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Going In for the Close

Law & Order candidates make their final appeal. (AP).

By Rachel Dry
They are almost all lawyers, and they talk frequently about the law -- teaching it, practicing it, studying it, dramatizing it on network television.

John Edwards the trial lawyer was, in his words, a winner and a fighter who never gave up. "What I did was I gave them hope. And then I walked into that courtroom and I gave the company hell because they deserved it," he has said of his work on behalf of plaintiffs.

Rudy Giuliani once described being a prosecutor as the "ideal job for an idealistic man; you never have to do the wrong thing."

And perhaps no one has articulated the loftiness of the legal profession in the way that Barack Obama, who taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago, did in an introduction to the current edition of the Law Review at the Charleston School of Law.

"Because lawyers are trained in the language of law, we have a special responsibility. We are not like other professionals with a skill to sell to the highest bidder," he wrote. "We are not merely technicians implementing faithfully the designs of others.... We are called on to be architects and catalysts both for making real the American Dream, and for protecting people from abuse around the globe."

And now, these lawyers are making their "closing arguments," to early state voters, calling upon the rhetorical powers that may have once propelled them to a favorable ruling in a courtroom to win them caucus votes. That's how Edwards branded his final push through Iowa and it's what Giuliani aides called his events in Florida earlier this month. Hillary Clinton is set to air her "closing argument" in a television ad.

While the use of the term "closing argument" at the end of a year-long campaign is more a framing device than anything else -- a tidy way to say "pay attention, we're in the home stretch" -- there is an art to the close, one that the lawyers-turned-candidates may aim to employ.

Jeffery Frederick, director of jury research services at the National Legal Research Group, said most studies show that the most effective closing argument is one that sums up an opponent's shortcomings. Forget outlining all your own promises; just show how the other guy will fall short. Frederick said research shows that opening statements go badly when lawyers overstate their case and promise more than they can deliver, so closing arguments that remind jurors of the impossible promises that the other side made are the most effective.

"If you don't remind the jury of promises that have not been kept by the opponent, then jurors tend to forget that," he said. A strong restatement of the opponent's shortcomings will leave "jurors able to argue with other jurors."
Negativity is particularly strong ammunition at the last minute, Frederick said, and "emotional appeals to fear can be very effective" in closing arguments. As that translates in the political arena, a negative ad can appeal to "the fear of that person being behind the desk." That's a tactic that several campaigns may be employing; Bill Clinton questioned Barack Obama's experience on the Charlie Rose show this month, and independent groups are launching attack ads now, in the final push before Iowa and New Hampshire.

For all the oratorical fireworks and summation of the evidence presented, do people change their minds during closing arguments in a courtroom? Frederick said the evidence is actually pretty scarce that they do. Even though they are told not to, jurors tend to make up their mind as a case goes along. "Normal people can't hold all that information in a bucket. It tends to be processed as it's coming in. They're not all walking in [to deliberations] totally undecided."

A jury box is not an early voting state, however, and Iowa voters keep announcing their own indecision, making these closing arguments more important than ever.

But as these lawyers-turned-candidates make their final push, is it a liability to remind voters, even inadvertently, of their days tallying billable hours and parsing jurisprudence?

It could well be. Lawyers rank reliably low on the Gallup organization's annual poll ranking honesty and ethical standards in various professions. Only 15 percent of people say they have a "very high" or "high" opinion of the ethical standards of lawyers, with 35 percent reporting a "low or "very low" opinion. There is some good news in the Gallup poll for lawyer-candidates Edwards and Obama, however. The bottom-rung professionals in this ethics tally are lobbyists, with 58 percent of people reporting a low opinion of that favorite campaign target for both of those Democratic candidates.

By Washington Post editors  |  December 26, 2007; 11:25 AM ET
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