Expert shares ‘contrarian’ cross-exam techniques with Law Center audience

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Terence F. MacCarthy

A renowned trial lawyer and advocacy teacher brought his self-described “contrarian” cross examination techniques to the Law Center in an entertaining, and occasionally earthy, presentation that filled a lecture hall with students and practicing lawyers.  Terence F. MacCarthy, widely recognized as the nation’s leading speaker on the subject, delivered on his threefold promise that attendees would “have a little bit of fun, a lot of laughs and learn a lot.”

Sitting on a stool befitting a raconteur, MacCarthy said the ABA Journal once termed his “Look Good” cross examination method “contrarian,” a big word that he looked up and found meant “different.” He agreed – it IS different. But it works, he said, and it has been honed during his 42 years as executive director of the Chicago office of the Federal Defender Program in the Northern District of Illinois. “Cross examination is not an art,” he said. “It’s a science.” And, during the next four hours of a CLE presentation hosted by the Blakely Advocacy Institute, he detailed the practical tips and truisms of his discipline.

MacCarthy, now defender emeritus, said cross examination is the most difficult part of a trial for three reasons:

  • Witnesses.  In many cases, these people have “been paid, bought off, whatever, by the opposition.”
  • Perry Mason Syndrome.  In every episode, the witness would break down on the stand. “Perry has never had to give a closing argument,” he said. “He has an incredible investigator, a great secretary, and he wrote the script.”  Plus, he added, “Perry had music.” None of that’s going to happen in real life, MacCarthy said. “You’re not going to win with a knockout on cross examination. You’re going to win with jabs.”
  • The state of the art.  Young lawyers may be advised to go to the courthouse and watch the masters at work, but MacCarthy told the young lawyers in the room they are 10 times better now than the practicing lawyers who began years ago. The old way, he said, was “to attack, pillage, plunder and take no prisoners.” Techniques have changed, he said – and proceeded to demonstrate the skills of everything from eye contact and body language to word choice and use of transitions.

MacCarthy dismissed any tendency toward “legalese,” advising the audience that it’s best to speak in a courtroom like you would in a bar.  He immediately corrected himself.  “I mean, a nice bar, with carpeting on the floor,” he said, as laughter rolled through the room. 

MacCarthy’s presentation was hosted by the Blakely Advocacy Institute’s Trial Lawyers Craft Speaker Series.

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