The courtroom trial is one setting where lawyers feel they can sometimes dial up the dramatic delivery. In the hands of some, that liberty can lead to an overbearing style. One question with the newer Zoom environments is whether there is less room for that style when the communication is taken out of the live courtroom and reduced to a small video tile on the screen. After a recent online trial in King County, Washington, the former jurors were with the attorneys and the judge discussing exactly that latitude for performative speech. The question was just how — sorry, this is their word, not mine — “dickish” an attorney should be during an online trial. The general sense was that the lawyer could be “a little dickish” if called for, for instance, with a difficult witness. To one juror, however, it was seen as looking “really old school” in a context like this. “Because we are over Zoom” she said, “I feel like I’m being performed to in an unnecessary way.”
For the attorneys who prefer that style, however, it may not be a matter of effectiveness, but of ego-driven psychological necessity. In a recent Law360 article, “Virtual Litigation May Unravel The Narcissistic Lawyer,” Zelle LLP partner, Jennifer Gibbs, traces these tendencies to a personality factor that tends to be more common in high-level executives and professionals like trial lawyers: narcissism. The trait of being charismatic, while also demanding constant validation and appeasement, might in some ways help to make someone a fierce and feared advocate. But, Gibbs asks, “What happens to a narcissistic lawyer when his or her only stage is a virtual one?” The lack of physical presence, clear nonverbal reaction, and eye contact in Zoom might serve to starve the narcissist of the oxygen they need. Her thesis is that, as legal processes move into virtual spaces, “the legal system may just become a better place because of it.”
I have written about being “Too Hot for Zoom,” or the problem in using overly-intense communication behavior for the medium. In this post, I will share some thoughts on what to do if the attorney you are up against — either through narcissism, or through simple under-appreciation of the medium, is being too hot for Zoom. For the recipient of that behavior, I think there are three very simple, but very effective reactions.
1. Don’t Rise to the Bait
The overbearing trial attorney is looking for a reaction. If you shout at a witness, there is almost nothing better than for the witness to shout back. Now, they’re defensive, potentially careless, and almost definitely less-credible. Web-conferencing, however, has almost no tolerance for over-talk and interruption. A raised voice doesn’t carry well either. On the small screen, the histrionic delivery can look too heightened, too “staged,” and too extreme. If it is potentially awkward and embarrassing, then let them be the only ones doing it.
After an aggressive comment or question, let a moment or two of silence pass before you respond. Not only does this nicely fit the electronic format, but it also allows you a chance to regain your calm and focus on a rational, rather than emotional, response. After an outburst, just let it set there for a moment and marinate. That will only increase the awkwardness for the narcissistic communicator.
Because it is already unsettling for a narcissist to try to get away with communication behavior that is too hot for the medium, a contrast can make it even more so. The trick is to move in the opposite direction. If they get louder, you get quieter. If they start speaking faster, you should speak slower. If they start dripping sarcasm, you can become even more unfailingly polite. This approach of agitation being met by calm not only helps to put a rhetorical highlighter on their behavior, it also helps you to keep your emotional response in check.
Image credit: 123rf.com, used under license.