The Presidential Debates: Legal Lessons Learned


With the beginning of fall, we see that the days are growing shorter and that we are all collectively counting down until our elections finally take place.  Along with the millions of words written in all sorts of media, on the evening of September 26, we were able to observe both the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees confront each other in real time without much filtering from either their campaign organizations or the media.  Just the two of them – Hillary and Donald – plain and simple.  I watched with fascination – not only to learn more about the candidates – but to see what I could glean to enhance my law practice.

The split TV screen allowed viewers to see the differences between the candidates.  I was struck with the calm and cool expressions on Hillary’s face in comparison to the highly animated and agitated expressions on Donald’s.  It seemed as if every time Donald was challenged – either by Hillary or occasionally by moderator Lester Holt – you could see his discomfort.  His anxiety appeared also to be apparent with his frequent head shaking, wiggling eyebrows, and incessant sniffing and gulping of water.  In contrast, when Donald spoke, Hillary’s face remained smooth and unruffled.   She did not interrupt his commentary, although he often interrupted her. In lieu of eye rolls when Donald made some patently false assertions (quite notably about the issue of “stop and frisk” as an effective and legal police tool to reduce crime), Hillary did smile, but she did not appear to me to be particularly frustrated.

How does all of this relate to my law practice?  The performance of the candidates is really a map of what to do and what not to do when preparing witnesses for a court proceeding.  To begin, both the attorney and the witness must be fully familiar with the facts to be presented.  The witness must practice with the attorney in advance of the date of the court proceeding to iron out any wrinkles in the testimony and to be prepared for an inevitable cross-examination.  And because judges or juries are composed of human beings, the witness and the attorney must work together to show the witness as a person who is credible, reasonable, and pleasant.

All of this is easier said than done.  But I do wish to thank the presidential candidates for reminding me how to help my clients do their best when facing a court.