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How to Argue Like a Lawyer

By Colleen Kelly

Three good ways to help you make your point.

1. Analogize and Distinguish
Most courts are strongly influenced by decisions already made in similar cases, which is why lawyers are always looking for these precedents. But the previous cases are rarely identical to the case being argued, which leaves everyone with wiggle room.
Lawyers handle precedents in two ways. If the outcome of the previous case is favorable to your client, you analogize by emphasizing how this precedent is very similar to your case. But, if the outcome of the previous case would encourage a decision against your client, you distinguish by pointing out how the precedent differs. Pointing out all the differences between the precedent and your case tends to blunt the impact of the precedent.

2. Don't Hide Bad News
How many movies have you seen in which a witness reveals some shocking fact on the stand? In real life, lawyers on both sides spend hours poring over documents and interviewing witnesses before going to trial, so there are rarely surprises.
Of course, that means your opponent knows the flaws in your case almost as well as you do. Rather than letting the other side pounce on a case's worst flaw and trumpet it, lawyers often will touch lightly on the weakest point during a long presentation (so the listener has lots of other things to remember). They'll add just enough detail to make the weakness seem trivial.
This tactic works best when you know that someone surely will point out any drawbacks to your position--for example, when you are pitching a proposal to your boss in front of those velociraptors from the marketing department. Try adding something like this as you wrap up your oral presentation: "After looking at all the options, I recommend this plan. I know it's more expensive than the other bids, but the quality is better and the contractor is willing to commit to an earlier completion date." Take that, velociraptors.

3. Ask Leading Questions
On TV, attorneys are always objecting to "leading the witness." A leading question is not really a question--it's more like a statement that ends with an invitation to agree. When you want to establish how long someone has been on the job, you are leading the witness if you say: "You've been working on Capitol Hill for three years, right?" The non-leading version ("How long have you worked for the congressman?") might elicit all kinds of information, such as "ever since my parole ended" or "since 2001, but I met him when we were patients at the rehab clinic in the '80s."
Leading questions are effective because they allow the questioner to frame the testimony. The other advantage is that people are likely to agree with a leading question, even if it's not 100 percent correct. In an argument, you can use leading questions to back your rival into a corner: "Chinese food? We've had Chinese three times in the past month, haven't we?" As long as the statement is (basically) truthful, it's hard to disagree.