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If Mozart were a trial lawyer

Piano Player

It was my first mock trial competition.  I was receiving a crash course on how to prepare a closing argument.  “Connect the dots,” my coach said. “Apply the law.  Draw the inferences.”  I listened dutifully, but in the end, my closing argument was nothing more than a lackluster recitation. I created a closing argument that connected the dots, but the result was murky and analytical. I applied the law, and the jury yawned.

Until, I thought about Mozart. What would Wolfgang Mozart do with a closing argument? If the great composer had to construct a speech for a jury, what would it sound like? Oftentimes, trial lawyers must reinvent their closing arguments during the course of a trial, depending on what evidence is admitted and excluded. Mozart, the boy genius who wrote the overtures to operas on the morning of their premiere, was no stranger to this blend of procrastination and forced improvisation. Yet, the structure of his work was always stable. The Mozartian framework is emotionally appealing, sterling in clarity, consistent in structure, and brilliantly simple – everything that a closing argument should be.

These principles can be applied to every aspect of a closing argument.

As a classically trained pianist, I entered law school understanding the fundamental principles of an artistic performance. The application of these principles to trial advocacy became my strength. After placing as a finalist in a mock trial competition my first year, I earned a spot on the National Trial Team and aced my closing arguments in class because of a simple mantra: “What would Mozart do?”

To explain how I applied principles of artistic performance to trial advocacy requires a primer on sonata-allegro form (which most lawyers know nothing about unless they took Advanced Music Theory in college). Sonata-allegro form, a framework for musical composition that was the dominant structure of the classical period from 1750 until 1820, is still in use today. The structure consists of musical ideas that are presented simply in a musical space, referred to as an exposition.  The composer then adds detail to the musical ideas by elaborating on them, and expanding and juxtaposing them against each other in a section referred to as the development. Finally, these musical ideas are resolved harmoniously (and often with a splash of flair) in a musical section known as a recapitulation. This may be followed by an ambitious, artistically challenging coda, and the entire work is sometimes preceded by an introduction.

The result is what every composer — sorry, trial lawyer — longs for: a complete, harmonious entrancement of the audience (jury). These principles can be applied to every aspect of a closing argument.  This structure can be reflected not only in the content of the closing argument, through the lawyer’s structure and application of the law and facts, use of exhibits and demonstrations, sentence structure, and word choices, but also in the delivery, through the lawyer’s presence, tone, inflection, vocal dynamics, gestures, and eye contact with the jury.

For example, a closing argument by Mozart would look something like this:

Introduction: A passionate statement that previews the single most important fact of the case.

Exposition: An “announcement” of each idea. This is not a comprehensive listing of facts, but a simple statement of each general idea that you wish to plant in the juror’s mind.  To prepare this section, you should answer this simple question: what are the one to five statements that each juror should be armed with during deliberations?  The statements should be stated simply.  This is not the time to elaborate or confuse. This is the time to introduce the inferences and overarching concepts behind the case theory.

Development: These are the most complex, and tense moments of the closing argument.  If you have succeeded in the first two sections, the audience (i.e., jurors) will be ready for it.  Now, you have their attention. It’s time for you to contrast, compare, and elaborate upon the details, but be careful not to overdo it. The development section should not comprise over 30% of your musical (or legal) composition. It should be a fascinating exploration of the initial themes that have already been introduced. If you are ever going to present a “what if?” argument to your audience, this is your moment.

Recapitulation: Harmony, harmony, harmony. There can be no dissonance. This is the resolution, the “why I should win” moment. This is where each musical idea blends and ultimately, ends. If this section doesn’t have an element of peacefulness to it, the audience will be left feeling bereft and disappointed.

Coda: This is the flashiest part of the statement. You’ve heard of this concept before as “primacy” and “recency,” and Mozart employed it long before it was written in the Mauet trial text. By the end of this section, your audience should be humming your catchy, beautiful composition in their heads as they leave the courtroom.

You may think of my comparison as obsessive compulsive, but it’s worked thus far. Einstein reportedly said that Mozart’s music was “a reflection of the inner beauty of the universe.” I don’t know a single trial lawyer who wouldn’t have the same aspirations for a closing argument. And, by the way, this post was written in sonata allegro form. If you’re still reading, it worked.

Originally published by the University of Tennessee College of Law in Tennessee Law magazine.

M. Joy Baxter M. Joy Baxter is an associate at Ortale Kelley in Nashville and a graduate of the University of Tennessee College of Law. Her undergraduate degree is in music, and she holds several international certificates in music performance and theory.