The jury’s impression of your case will be shaped by your opening statement. Like the jacket cover of a bestseller, you should design your statement to draw in your audience. A jury is composed of people who are forced to be there. The typical juror would rather be somewhere else. So your opening statement should tell a story, set the tone for the trial, and be entertaining, all at the same time.
Understanding the Opening Statement
After the court has dealt with any in-limine motions, jury selection will begin and can take several hours, depending on your case’s complexity. Prospective jurors must arrive early in the morning long before jury selection begins, and individual jurors might have been in the courthouse for hours by the time the jury is seated.
The trial will start with an opening statement from each side. As the party with the burden of proof, the plaintiff generally gives their opening statement first, followed by the defendant. You must use your opening statement to grab and hold the jury’s attention. If you tell a compelling story, it can help to create a strong impression that could carry throughout the trial. Strive to craft an appealing opening statement that appeals to the jury while providing a roadmap of how your story will unfold.
What Should You Include in an Opening Statement?
While there is a significant degree of flexibility in an opening statement, the information you present must still be factual. Try to grab the jury’s attention within the first 20 seconds. The length of your opening statement will depend on your case’s complexity and the court. Judges will typically tell each side how long they will have for opening statements in advance so that they can prepare.
While you should explain both the facts of your case and the law involved, you should not overburden your opening with evidence or technical terms. If you do, you will likely lose the jury before you’ve even finished speaking. Instead, weave your story together with the law so that it addresses the human element of your case and your perspective.
In your opening, you can inform the jury about the expected witnesses and what they will say. If you are the plaintiff, you can talk about the injuries or other harm you suffered and how they have affected you. If you are the defendant, you can explain how the plaintiff’s injuries could have happened elsewhere or describe how the plaintiff’s case lacks a legal basis. Your narrative should be clear, easy to understand, and relatable.
How to Craft a Compelling Opening Statement
Many litigants make the mistake of not spending enough time preparing their opening statements. Since it is your chance to make a first impression on the jury, you should take the time to carefully craft your opening statement and practice it to make a stronger impact.
1. Create an Outline
The first step in drafting a great opening statement is a good outline. Ask yourself the following questions to give you a starting point:
- What are the strongest facts in favor of my side?
- What are the bad facts for my side?
- What is the message I want to convey?
- What will the witnesses say?
- How can I succinctly tell a story that paints my position positively?
Once you have a rough outline, you can then flesh out the individual parts of your statement.
2. Write a Strong Introduction
You should ensure that your introduction is succinct and strong. Ideally, you should include your theme using emotional language in a single sentence that sets the stage for your case. Then, briefly introduce the events you will address in a couple of sentences.
3. Discuss the Parties Involved and the Evidence
Discuss each involved party and their relationship to you and the role they played in the events. For witnesses, you can telegraph what you expect they will say. You can also identify what the evidence will show. However, make sure that this portion of your opening is an overview rather than overly detailed.
4. Order Your Facts
Review the facts of your case, and order them from strongest to weakest. You’ll want to present the strongest facts for your case first. Determine whether to address the bad facts in your opening. In some cases, doing so can help to head off the other side’s arguments. However, if you do address the bad facts, keep it short. You don’t want to dwell on the bad facts because it could leave an impression on the jury. Write everything together into a single, compelling narrative.
5. Write the Conclusion
Your conclusion should summarize what you have told the jury while leaving a positive impression. You can circle back to your theme so that it is the last thing the jury remembers.
6. Practice Makes Perfect
Once you have drafted your opening statement, practice it. Record yourself, and watch the recording. Note your body language, and make sure your gestures and mannerisms are open and lend to your story. Practice in front of trusted friends to get their critiques. Practicing your opening statement can increase your comfort level so you can tell your story naturally to the jury.
Your opening statement is the jury’s gateway to your case. Make sure you spend enough time drafting and practicing it so that it will make a strong impression on the jury. Your opening statement could be the first step toward reaching a favorable resolution to your legal dispute.