Lessons from Litigators for the Court of Public Opinion

February 15, 2024

Hall of Fame basketball coach Bobby Knight once said, “The key is not the will to win – everybody has that. It is the will to prepare to win that is important.”

Preparation is one of the key differences between people who win consistently and those who win occasionally, accidentally, or not at all. This applies in sports, in business, and in court. Successful trial attorneys know preparation is the key to prevailing in the court of law. Communicators can learn a few important lessons from them when it comes to the court of public opinion.

Renowned litigator Benjamin Slater III identified several critical traits of successful trial attorneys. According to him, a successful litigator:

  • Understands the case better than their opponents;
  • Controls the courtroom;
  • Projects confidence in themselves and has respect for the court and justice system; and
  • Connects with the judge and jury, and persuasively demonstrates knowledge, confidence, and sincerity.

Nearly every one of these traits arises from preparation. Neither innate talent nor “winging it” is sufficient to prevail consistently. It takes thorough preparation.

Communicators can apply these lessons to the court of public opinion to tell their stories more effectively. They won’t happen on their own – communicators must take the time, energy, and effort to prepare.

Understand the case better than your opponents. Litigators are often tasked with explaining incredibly difficult-to-understand concepts to a jury with no expertise in such matters. Litigators must have deep industry knowledge in addition to their understanding of the case itself and the relevant laws in order to tell their story to the jury. 

Feelings rather than facts often drive narratives in the court of public opinion. We need to be able to tell stories in a way that resonates with people at a personal level. Therefore, we need to know both the case and the opponent(s) better than they do. For communicators, this should not be a high hurdle. It’s my experience that most antagonists attacking a company have limited insight and understanding of the details. They tend to approach an issue with a narrow field of view – passionate, possibly compelling, but ultimately one-note.

To be a compelling storyteller, you have to be a subject matter expert in that business, industry, and the specifics of the event. However, to communicate this effectively, you also have to explain these complicated concepts and technicalities in a way that the layperson will understand. 

Exercise control. Effective litigators control the courtroom. However, a real courtroom has a judge presiding over it and a bailiff to ensure orderly behavior. The court of public opinion has neither, making it an unruly, unregulated space where very few, if any, rules of professional conduct exist. So instead of trying to control the court, communicators should focus on controlling how we interact with it.

This means controlling the flow of information, controlling the pace of the narrative, and controlling the story that is being told. However, it is important to note that by “control,” I don’t mean “limit.” Similar to a real court, we should tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. However, we should do it at a time of our choosing and in a way that gives us the maximum control of the narrative.

Remember, there is no right of appeal in the court of public opinion. People’s attention spans are fleeting and they will form an opinion of your firm and the situation very quickly before they move on. On the plus side, this often means that a critical moment is fleeting and quickly forgotten as the next interesting story breaks. However, it also means that you need to get your messaging right the first time as this could be your only chance to influence the narrative.

Be confident and respectful. Effective litigators project confidence in themselves and have respect for the court and the judicial system. As a communicator, you have to be confident in your abilities, knowledge, and decisions, but you also need to ensure that you show respect to your opponents. Confidence should not come off as condescension, particularly where people have been hurt, offended, or suffered losses. 

One of the best ways to balance confidence and respect is to be transparent and authentic. Remember, there is a confused public watching this take place. 

Connect with sincerity. Great trial lawyers connect with the judge and jury at a sincere, emotional level. Communicators likewise have to connect with those who want to share our story. Some of the factors I have already mentioned – such as transparency and expertise – will help, but the main thing is for us to be sincere. 

And that can be hard. We might need to admit we made a mistake. We may have to say we are sorry. We may have to walk back a series of poor decisions. However, genuine sincerity helps us connect with our audience and to speak to those most affected. In turn, this allows us to start the process of healing relationships, rebuilding trust, and reestablishing confidence in our organization.

It also helps win in the court of public opinion when you are sincere while your antagonists resort to personal attacks. Borrowing from legendary broadcaster David Brinkley, successful communicators can lay a firm foundation with the bricks others have thrown at them.

These are some of the lessons we can learn from successful litigators that we can apply to the court of public opinion. Every one of them requires preparation. Remember, everyone has the will to win, but few have the will to prepare to win. Which one are you?

Need help? Kith facilitates crisis preparedness workshops that will help your company attain the clarity, trust and speed you need to respond confidently – no dithering! – to any crisis. We’d be happy to have a conversation about how we can help your company be ready to chart an effective course to reputation protection. Is your business ready to handle a crisis? Take our Crisis-Proof Your Business assessment and gain valuable insights to prepare your business for any crisis. 


Jeff Blaylock

Jeff is an experienced strategic communications and public affairs professional who has advised organizations through challenging media and political environments, public affairs campaigns, reputation management, message development and crises.