Advice from the bench – Credibility

By Richard Gama

For about 30 years, my father was a personal injury trial attorney in Phoenix, AZ, and for the past 15 years he has served as a Superior Court Judge in Maricopa County, AZ. Over the years he has given me some great advice that may be pretty helpful to newer attorneys out there. So with his permission, I’ve decided to share that advice. This segment focuses on the importance of credibility:

“Credibility is the overriding issue in every trial. In jurors’ minds, it always gets down to an issue of credibility. That is, the credibility of the parties [your client], your factual/legal positions, the credibility of the expert[s] and most importantly the credibility of the trial advocates. At the risk of over-simplification – if in the trial process the jurors reach the conclusion that your position is the most credible and just, they will return a verdict on your behalf. It is as simple and as complicated as that.

How do you ensure that your position is viewed as credible?

  • Never stray for known and provable facts;
  • Make only reasonable inferences from the known facts;
  • Never exaggerate;
  • Save the emotions for the closing [damages];
  • Be objective and sincere in your presentation of evidence;
  • Never argue with the Court in the presence of the jury. You must always display great respect for the trial process;
  • In the presence of the jury, always show and afford your opponent respect and professional courtesy; and
  • Never overreach, particularly when it comes to damages.”

I would add only one thing to this list and that is: “Be better prepared than the other side.” Preparation can make up for a lot of mistakes and it gives the jury a compelling reason to trust you over a less-prepared opponent. For example, not knowing the medical records, or not knowing the science behind your expert’s opinions, is a surefire way to tell the judge or jury that you are not a trustworthy or credible leader for them to follow.

To go back to the list above, even in my limited trial and litigation experience I’ve found that exaggeration is at the root of most of these examples. Whether it’s exaggerating damages, emotions, or the evidence itself, you run the risk of losing credibility. And once the judge or jury catches you exaggerating just one thing, it’s hard to impossible to keep that from coloring every fact or argument you introduce from that point forward. With respect to emotions, as he states above, save them for closing, and even then I would caution that the right to get emotional still has to be earned, as well as tempered with some self-restraint. If the jury (or judge) isn’t following the attorney’s lead on the facts and evidence in the case (due to credibility issues for example), then they certainly aren’t going to follow him/her to the same emotional level. Too much emotion also tends to shift the focus away from the facts and evidence to the attorney’s ‘performance.’ So unless you have the credibility and acting chops of Al Pacino in Scent of a Women (“If I were the man I was five years ago, I’d take a flamethrower to this place!”), let the facts speak for themselves.

Gema-RichardRichard Gama received his law degree from Rutgers University School of Law in 2005 and before that was a graduate of the University of Colorado at Boulder. For approximately nine years, he represented injured clients in a variety of personal injury matters as a litigation associate for The Law Firm of William Babich, LLC, and then in late 2014, he opened his own firm, the Gama Law Firm, where he continues to specialize in personal injury cases. Mr. Gama is an active member of his community and belongs to various legal associations, such as the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association, Colorado and Denver Bar Associations and the American Association for Justice.