Never Cross-Examine the Defendant's Mother

When I was hired as an Assistant District Attorney - essentially a baby prosecutor - I asked my new boss to tell me the three most important things I needed to know. In the years since, I’ve realized that his advice would be valuable to a cross-section of professionals, not just attorneys.

He said, “Well, everybody’s got to know how to pick a jury.

“And on argument, don’t give a Fourth of July speech. Talk about the facts.”

But after a pause, he shared the part that you want to keep in mind, “Don’t cross-examine the defendant’s mother. She loves the boy. Just say, ‘Now you’re the defendant’s mother, aren’t you?’ And then, ‘You love him, don’t you?’ And let her go.”

In life as in law, self-control matters… especially when interacting in a business setting. You can’t call a competitor a liar. You can’t claim that your company is perfect, and everyone else is a joker. You have to know how to get your point across without being disrespectful or counterproductive.

Lawyers break this rule all the time but it doesn’t work. They need to realize – as we all know but sometimes forget – that behaving too aggressively gives the opposition an easy opportunity to disagree with you and look good in the process. That’s what they will do, every time. Think of the mother on the witness stand, a tear flowing down her cheek…

Instead, you want to find some small but important thing to ask them, something eye-opening that will demonstrate their bias, limited knowledge, or financial motivation. Whatever it is, don’t make too much of it. Just point it out, let it sit there in the air a minute, and let the witness go.

Similar tactics work in business. You can put the facts on the table and let your clients decide. You can be calm and collected while others lose control. Most importantly, you can understand that there is a time a place for everything… and if this isn’t the right time and place, then you can muster the self-control to hold your peace.

In a courtroom, the jury knows who you represent and who you want them to believe. You win a point if they realize that you are capable of seeing both sides of the case, and of a witness. Witnesses lie, obfuscate and take sides… but they aren’t evil incarnate. I will always strive to be polite, perhaps take them to task for a missed fact or an obviously illogical conclusion. But then I let them go.

Just as the defendant’s mother is never going to help your case, sometimes the decision-maker in business is never going to give the answer you want to hear. Maybe he’s been best friends with your competitor since college, or perhaps he really enjoys those 50-yard-line tickets that they have been giving him for the past decade.

You have to pick your battles, and live to fight another day. It was true when I was a baby prosecutor, and everything I’ve seen since says it’s still true.