John, it’s so great that you will be joining TLC’s President John Sloan and a great faculty team to teach at TLC’s April Seminar on Discovering the Story and Opeing Statement. Thank you for taking your time today to share with our readers some of your thoughts about this Seminar and how it can benefit their practice. For starters, how different is the TLC method of approaching the Opening Statement vs. conventional methods?
The way that I now approach all these statements is completely different than anything that I was doing prior to my involvement and training with TLC. To have a successful outcome with a jury trial, it has everything to do with the lawyer. If the lawyer is not comfortable with who he is, that lawyer cannot be credible. So, after your Voir Dire, your opening statement is the next opportunity you have to continue establishing your credibility with the jury. And when I say “credibility” I mean that we can’t have any phoniness — juries have great phony antennas! All of us have phony antennas whether or not we realize it. Not many people, if any, are able to really “connect” on an intellectual level. Our training, our intellectual aptitude, our genetic predisposition to intelligence – it’s all different for everybody, so those differences make it hard to find common ground to connect on. But every single person on the face of this planet shares human emotions. Every human knows what it is like to be afraid, to feel pain, or to experience joy. So, for a lawyer to be successful in an opening statement, he or she has to find and act on an emotional basis with their juries. TLC teaches us how to do that in an opening statement.
How has the use of your opening statement changed over the years?
When I first started I’m sure that I gave opening statements that were very, you know, “the evidence will show you blah blah blah blah blah”. But now, my opening statements have evolved into more of telling a story. I don’t recite the facts or spend a lot of time telling them about the time of day — TLC taught me to tell my juries a story of what happened. And generally, that turns out to be a story where the jury already instinctively knows the conclusion. But we have learned that if people come to a conclusion on their own, they are more likely to accept it — and fight for it. So if we can tell a story in our Opening Statement, and then throughout the trial, that allows the jury to come to their own conclusions as to what the end of the story is. 80% of all juries have made up their mind after the opening statements. It never changes throughout the trial.
What do you think is the most important thing to communicate to lawyers who have never been to TLC?
This is the first step of their journey towards learning how to truly take all the facts and pieces of an incident and bring them to life. TLC will change their outlook — I mean completely change it, toward not only their clients, and their cases, but to themselves — trial lawyers charged with winning justice for these folks. Law schools have failed to properly teach lawyers to try cases. Many folks never had proper mentors that taught them how to properly file a lawsuit, let alone, try it. TLC training will completely change a person’s attitude. You know I read some comments that were on our surveys from the last program and I realized that some of our students don’t know how to successfully file a lawsuit. They were completely misguided and off on the wrong foot! Then we have a lot of very successful lawyers who come to our programs, but they want to be better; or they are burned out; or whatever. They are very good at what they’ve been doing, but they want more and they sense there IS more for them to do. We tell them, “Look, you are successful. We are not asking you to change what works for you. But obviously you are looking for more and at TLC, you’ll find some methods and lessons that will just be another arrow that you can put in your quiver.”
What is the most powerful thing you’ve received as a result to being part of TLC?
On a personal level, the college has provided a process to allow me to accept who I am. I never knew what a gift that was to me, and how much I needed that. The other great benefit I found is that the college is like a national law-firm. I am part of a nationwide practice. I don’t have to look on the national referral services to find local counsel, I look for TLC-trained lawyers, and they are in every state — over 1,700 of us now I think. TLC allows us to associate with each other and be involved both on professional basis and on a social basis. The college teaches us how to win, and how to win big with our cases. That’s what people really want to hear. They want to win their cases and they want to win their cases big. So if you want to learn how to win and win big, you need to be in the Texas seminar.
About John Zelbst:
John P. Zelbst has been a trial lawyer since 1980. He graduated from the Trial Lawyers College with the Class of 1999 and has served on its board for over a decade. Mr. Zelbst’s legal career has focused solely on representing people who have been injured, wronged, falsely accused and mistreated. John Zelbst has been referred to as a “gun slinger from the old west fighting in an alley that time has all but forgotten. Today’s courtrooms are sterile and dead. More like mausoleums and morgues. John brings life, thunder and justice back into these quiet cold rooms.” Mr. Zelbst and his associates have obtained many large settlements and verdicts on behalf of their injured clients, including the largest known personal injury verdict in the state of Oklahoma-24 million dollars, Henderson v. Petro Energy Transport Co. et al., DC Jackson County CJ-95-64.
Join John and the rest of the TLC Faculty Team at the Discovering the Story and Opening Statement: Texas Regional Seminar April 14-17! Register Here
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