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The challenge of the closing argument – a perspective

Paul Mark Sandler//January 10, 2022

The challenge of the closing argument – a perspective

Paul Mark Sandler//January 10, 2022

The purpose of the closing argument is to incite jurors or a judge to render the decision you request. It is not about impressing listeners with your eloquence. According to the apocryphal tale, when listeners heard Demosthenes, they would remark, “What a pretty speech.” After hearing Cicero, they would remark, “Let us march.” A closing argument should provoke the jury to march into the jury room and render a verdict for your client.

The challenge of closing argument is not merely to summarize what you have proved, but also — and this is essential — to unify, to gather together disparate facts and testimony and present a cohesive narrative pointing jurors to one inevitable conclusion.

During the trial, evidence often appears disconnected. Facts and documents rarely surface according to the precise chronology and structure you would like because the case must be presented witness by witness. Closing argument is your chance to bind the facts together and tell a story.

They don’t teach storytelling in law school, but the skill is essential to courtroom advocacy, particularly closing arguments.

It is important in a closing argument to focus on style and delivery. Style means the words to express yourself, including metaphors and similes and rhetorical questions. Delivery includes how you move in the courtroom, gestures, eye contact and other body language.

Because jury members remember best what they hear first and last, your closing argument should be presented with an impressive introduction and conclusion, and with a strong grasp of tone, style and delivery.

The structure

When planning your closing, arrangement of your points is key. While there are many ways to structure closing arguments, every closing must have an introduction (assertion of your theme), presentation (development of the facts or law supporting the theme) and a peroration (inspirational conclusion).

Bear in mind the concepts of logic and emotion. Sound reasoning — both inductive and deductive — strengthens your argument. Emotion enhances it.

Bear in mind the concepts of logic and emotion. Sound reasoning — both inductive and deductive —strengthens your argument. Emotion enhances it. Also, consider ethos, the listener’s perception of your character, which includes sincerity, demeanor, knowledge, and even courtesy.

Introduction: To begin, you can leap into the main point of your case without a buildup, or you can ask a question or tell a story. The use of humor and suspense can help captivate your audience. You should choose an engaging, personable approach that feels comfortable to you.

If you are speaking second, a reference to the previous speaker may be a helpful transition, and you may need to “break the spell” created by the first speaker. A dramatic statement, a compelling question, or an appeal to the listener’s sense of importance can help shift attention to your case.

Presentation: This is the time to argue the evidence and law that support your theme, and request a verdict in your favor. Consider dividing each section of your argument into an assertion, presentation, and conclusion. You may repeat this pattern several times within the main body of your argument.

Assert the issues or themes of your case, and then speak to the evidence and exhibits that support them. Build upon the claim, weaving together testimony and exhibits in a compelling fashion, until you reach a forceful conclusion for each assertion. When you conclude, try to engage the jurors by personally requesting that they act in accordance with the evidence you have presented.

As you make your points, always take time to refute the evidence marshaled against you by your opponent. Explain why the contrary evidence is unpersuasive. When appropriate, pause to read passages of striking testimony.

Visual aids can be very helpful in closing argument, especially in complex cases. This is particularly true with complex subject matters that can be easily understood when mapped out visually. But when using visuals, do not simply read to the judge or jury from the screen, unless you are referring to a transcript or written document.

Peroration: The peroration of the closing argument should be a logical, emotional climax of your argument. The art of effective rebuttal argument is in identifying the offending point by the opposition, explaining why it is incorrect based on the evidence, and then stating why your view of the evidence is the proper interpretation. The power of understatement, anecdotes, figurative analogies, other rhetorical techniques, and (again) visual aids can all enhance your emotional appeal as you speak to the jury or judge one last time. Again, people remember best what they hear first and last, so take full advantage of your last words.

Although the law provides wide latitude for presentation of the closing argument, limitations apply. Remember to confine your argument to the facts of the case and reasonable inferences from the evidence. Do not misstate the evidence. Never personally attack opposing counsel, and do not directly express your personal belief or opinion during closing argument.

Paul Mark Sandler, trial lawyer and author, can be reached at [email protected].

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