Barrister video on the 7 Deadly Sins of witness statements

I am inevitably interested in the ways in which ideas and information are passed to and by lawyers, since they are my target audience and I live by reaching them by whatever means come to hand. It is unsurprising that a barrister can make a video in which he or she passes on knowledge and skills – they are, after all, practiced in articulate oral expression of facts and arguments. It is good to find one who has actually made use of one form of new media, and then published it on another (his blog).

Those of us who follow Seán Jones QC  of 11 Kings Bench Walk on Twitter @seanjones11kbw do so for his dry and self-deprecating humour as much as anything. He is a senior employment barrister, and if I employed anyone or was employed (neither being conditions I aspire to), he is the one I would want on my side if a dispute arose.  That I reach such a conclusion entirely on the strength of a few tweets illustrates the power of social media as a marketing tool.

Seán Jones muttered something on Twitter recently about going off to make a video, and we now have the results, Witness Statements 7 Deadly Sins. How promising does this look, we ask ourselves, as we see that the video is of the talking head variety and delivered by a man who describes himself as having “a magnificent set of jowls and a grating nasal tone”. Even if this was a fair self-judgement (it is not), you would soon forget it.

Seán Jones takes us through the common errors made when drafting witness statements, with headings like Don’t be a doormat and Don’t be pointless. When he refers to “not having English as a first language”,  his subject is not multiculturalism nor about terms of cod art like “hereinafter” but about how “a few minutes into law school a little switch comes on” which alters for ever the lawyer’s manner of expression. No witness, he says, would ever describe himself as lawyers describe him.

Practical pointers include having a structure of headings and sub-headings based on the issues of law and fact and then sticking to it, the dangers of inconsistency between statements, and the fact that, despite appearances, judges are human and want to understand the human story – the story of the witness personally, not the lawyer’s lengthy and idealised version of it. Many such statements are in fact less than ideal, as we hear in the video (and as we hear also from judges like HHJ Simon Brown QC who is forthright on the subject of lawyer-made variants on witness recollections).

My own favourite of the identified sins is Don’t be boring, with its reference to English understatement (“What are all these qualifiers”, as Seán was asked angrily after his first drafting efforts). If every slightest thing made the witness astonished, amazed and horrified, then what words do you have left when emphasis is really required? Regular readers of these pages will recognise a similarity with my own observations on eDiscovery marketing materials, where everything is unique or revolutionary, where costs skyrocket and where innovative is just a flowery way of saying “new”.

Although Seán’s tips, and his examples, come from his own specialist field, what he says has application in any court in any jurisdiction and, indeed, in any context in which you wish to be persuasive. It is robust stuff delivered in plain English.

All this interests me for multiple reasons – not just for the tips about persuasiveness and the use of language, but as a good example of how lawyers, even those of a certain age and rank, can make good use of new media to deliver useful messages with an educational-cum-marketing purpose. Fluency and a light touch are very much more important than one’s jowls and nasal tones.

As an aside, it is good to see a barrister’s blog whose template eschews photographs of Temple Gardens, wigs, or the turrets of the Royal Courts of Justice, and displays instead a photograph of Grand Central Station. It is good to see a barrister’s blog at all, indeed, and to find them on Twitter.

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About Chris Dale

I have been an English solicitor since 1980. I run the e-Disclosure Information Project which collects and comments on information about electronic disclosure / eDiscovery and related subjects in the UK, the US, AsiaPac and elsewhere
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