as the heartless monsters that they are? Wilson presents a better way, a way to keep juries invested in the story of the case at every single stage of the presentation, a way to make every person on the stand become just that: a person—a real person with real motivations.
The golden strand running through this book is in the subtitle: telling a winning story. It is easy to fall back on the convoluted word-salad tactics that scored us points on law school exams, just the sort of tactics to leave juries confused, overwhelmed, and annoyed. Wilson gives the reader a philosophy of litigation that will transform every witness into a real character playing their part in a compelling story. Juries anticipate that we will mostly bore them and tell them that the other side is a monster and that our client deserves their pity. They anticipate it, and they’re on guard against it. But what happens when the dry expert witness becomes the brilliant scientist describing his search for answers and the obstacles he overcame to reach those answers? What happens when the opposing party becomes a compelling villain who is sincerely unaware of how inappropriate his injurious conduct was—too greedy or otherwise misguided to really grasp what he’s done? What happens when there is, at the center of it all, a client who refuses to be defined by the harm suffered and goes on fighting for what matters most? Wilson tells us exactly what happens: the story of your case ends with a big win.
Before reading this book, I viewed my clients as victims and felt the need to make that victimhood as clear as possible to the jury. The big, bad defendants hurt my poor, innocent clients, and there’s no way to get back what they lost. Wilson cured me of that. From now on, I will be searching out the victor in my clients. And, really, the victor in everyone. As I said, this is one of those books that can define a person, and I have a feeling Wilson knew that when he wrote it. After all, the book’s final words left the reader with quite a calling. At the end of a book brimming with hope, joy, and a glittering cast of victors, Wilson finished with this: "Take that light into the courtroom with you. But don’t leave it in the courtroom. Take it with you, moment to moment, throughout this incredible journey. Live your greater story." The brilliance of this book is that by the time I got to those last sentences, it wasn’t even necessary to read them.