Imagine this. It’s 1941, and the NAACP dispatches a young Thurgood Marshall to a picturesque Connecticut town to defend a black chauffer accused of repeatedly raping a prominent white socialite, binding and gagging her with strips of her own dress, and throwing her off a bridge into a lake.
The headlines are going crazy. A local white man writes a letter to the editor saying, “we should have hung all n*****s while we had the chance, and trust me it would make the world better.” Imagine what it was like trying to pick a jury in that environment.
Except that statement was not printed in a newspaper in 1941. It’s actually what a white high school student said to an African-American girl on Snapchat in 2017, in the affluent mostly-white suburb where I live and saw the movie Marshall with my wife this past weekend.
So, yeah, you could say the movie is still relevant 76 years later.
But don’t go see Marshall like it’s homework or some rite of atonement. What makes it a great movie is that it’s a classic Hollywood courtroom drama, spiced up with some odd-couple buddy-cop flavor. The fact that it also serves as a sort of origin story for the most successful civil rights lawyer of the 20th century is icing on the cake.
On the Five Minute Law Movie Scale, I give it 0.4 hours (that’s on a scale of 0.1 to 0.5 hours).
Granted, I’m a trial lawyer who loves stories from the civil rights movement, so they had me at the preview. Chadwick Boseman could have made any half-way-decent movie about the sensational Joseph Spell trial, and I would have been hooked.
But Marshall was even better than I expected, and one reason is that the courtroom scenes were relatively realistic (by Hollywood standards). In fact, I took away from it some practical lessons on how to be a better trial lawyer. Here are nine of them.
*SPOILER ALERT: These tips contain minor plot spoilers. But if you’re like my mom, who figures out every plot twist in the first 15 minutes of a movie, then I’m not really giving much away.
1. Clients don’t always tell you the whole story
I’m sure Thurgood Marshall believed all defendants have a right to counsel, but a key part of the NAACP’s legal defense strategy was to focus on defendants they believed were actually innocent. This was important to the overall political strategy and to fundraising.
So, one of the first things Marshall (Boseman) does is interrogate his new client, Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), to assure himself that the man is actually innocent. But would you believe that Spell doesn’t tell Marshall the whole story in that first interview?
More about that later.
2. Don’t rely too much on stereotypes for jury selection
On paper, she’s a terrible juror for the defense: a white woman who grew up in North Carolina and now rubs elbows with Connecticut high society. Local defense counsel Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) is ready to strike her, but Marshall says not so fast. She’s an educated woman with a mind of her own, her body language towards the “Yankee” prosecutor showed some hostility, and she likes you, Marshall tells Friedman. Plus, Marshall has a hunch this lady may know things about the victim, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson).
The result: the white socialite gets on the jury. She even becomes the forewoman.
When you have no other information about a juror, you may have to fall back on demographic profiles, but jury consultants say that attitudes about case-specific issues are a better guide than stereotypes. And of course, it never hurts if a potential juror likes you.
3. Some things are better left unsaid
Mrs. Strubing strangely claims that after her chauffer threw her over a bridge into the water, he threw rocks at her. So, when Friedman cross-examines the local police captain who inspected the scene, he asks whether any rocks were found on the bridge. The captain can’t recall.
Friedman then dumps a pile of pebbles on the prosecutor’s table. Would you call these pebbles or rocks, Captain? The witness eventually admits they are pebbles, prompting chuckles from the jury.
The unsaid part: the fact that Marshall collected the pebbles at the scene. The defense never offers any witness to lay a predicate that the pebbles came from the bridge.
But they didn’t have to. In the words of Hall & Oates, some things are better left unsaid.
4. Save that killer impeachment point for closing argument
The examining physician testifies that skin was found under the victim’s fingernails, but there’s a problem: there’s nothing in his examination notes about that. When Friedman brings up this point on cross, the doctor is ready with an excuse. My wife took the notes, he says, and she neglected to include that fact. And then the doctor drops a bombshell. It was a black man’s skin under her fingernails.
On the next break, Marshall berates Friedman for falling into a trap.
Imagine if Friedman, instead of bringing up the point during cross examination, had waited until closing argument to point out to the jury that the doctor’s notes said nothing about skin under the victim’s fingernails. Then it would be too late for the doctor to try to explain away the glaring omission.
5. You can do it if they don’t object
In law school, I had a trial advocacy instructor (later a judge) who told a great story about defending a police officer accused of assault. He started slapping himself on the head with the alleged weapon in front of the jury, causing himself no injury. The students couldn’t believe that was allowed. The instructor’s point: it was allowed because no one objected.
The defense team in Marshall does a similar demonstration. Mrs. Strubing claims she never screamed, even when a police officer was only a few feet away, because she was gagged. In front of the jury, Marshall puts the gag in Friedman’s mouth and pulls it tight, asking Mrs. Strubing if he has it right. Friedman then belts out the loudest, longest scream you can imagine. Point made.
Can they do that? Well, no one objected.
6. Bring up your client’s baggage before the other side does
Mr. Spell is not the ideal defendant: he abandoned a wife and two kids in Louisiana, got dishonorably discharged from the Army, and got fired from his last job for stealing. So here’s what you’re going to do, Marshall says to Friedman, you bring up all those bad facts when you get Spell on the stand. Don’t give the prosecution the chance to do it first.
Friedman does exactly that, getting Spell to admit every check in his checkered history before the prosecutor can ask a single question.
As I wrote here, if you know there are bad emails from your client, don’t try to hide or ignore them. Usually you’ll only make it worse. What was true in 1940 is true now: you look better if you freely admit your bad facts.
7. Be careful with open-ended questions on cross examination
When prosecutor Loren Willis (Dan Stevens) gets his crack at Spell on cross examination, he unloads on Spell’s history of lying. Then, after setting up Spell as a habitual liar, he goes for the jugular with his key question: if you’re innocent, then why did you lie to the police about what really happened?
But the question backfires. Marshall has prepared Spell to knock this one out of the park, and Spell does it. The prosecutor is so shaken, he does the only thing he can think to do and asks the judge to strike the answer. After a long pause, the judge gives his ruling.
Conventional wisdom says you only ask leading questions on cross. That advice is not always realistic; sometimes you just have to ask an open-ended question. But the prosecutor’s blunder in Marshall is a good reminder of why using open-ended questions on cross is dangerous.
8. Persuasion requires meeting the audience half way
When Spell answers the prosecutor’s key question, you sense that the tide is turning. But the defense still has to persuade the jury in closing argument. Over dinner, Marshall tells Friedman what to say in closing.
Throughout the movie, we’ve seen Marshall going on the offensive, so we’re bracing for an all-out assault on Mrs. Strubing’s credibility. But Marshall understands that Friedman is not going to persuade the all-white jury by portraying the white victim as a bad person. Instead, he crafts the argument to get the jury to feel sorry for her (with obvious echoes of To Kill a Mockingbird).
Sometimes persuasion requires accepting the biases of your audience and crafting an argument that appeals to their world view, not yours.
9. Get a non-lawyer’s opinion about the big picture
Boseman portrays Marshall as a supremely self-confident young lawyer who already knows what he’s doing (prompting friend Langston Hughes to quip, “I’d say you have enough confidence for all of us”).
But it’s a non-lawyer who helps Marshall discern the key to the case. Early on, the wife of the local NAACP leader asks Marshall if he really thinks Spell is innocent. “Why would a woman lie about something like that?” she asks.
It is only when Marshall reflects on that question that he realizes his client hasn’t told him the whole story. That’s when he really figures out how to defend the case effectively.
When I get a new case, I like to describe the big picture to my wife, daughter, or another family member. Hearing a non-lawyer’s take is a great way to gauge how a jury is likely to react. That’s just as true today as in 1941.
Some things haven’t changed.
Zach Wolfe (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at Zach Wolfe Law Firm. Thomson Reuters named him a Texas “Super Lawyer”® for Business Litigation in 2020 and 2021.
These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.