Our shadow jurors sat in an East Coast courtroom listening to opening statements about “Earl.” Earl was a bad person, they thought: He had polluted the groundwater and now the public was in danger. We convened as a group at lunch that first day of trial, and our shadow jurors confessed that they had been confused all morning about Earl – until it dawned on them that the attorney from Texas was talking about oil, not a man named Earl.
That was real life. And then there’s Hollywood, where in My Cousin Vinny two NYU students are accused of murder in rural Alabama. For those who haven’t seen this classic movie, one of the accused has a cousin named Vinny who is a lawyer that comes to defend them. Vinny is a direct, Italian-American New Yorker who is not accustomed to the local rules and Southern manners used in the courtroom. Vinny’s accent (along with his dress) immediately informs the judge and jurors that he’s not from their rural Alabama town.
So what happens when an attorney presenting a case is from a different region of the country and/or when the attorney has an accent dissimilar to those of the jurors? What implications does it have on how jurors process information and, ultimately, how they reach their verdicts?
The Impact of Accent on an Attorney’s Credibility
We know from experience that non-native speech is typically more difficult to understand than native speech. What is interesting is that academic research has shown that this “processing difficulty” can potentially cause “non-native speakers” to be judged as less credible – even when the information presented is exactly the same. In other words, the greater the dissimilarity in speech and accent between the local jurors and attorney, the greater the reduction in the attorney’s credibility.
Depending on how similar/dissimilar his or her accent is to those of the jurors, the presenting attorney may appear less credible than a local attorney for two main reasons:
1) The accent serves as a signal that the presenting attorney is different or “other.” Xenophobic tendencies in which a person distrusts anybody from an “outgroup” means that some jurors could unconsciously discredit what the attorney with the accent is saying.
2) The accent makes the speech harder to process. “The results have important implications for how people perceive non-native speakers of a language, particularly as mobility increases in the modern world, leading millions of people to be non-native speakers of the language they use daily,” Boaz Keysar, a professor of psychology and an expert on communication at the University of Chicago, said of his research on the subject.
The Bright Side of Being the Out-of-Town Lawyer
While research shows this lowered credibility effect in a controlled environment can occur, our experience with “out-of-town” lawyers tells a different story. That is, attorneys who use their accents to find ways to bond with the jurors, rather than putting a divide between them, tend to be well-liked and successful.
Can Big City Lawyers Work a Small Town Case?
Does all this mean a lawyer should never try a case out of town? Of course not. The key is to find ways to increase your credibilty in front of the jury. Here are a few tips we have seen implemented successfully over the years working with A+ attorneys representing their mass tort clients from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
- Know the “ins and outs” of the area. It is important to build your credibilty in front of the jury by knowing the rules of the jurisdiction in which the trial is being held. Leaning over the local counsel will be noticed. Being scolded by the judge will also be noticed. So, be sure to know how the judge wants exhibits handled, how to raise an objection, the judge’s preferences regarding preconditioning the jury during voir dire, etc. Each judge has his or her own rules for the courtroom. Know them. This is especially true if opposing counsel is local and already knows these rules.
- Use Graphics. Yes, the accent can be difficult to decipher at times, but the presentations (regardless of an accent) need to be supplemented by graphics so jurors can assimulate your themes, messages and story. This way, the auditory learners on your jury will have a visual way to “hear” what you are saying.
- Be Humble. Be Respectful. Don’t come into court like you have a stampede of horses behind you. It is important to be humble, make fun of yourself/your accent when appropriate, and find commonalities between you and the jury. That is, find out what interests the jurors (e.g., a local sports team, a new park/building, etc.) to briefly mention them during voir dire or trial to demonstrate that you express interest in the town and its people. (Politicians are often masters at this!) But…jurors don’t like pandering, so be careful with how often you do this and don’t go overboard.
- Be Yourself. It is also important to just be yourself. You want to certainly blend in with the different surroundings, but you also want the jurors to get to know you. There is an achievable balance for this.
You don’t have to hide where you’re from, but to be accepted and to increase your credibilty with jurors, you do have to show that you respect and appreciate where they live. And, finally, don’t wear a your biker leathers to court like Vinny – unless maybe you’re trying a case in Las Vegas.
By: Jessica Baer, M.A. – Consultant
S. Lev-Ari, B. Keysar. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 46 (2010) 1093–1096.
Clermont, Kevin M. and Eisenberg, Theodore. “Xenophilia in American Courts” (1996). Cornell Law Faculty Publications.
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