Swimming in Small Ponds:  Cultural Considerations

I spent Saturday evening with a bag of popcorn and a movie: the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2009 production of Hamlet starring David Tennant and Patrick Stewart.  I highly recommend it, it’s simply phenomenal.  Seeing it though, I couldn’t help but think about a trial I watched a few months ago.  It was a medical malpractice case, and the Plaintiff’s attorney discussed Hamlet during the closing argument.  Now, that would have earned bonus points with me had I been on the jury, because I am a total nerd.  However, by the confused looks from the jury, I’d say they weren’t big Shakespeare fans.  (Nor were they fans of the Plaintiff’s case, since they found for the Defendant with very little deliberation.)  The closing was eloquent and well-delivered, but it just did not speak to the jury.  That certainly didn’t lose the case in itself, but the point here is to understand your audience.  Nothing about the closing spoke to the individuals on the jury.  If you don’t understand the local culture, you will most definitely not understand the individual sitting on your jury, and what will persuade him or her to find for your client.  Much to my chagrin, the local culture doesn’t place much value on understanding the themes of Shakespearean tragedy.  That doesn’t necessarily make the members of our community any less complex, sophisticated or even educated, but it did make the closing argument miss the mark. 

In trial work, knowing the jury pool is essential, particularly the common experiences, values and beliefs within a community.  Culture plays a crucial role in successful trial work, and attorneys from outside of the community often make the mistake of either talking over or talking down to a jury, without consideration to the perspectives of the individual jurors.  The goal is to connect with the jury, and that is extremely difficult to do if you don’t understand them and, therefore, don’t know what will appeal to them.  The same concept applies not just with trial advocacy but also in working with others in many facets of small town legal practice.  What appeals to your client?  What appeals to the opposition? 

Each community has its own story, past and present, and understanding that story is necessary for understanding the individual from that community for the proper context.  The basic first step is to know the demographic: race, ethnicity, religion, political affiliation, median age, median income and level of education.  A community is more than a set of statistics, but it helps to understand common characteristics and where differences might lie.  Even more important is to know the major players: the community leaders, those most respected, and those most infamous.  There are prominent families in small towns, and those comprised of ne’er do wells.  The history of a community is a roadmap to its present.  It helps explain the perspectives, the beliefs and values, and the biases, that individuals within the community might hold.  Those who choose to stay in the small town where they grew up normally have a great deal of pride in their community.  They are also deeply concerned by issues that affect their community.

No community is without problems, and some suffer from very serious problems.  For instance, Eastern Kentucky is riddled with prescription drug abuse.  It becomes a serious factor in domestic relations, criminal cases, and even in personal injury cases where plaintiffs are obviously drug-seeking.  Other problems include high rates of heart disease and cancer, both linked to high rates of smoking and obesity, and a lack of access to preventative medical care.  Issues of development, access to jobs, and quality of education weigh heavily in small towns.  All of these issues affect the way we practice law, the way we interact with our clients and other members of the community.  People expect their attorneys to understand their problems, to relate to them, to know how to help them, and understanding the local culture is the foundation of that. 

Whether you practice in a small town, or you travel to one for particular cases, take the time to understand the people and their motivations.  Understand their concerns, both individually and as a community, or else you won’t be able to reach them. 

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