Brooklyn Heights

Trial lawyer gives tips on how to give a winning summation at Brooklyn Bar Association

March 12, 2019 Rob Abruzzese
Trial attorney Chris Holbrook is a partner at Schwartzapfel Lawyers and a dean of the NYS Academy of Trial Lawyers. Eagle photo by Rob Abruzzese

The Brooklyn Bar Association and the New York State Academy of Trial Lawyers hosted a continuing legal education seminar in Brooklyn Heights on Feb. 27 with trial attorney Chris Holbrook titled “Summation: The Final Battle.”

“Chris is a partner at Schwartzapfel Lawyers where his practice focuses on negligence cases with catastrophic injuries and wrongful death,” said Kate Langlois, deputy director at the NYS Academy of Trial Lawyers. “He sits on the Academy’s board of directors as one of our deans and oversees our CLE program.

“Chris gives generously of his time every year doing a full statewide tour on various skills and tonight’s course is a continuation on that series,” she added.

During the two-hour long CLE, Holbrook discussed insights and experiences of preparing for and executing a winning summation. He explained methods of communication with the jury, how to present evidence and content, and delivery for a closing argument.

“Summation is not just the getting up and delivering of the oral argument at the end of your trial,” Holbrook said. “There is so much more that goes into it — your preparation, the crafting of the case from the very moment you get it, as well as considering the way jurors receive and process information.”

More than anything, Holbrook explained that the key to a good summation is being well-prepared and knowing the case well.

“Everybody knows how good they feel when they get up in front of the jury and know their case inside and out,” Holbrook said. “They’ve crossed their t’s and dotted their i’s. But getting up when you’re not prepared is just about the worst feeling that I can imagine.”

Holbrook called an attorney’s reputation, his or her credibility and explained that the jury is always watching, and if an attorney is paying attention, can feed members subtle clues.

“Jurors are smart, they see authenticity,” he said. “It’s easy to pick up if someone is a phony and they’re never going to side with you if they detect someone is even a little bit fraudulent. Be a good person. Be the person that jurors look to in the room as the credible source for information.”

One of the keys to a good summation, Holbrook said, is getting out ahead of the facts of the case. He explained that before every trial, he lists all of the facts of each case and labels them good, bad or in-between, and he tries to figure out ways to introduce the bad facts early in ways that take away their effectiveness during a trial.

Developing a good theme is also important as a way to get juries to process information. He said that he will even go as far as to use focus groups to help him develop a theme during big trials.

“A theme is very important because we want to arm our jury with information that they can take back into the deliberation room that is memorable,” Holbrook said. “Coming up with a theme can be tricky. Sometimes it comes naturally, but other times not so much. Think about your case as others would relate to it and see if you can come up with a theme.”

Thanks to smartphones and shows like “CSI,” Holbrook explained that today jurors often expect the use of technology, including videos, in the courtroom so attorneys should use it in their cases as often as they can. In addition to using PowerPoint during openings and closings, he suggested using the overhead projector, or Elmo, throughout a trial, and especially in summation.

“Rather than pretend that our courtrooms are something different and that people lose the trappings of understanding and processing information in that fashion, you have to embrace it, and the way you embrace it is technology,” Holbrook said. “I write all of this stuff down in front of the jury on the Elmo. When I make a point on cross examination, it is written to them because that way they internalize that information at twice the rate.”

The Brooklyn Bar Association’s next CLE will be held on March 27. Hon. Barry Kamins, retired former administrative judge of the Brooklyn Supreme Court, Criminal Term, will host a panel that will discuss wrongful convictions, the causes and how to prevent them.

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