Lessons from Perry Mason
Published December 6, 2012
I am not a big TV person but I was happy to recently learn that the old reruns of the Perry Mason show are on a channel called Me TV. I loved Perry Mason when I was a kid. I actually credit Perry with my ultimate job as a lawyer. Perry Mason was my hero.
What can we learn from Perry Mason? I am here to tell you a lot. The Perry Mason show was produced in the 50s and 60s. It is one of the most accurate courtroom accounts I have ever seen. Most legal shows now do not follow any resemblance of the rules of procedure. The Perry Mason show is amazingly accurate. The objections are legally correct. They object for hearsay and for facts not in evidence. The Judges are dignified and not like Judge Ito
Most people remember Perry Mason as the lawyer that never lost a case and who got the witness to confess to the crime on the stand. It became what is known as the Perry Mason moment. Based on his skilled cross examination, the witness stands up and declares they committed the crime, usually murder. Perry’s client is innocent. Ok that isn’t realistic but what are the other characteristics of Perry Mason?
Number 1, he never discusses a fee. Strike two, that is certainly not realistic in today’s world. He has a trusted secretary, Della Street and a crackerjack detective, Paul Drake. Paul is always available at a moment’s notice to investigate and he always gets the info needed. Ok Ok, again not realistic.
So what is the point of this blog? To point out there are some techniques of Perry’s courtroom style that lawyers should copy. One is that he doesn’t always ask questions on cross examination. Sometimes, he doesn’t ask a single question which is actually very effective. Why cross exam a witness when the witness hasn’t really said anything to hurt your case? Maybe lawyers just can’t pass up the opportunity to ask a question or they think it will look bad if they don’t ask a question. (Another bad habit is to object to every question in a deposition.)
Another technique that Perry used was to put on no evidence. This is a bold move but can be very effective. The Prosecutor, Hamilton Burger, rests his case thinking that he can call rebuttal witnesses after the defense rests. Instead Perry stands up and announces he also rests. Oops!!! Hamilton Burger starts screaming. But it is all over, the case is going to the jury.
I actually saw that happen in real life. It was a case where Geep Hardy was representing the defendant. Geep, for those of you who don’t know him, is a very talented trial lawyer. Geep knew that the Plaintiff Lawyer, (Larry last name withheld) was going to rest his case that day, so he had seven witnesses in the hallway of the courthouse. Geep wanted Larry to think these were the witnesses he was planning to call in the presentation of his case. Larry took the bait and stood up and announced that he rests his case. Larry assumed he would have the opportunity to continue with his case by crossing examining those seven witnesses Geep had lined up in the hallway. Then he assumed he could call his rebuttal witnesses, if needed.
Instead, Geep stood up and announced that he also rests. Larry’s mouth fell open and he started to sputter. Larry starts objecting and demanding a conference with the Judge. The Judge was the late federal judge of the Southern District in Galveston, the Honorable Judge Hugh Gibson. Judge Gibson called the lawyers into his chambers and Larry immediately starts complaining that this can’t be and he has rebuttal witnesses and all this evidence he still needs to put on and how he thought that Geep was going to call witnesses. Judge Gibson looks him in the eye and says, “I see you are loaded for bear, but unfortunately for you there aren’t any bears in the woods. Your request to reopen the case is denied. You rested, the defense rested and we are going to submit this case to the jury!!”
Geep took a huge gamble, just like Perry Mason, but it paid off and he won the case. Geep admitted that he was so tensed up over his decision to present no evidence that he couldn’t sleep the night before and stayed up playing Pac Man. (This was in the 80’s and Pac Man was a popular video game.) Anyway, Geep and Perry are the only two lawyers I have ever seen do this great trial bluff.
Perry drives a big whale size late 50’s Cadillac convertible. He is never is in a hurry and has no paper on his desk. I wish I could be more like Perry Mason.