Spin in the Court of Public Opinion – Kendall Coffey

Posted on Feb 20, 2015 in Blog Entry: Elections and Courts

Spin in the Court of Public Opinion – Kendall Coffey

One of the things that makes the legal profession so challenging is how attorneys must constantly adapt to changing trends both in the courtroom and outside of it. Today, many trial lawyers are tasked with not only defending their clients in front of a judge and jury, but the public as well. As media consultant Elliot Mintz puts it, “We are living in a time when a lawyer is frequently called upon to make his case before the media as well as the jury,” adding that, “Public opinion has a longer shelf life than a verdict.”

With this in mind, it becomes apparent that the presentation of evidence can be so much more compelling than the evidence itself. In Spinning the Law: Trying Cases in the Court of Public Opinion, author Kendall Coffey details the ways in which “spin” is used in trials, particularly ones that are high profile in nature and prompt a significant public response. In these instances, the ways in which lawyers are able to exude an air of power in the court of public opinion will be what sets them apart, and what helps their client maintain a good reputation.

“Clients, whether civil or criminal, are increasingly brought to trial not only before a judge in robes and a jury of peers but also in the court of public opinion, where every citizen gets to ‘cast a vote’ on the legal and moral aspects of the case,” explains Harvard Law Professor Alan M. Dershowitz in the Foreword to Coffey’s Spinning the Law. “A good lawyer must be prepared to face the media,” Dershowitz continues, “where the usual rules of evidence do not prevail.” Here, he stresses how important it is that lawyers know how to navigate the rules that exist in the court of public opinion.

In Spinning the Law, Coffey traces the relationship between spin and the shifting landscape of contemporary law, citing many high-profile cases as examples of how large a role the public’s opinion actually plays. “When attorneys spin, it’s about trying to win,” he writes in the introduction of his highly acclaimed book, noting that there is so much more to it. “While lawyers represent clients, we also represent their reputations,” he explains. “Deflecting collateral damage to a client’s good name is something they don’t teach in law school. That curriculum is created by experience.”

For example, one tactic that many lawyers have adopted in their effort to spin in the court of public opinion is to take special care of how they present lawsuits. Coffey explains that while “the rules for preparing lawsuits in state as well as federal courts require a ‘short and plain’ statement of claims,” in the court of public opinion, “there is nothing short and plain about how high-profile lawsuits are presented.” Coffey likens these lawsuits to press releases designed to influence the public’s opinion when they are filed.

Because of how strategic and intentional lawyers are when drafting a lawsuit that also serves as a way to effectively manage the reputation of their client, this creates a unique relationship between the court and the press. “I was struck by how extensively the reporters had relied on verbatim quotes lifted directly from the pleadings,” notes Coffey of an instance in which the press coverage of a high-profile lawsuit was directly influenced by a lawsuit’s phrasing. This treatment of court documents that are also accessible to the public is unquestionably an application of legal spin.

“Nothing flattens an uphill legal battle better than strong media support,” observes Coffey in Spinning the Law. “While media coverage rarely takes a case beyond the legal limits, it can surely drive you as far as the law allows.”

For even more information about how contemporary lawyers are using spin to influence the court of public opinion, be sure to read Spinning the Law: Trying Cases in the Court of Public Opinion by Kendall Coffey.