Mastering Persuasion: The Role in Family Law Practice

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Mastering persuasion is a vital skill in the field of law. Whether in a courtroom, a boardroom, a negotiation, or even at a dinner table, a significant aspect of legal practice involves convincing others to believe, act, or align with your client’s position. We aim to persuade juries, judges, colleagues, friends, family, or the media that our stance is right while others are not.

Regrettably, many law schools do not include the art of persuasion in their curriculum. However, I have obtained master certifications in various coaching therapies and persuasion techniques. Over the last 15 years, I have dedicated myself to training and researching effective persuasion methods, all in pursuit of enhancing communication, fostering better relationships, and helping other professionals succeed in their endeavors.

6 Tips for Practicing the Art of Persuasion

Psychologists and marketing experts often rely on several core principles of persuasion, which they use or recommend to their clients. As family lawyers, incorporating these six highly effective principles into your interactions with clients, and occasionally with the family court judge during trial, can prove beneficial.

1. Acknowledge Your Clients’ Struggles

On numerous occasions, we find ourselves attempting to persuade individuals who hold biases against our position due to lack of understanding, confusion, or past failures in their own lives. Failures often lead to closed minds, stubbornness, and rigid thinking. When we encourage people to rise above their past setbacks, they seek guidance from us.

Acknowledging and validating the struggles of our (potential) clients, while reassuring them that we comprehend their experiences, can foster a greater receptivity to our advice. Family lawyers are not in the business of making clients solely accountable for their lives, but we can strive to persuade them to move away from unrealistic demands and posturing towards a more reasonable position. By demonstrating non-judgmental support for our clients’ failures and challenges, we are more likely to be seen as trusted allies.

2. Allay Their Fears

Each individual possesses their unique set of fears and biases. It is a natural human instinct to recoil from threats and seek a sense of safety. When we address and alleviate our clients’ fears and uncertainties, not only do we enhance our persuasiveness, but we also establish a strong rapport with them (refer to tip 3 below).

Sharing stories, demonstrating empathy, and providing support are effective ways to achieve this. Acknowledge your clients’ suspicions, doubts, and fears while offering them encouragement and reasons to be courageous. Validating their concerns as normal, take on the role of a compassionate and wise confidante who sees the broader perspective.

An A.A. Milne quote comes to mind: “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, smarter than you think, and loved more than you ever know.”

3. Create Rapport with Your Family Law Clients

To persuade or change someone’s perspective, trust and rapport are essential. When faced with new or conflicting ideas, our brains naturally trigger a biological response known as “flight, fight, or freeze,” shutting down our frontal cortex and activating survival mode.

Creating a sense of safety is crucial to prevent this survival mode response. Establishing rapport with our clients fosters that feeling of safety, keeping their frontal cortex engaged. Look for common ground and shared beliefs with your client, connecting on those concepts. Show humility, understanding, and utmost respect. Infusing moments of humor and eliciting smiles from your client contributes to building rapport.

Pay attention to your body language, tone, and facial expressions. When appropriate, share something about yourself to make the interaction more personable and friendly. Be attentive and offer encouraging smiles when suitable. Address emotions and how they feel, but ensure not to let them become stuck in their story, as it may trigger the survival mode response.

4. Find One Succinct Sentence

To be persuasive, you must condense your message into a concise and memorable sentence. The fewer words it takes to convey your point, the more convincing you can be—whether addressing your client, the judge, or even your spouse. Simplicity is key, regardless of the complexity of the case, be it a property division trial or a high-profile custody battle.

A classic example is attorney Johnnie Cochrane’s famous quote from the O.J. Simpson trial: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” The rhyming nature of the sentence (rhyme-as-reason effect) made it particularly powerful, as people are more likely to remember, repeat, and believe rhyming statements.

This principle applies not only in family law courtrooms but also in boardrooms and conference rooms. The concept of the “elevator pitch” illustrates the effectiveness of concise sales or marketing talks. Setting a theme for negotiations and allowing everything to flow from that one sentence proves influential.

By refining our position to a single sentence, we can identify any flaws and make necessary adjustments. An hour-long explanation can be forgotten, but one impactful sentence lingers in the minds of others, making it easier to remember and advocate for what our client deserves.

5. Stand in Their Shoes

Engage your client in a discussion about their beliefs and demonstrate how your position aligns with those beliefs. People tend to favor information that confirms their existing beliefs, a phenomenon known as “confirmation bias.” By highlighting facts that support their worldview and how your proposal fits into their sense of justice, you enable them to feel validated and right about their choices.

Appeal to their sense of fairness, and illustrate how opting for Settlement B instead of Settlement A aligns with their notions of justice. Encourage the judge to empathize with your client, inviting them to step into their shoes. Successfully forging this connection between the judge and your client can be a decisive victory.

6. Stand Against the Other Side

One of the most potent persuasion techniques involves forging a connection with your client based on shared beliefs and experiences. Nobody desires unfair judgment or prejudice, and we naturally gravitate toward individuals who share our thoughts and beliefs.

By identifying a common adversary, you solidify a bond. Showing that you stand firmly on your client’s side makes your advice much more persuasive compared to coming from a complete stranger. Uncover what values and principles both you and your client hold, and leverage that to create a strong bond. Craft your arguments in a way that aligns with this common ground, ensuring that it resonates not only with your client but also with the judge if the case proceeds to trial. Embrace a partnership with both your client and the court, capitalizing on this sense of camaraderie.

The Art of Persuasion: Apply These Tips to your Law Practice

Reflecting on my experience of handling hundreds of cases, participating in negotiations, and reviewing documents during my time practicing family law, I can’t help but wish I had been aware of these principles. Looking back, I realize that incorporating just one or two of these six principles could have significantly enhanced my persuasiveness.

It’s true that we always do our best with the knowledge we have at the time.

But now, armed with this understanding, I am confident that by following these tips, you will become much more persuasive in your own legal endeavors.

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