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Oscars for Lawyers… What Can Lawyers Learn from 2012 Oscar Nominees?

15 February 2012

A Note From Katherine:

In last week’s post on MONEYBALL I told you that we have already given you tons of reasons to see (or stay home!) from this year’s crop of Oscar contenders. I still have some films left that I am dying to see (ALBERT NOBBS with Glenn Close and Janet McTeer is the biggie). There is at least one that I loathed so much that I couldn’t even think of a single thing to say about it that would lead to a tip, other than, “If you ever are reincarnated as Ted Mack and want to revive Amateur Hour from when I was a little girl, don’t bother going to Hawaii. It’s been done.” Special thanks to Shilpa Mysoor from our creative team for summing up our blogs and tips thus far this Oscar season:


THE HELP - What Can Lawyers Learn….. RELATIONSHIPS

In this film, the relationship between the two main black women, characters played by the stunning Viola Davis and the equally compelling and strong Octavia Spencer is what helps propel the narrative…the story. And their relationship with the character played by Emma Stone, the development of that relationship is what makes us care and helps drive us into and through the story. What can lawyers learn from this? What the jury follows is relationship.

TIP: Are you aware of your relationships with your clients and with your witnesses? Are you aware of how these relationships are perceived and of what story they tell?


When I first started working with attorneys, I saw that young lawyers were all imitating their mentors. Playing their version of their own personal and deeply influential “The Woody Allen Character.” Do you have a mentor? Now…look at how Owen Wilson plays “The Woody Allen Role” in MIDNIGHT IN PARIS. You absolutely know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the base and root of that character is Woody Allen. But – the heart and soul is Owen Wilson. Every expression of delight, heartache, longing, and surprise is his – but we sure do know that Woody Allen is an integral part of what he is doing as an actor.

TIP: Is your mentor showing up in your delivery? And is it a good thing?

MONEYBALL - What Can Lawyers Learn….. CONFIDENCE

So I put everything aside and searched for what I thought attorneys could learn from it. It was an overriding theme: confidence. The main character (Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane) has spent a lifetime trying to overcome his lack of confidence…and at the same time has spent his entire adult life trying to inspire confidence in others. What really struck me is that this is what every lawyer I have ever worked with does in every case. The roller coaster ride of trial –from accepting the task of representing a client through verdict — is a daunting task that seems on a daily basis to shake the confidence levels of attorneys on a “sunrise, sunset” schedule. However, their job is to instill confidence in everyone on the team from the paralegals to the witnesses.

TIP: On a scale of 1 to 10, how confident are you in this moment? …how about this one?


As you watch this film, feel and see how much is communicated and conveyed WITHOUT ANY LANGUAGE. Even the subtitles are sparse and sometimes, I felt, were an interruption. Watch the full array of human emotion, the full impact of STORY, powerfully given to us without words.

TIP: Are you accessing your full range of communication? Are you using your heart, your emotions, your body and your mind…or are you trapped in only language?


Now – what can lawyers glean from this piece other than learning more about acting styles?

Because the film is told from one point of view, that of the “go-fer” kid Colin Clark, the impressions of many of the cast of characters might be criticized as being two dimensional and flat. I started to see the characters as “Archtypes.” As in “the good mother” or “the hero” or “the villan.” I was recently speaking at a conference of the National Association Of Criminal Defense Lawyers. One of the topics was “Archtypes and Persuasion”. The speaker highly praised one of my fellow trial consultants from The American Society of Trial Consultants, Joseph Guastaferro for his unique work in this area. I highly recommend that you get in touch with Joe to find out more about how he uses “Archtypes” in his trial consulting practice. And, if you want to experience some very clear Archtypes first hand, you can do so by watching this highly entertaining and wonderful film.

TIP: Look at the cast of characters in your trial. See any Archtypes?


If you are an attorney, you should go see BRIDESMAIDS just because you are working MUCH TOO HARD and you need to laugh until you cry. I don’t think I have ever seen anything from a woman’s point of view that was this funny. I don’t think anyone else has, either. Ever. It is relentlessly female. Relentlessly funny and female.

What can lawyers learn from the experience of seeing BRIDESMAIDS on the big screen? Women are different from men. I find working on a case with a woman or women in charge very different from working with men. Men are often very top down. Whoever is lead counsel in a case in which I am the only female on the trial team can choose to stay on the top of a pyramid and dictate from that position. Roles are assigned and to stray from the role one is assigned is simply never done. I call this “Playing Law With The Boys”. On the other hand…women are often team players. When lead counsel in the case is a woman, all of us sit around a table and she will throw a problem out and everyone brainstorms it. At the end of the day, she will decide what course to take with the problem – but she wants everyone’s opinion, ideas, and advice. I call this phenomenon “Playing Law Like A Girl.” Think about your own style of trying cases. Do you sit at the top of the pyramid at all times? Or are you more of a collaborator?

TIP: Are you already “Playing Law Like A Girl”? If not, maybe it is time you did.

THE IRON LADY - What Can Lawyers Learn….. TELL A STORY

What can you, as an attorney, learn from my experience of seeing Iron Lady (since you yourself are now off the hook)? Specificity of story. This is a film about Margaret Thatcher. Okay, I don’t like Margaret Thatcher as much as the next person…but…I assumed that by watching this film I was going to be learn all about her and why I should change my mind. Or at least learn what made her who she was and why she ticked. It was basically The Story. The Story. The Story was missing.

When you look at the trial story of the case you have in front of you – what is it that makes this story unique? Special? One of a kind? Have you done the same case so many times that nothing is interesting or special about this one? Only the name of the plaintiff or defendant has changed?

I’m here to tell you, you can have Meryl Streep as your plaintiff or defendant…your “star” witness…but if you aren’t tuned into the unique details of this case it really won’t matter.

TIP: What is the story that makes this case unique?


What can lawyers learn from this? I think there is a fine line from telling a tried and true mythic tale in the courtroom and telling a unique story that needs help from this group of jurors right now. THE IDES OF MARCH made me think about the number of times I’ve been in the room with an attorney who says, “I always tell the story this exact same way” or “I always tell this part of the story identically in every case like this.”

Really? Because this case is unique. So is the story.

TIP: Find the uniqueness in the story you are telling in this case.

MARGIN CALL - What Can Lawyers Learn….. POINT OF VIEW

This film traces a fictitious Wall Street firm’s “selling out” the rest of the marketplace in one day…and the decisions that lead up to it. Told mostly through two person scenes we learn how the characters each make his or her decision to join their CEO and sell, sell, sell – knowing that they are going to bring their colleagues and friends down with them. And that there is a good chance their own careers are going down with these choices, too.

The story unfolds not in big scenes of what happened next…but in little scenes between. Scenes between two people. Each one of those scenes is a moment of decision for either or both characters.

Attorneys need to watch these scenes with care. One of the principles that we believe in at ACT of Communication is that a trial lawyer needs to tell his or her trial story from the point of view not of the client – but from the point of view of the “other” guy. The other guy’s client. In our workshops and casework I refer to a story of “the other team’s bad crappy choices.” This film is literally a gift to attorneys/storytellers who are looking to tell the story of bad crappy choices. One by one. About halfway through the film you realize that this disaster, like the disasters that lead to many lawsuits, are made not of one crappy choice, but a series of crappy choices.

After seeing the film, I know you will want to re-examine your cases for the storytelling scenes of the bad, crappy choices. I know I did.

TIP: What bad, crappy choices did your client’s opponent make that led to this lawsuit?

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