Identity and Its Role in the Work of a Trial Lawyer

Father’s Day Reflections on Advocating for Children
Father’s Day Reflections on Advocating for Children

These days it seems like identity is everything. We identify by cultural heritage, politics, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and even by what we eat (that’s the one I find hardest to get used to—Keto, Paleo, Gluten Free, I never heard of this stuff when I was a kid or tried any of it since I’ve been as an adult!). For me, my identity has always been clear—I’m a Chicago born and bred Irish Catholic. I believe in faith, family, and community, and you can probably guess what I love to eat and drink.

As Irish Heritage Month approaches and another St. Patrick’s Day dawns at the end of this winter’s rainbow and harbinger of spring, I can’t help but feel proud of my Irish roots. I would like to think I bleed green, as if that is a good thing. Yet at times I’ve felt judged based on my heritage as well. We all have. That’s the problem with identity, it is used to build stereotypes and narratives around people with scant information, that are sometimes dead wrong.

My work as a trial lawyer requires me to judge people based on such superficial indicators and how they identify. My ability to do so can make or break a case on behalf of my client. This is important especially when I am picking a jury. Attorneys are provided with a small amount of information regarding each prospective juror; and voir dire (counsel’s interviews of prospective jurors) is, understandably, time limited.

Consequently, I must engage all of my instincts, life experience, both academic and emotional intelligence to select a jury that will give the plaintiff the best chance at a fair trial. The stakes are incredibly high. After all, the end result of a trial is a judgment, for or against the plaintiff, and it is one that will impact the rest of their lives. The parties and witnesses are being judged too, for their truthfulness.

This means I might de-select a juror whose superficial identity indicator and perhaps demeanor make him or her appear rigid or particularly opinionated in a way that may makes them look unfavorably upon the plaintiff. I’m actually judging them for the possibility they may lack empathy and will then judge my client harshly.

So identity is important, but it’s just a start. We would all like to live in a perfect world where we are judged for who we are individually and our identity is embraced for the simple reason that we embrace it, or, better yet, we are not judged at all. But in my business, I’ve had to hone my keen Irish instincts to know when to suspend judgment and when to surrender to it and that’s the best I can do.

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