Attorney Jessica Dean, and many other prominent lawyers, consider the closing argument to be the pivotal moment of a trial. The attorney must summarize the case while motivating the jury to take action. And it must be done in a way that doesn’t come off as pleading, manipulative, or overbearing. It’s like walking a legal tightrope.
Jessica Dean has spent the last two decades fighting for the rights of working people against corporate malpractice. In that time, she has made a name for herself based on her impassioned and effective closing arguments. Dean is a recipient of many honors and awards in the field of law, and she is a founding partner at Dean Omar Branham Shirley, LLP in Dallas, Texas.
Below, she gives a rare look at her process for preparing a closing argument.
Start with the Verdict Form and Jury Charge
From the very beginning, the verdict form and jury charge provide a framework of how to construct your closing argument.
“The minute you get your verdict form and jury charge, highlight everything you want to be put into a Keynote or PowerPoint,” Dean says. Not only does this keep you on track, but it also helps you seem impartial to a jury.
“I’ll have 30 things from a jury charge that I want to include verbatim. This triggers back to a memory or a statement that the judge gave them [the jury].”
Using language from the jury charge and verdict form maintains consistency and gives the impression of impartiality because the lawyer is referring back to the language used by the judge.
Maintain Consistency between Opening and Closing
Once you’ve finished your opening statement, you can use it as a blueprint to prepare your closing argument. “I take my opening slides and delete everything that I don’t need for closing, but a lot of it easily goes into the closing,” Dean says.
Many of the key points and language from the opening can be reused in the closing. This reinforces your original message and makes it easier to prepare your closing argument as the trial unfolds.
Keep Slides Simple
Juries don’t respond well to slides containing walls of text or hard-to-follow diagrams. Jessica Dean recommends using no more than 15 words per slide. At the same time, she doesn’t limit the number of slides she uses. “I get made fun of for using 300 slides,” she says.
Each slide should form a complete idea and trigger the next logical idea, and every slide should contain evidence in the form of exhibit stickers. Dean explains, “I include an exhibit sticker on every slide where I can say to the jury, ‘Go look. Test me.’”
In this way, her slides are comprehensive yet not confusing or daunting.
The Closing Argument is a Working Document
Sometimes, the judge won’t give the jury instructions until just before closing arguments. New information may mean that your closing argument has to be amended at the last minute. Dean admits that she never has a dress rehearsal for her closing argument. “Sometimes, someone is working on the last 100 slides while I’m talking,” she says.
Keep your closing argument fluid up until the last minute to guarantee it will be the most relevant argument for the jury. It also prevents you from becoming overconfident and losing sight of the defense’s strategy.
Cover Every Base
When you make a closing argument, you aren’t just pleading your case. You’re also telling the jury exactly how to do their job. Again, this is why it’s so important to base your argument on the jury charge. Take every instruction from the judge and deconstruct it legally so that the jury forms a clear picture of how to take action.
When speaking about how she does this in her slides, Jessica Dean says, “I literally go through every part that informs that question in the law digested with the facts and then have an answer with a big check mark.”
She has a similar process when working from the verdict form. “I take out each individual question. For every answer, I have the first question, law, proof, question again with the answer. Second questions, law, proof, etc.”
Attorney Jessica Dean’s Passionate Closing Arguments
Jessica Dean’s closing arguments are rooted in logic and tested patterns, but she also brings her passion to the courtroom, often resulting in emotionally powerful closing arguments. Part of what makes her one of the nation’s most revered lawyers is her ability to infuse sound argument with genuine emotion, connecting with juries and winning major cases.
To prepare effective closing arguments, follow Jessica Dean’s framework above, but don’t forget to include your passion in your message.