Tips for creating and presenting a strong opening statement.
By Lynne Z. Gold-Bikin, Family Lawyer
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could tell the Judge all about your case, from your point of view, before you even start with your witnesses? If you could slant the case in a way that would explain what you’re going to prove, how you’re going to prove it, and what the court should find? That’s what an opening statement is designed to do if the court allows you to make one and it is properly done. First, remember that it is an opening statement, not an opening argument. This is not the place to argue the facts; just to give the court a preview of what’s to come and how the story will unfold. And it is a story, as all court cases should be. This Judge has never heard the facts before, and it is counsel’s job in this opening statement, to set forth what is to come.
Constructing an Opening Statement
How, then, to construct an Opening Statement? What should you think about before you start? What is the case about? Every case has a theory; why should your client win? Why is he/she entitled to the remedy you are requesting? The opening Statement is the place to start to lay out your theory, perhaps with a statement such as “This is a case of a stay-at-home mom who is requesting the right to continue to do so” or “This case involves the division of a family owned business in which My client, Joe Jones, is a 20 per cent owner.” In other words, immediately focus your judge on where you want him/her to listen.
Introduce the Players
Use the opening statement to introduce the players. Make your client someone the judge thinks you like perhaps by touching the client’s shoulder during your statement. Tell the court what they can expect to hear from each witness that will advance your theory of the case and add to your proof. Do not argue your points. That’s why it’s called an opening statement, not an opening argument. Be careful not to overplay what you claim you’re witnesses will say.
Create a Theme
If you can create a theme for the case, the opening statement is the place to begin its introduction. For example, if the dispute is between brothers over the control of the family business, a reach into English history is not a stretch. If the husband wants to cut support to his wife after years of a luxurious lifestyle, suggesting that he is trying to take Cinderella and return her to the pumpkin coach. A theme is a auditory and visual picture of your case that the Judge is not likely to forget among the other hundreds of cases he/she will hear.
Introduce in this statement the evidence that will be introduced. (“You will see the financial statements of this business which will help you to determine the income stream in this company”). Introduce any experts that will be called to testify. If they are experts with whom the court is familiar, make a point of that. (“The court will hear from Mark Short, an accountant who has been founded qualified by this court many times”.)
Brief but to the Point
Make the statement brief but to the point. The statement should end with the way you hope the case will end (“Once the court has heard the evidence, we will ask you to award Wife alimony for 15 years”). Once your statement has ended, the court will know how you want him/her to listen, what to expect, and where you’re going. And, even if you are not able to make an opening statement in your jurisdiction, preparing one will focus your trial strategy, the witnesses you need to call to achieve your goal, and the evidence you need to produce to get there.
Lynne Z. Gold-Bikin concentrates her practice in the areas of divorce, custody, support, prenuptial agreements, and protection from abuse. She has authored numerous books including Divorce Trial Manual: From Initial Interview to Closing Argument and Divorce Practice Handbook, as well as authored or co-authored numerous articles on family law matters. http://www.wglaw.com
More from Family Lawyer Magazine
Keys to becoming a skilled cross-examiner.
Keys for a successful cross-examination.
There are very few times when practicing law feels like artistry; closing argument is one of them.