Using Themes to Persuade

Persuasive Case Themes

One way to frame your argument and connect with a jury in a persuasive way is through the use of a theme. A theme is a one line summary of your case from your perspective. It should be easy to remember and should serve as an anchor for the jury to return to as the evidence is presented.

For example, a case that involves the breach of a contract (either oral or written) might be as simple as: “We are here today to put honor back in a handshake.” The theme should rely on overriding principles of fairness, integrity and truth.

An excellent resource for themes is movie taglines or trailers.

  • “The first casualty of war is innocence.” (Platoon)
  • “With great power comes great responsibility.” (Spiderman)
  • “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” (Kill Bill)
  • “Get ready to root for the bad guy.” (Payback)
  • “If Nancy doesn’t wake up screaming, she won’t wake up at all.” (Nightmare on Elm St.)
  • “Being the adventures of a young man whose principal interests are rape, ultra-violence and Beethoven.” (A Clockwork Orange)
  • “If you can’t be famous… Be infamous.” (Chicago)
  • “His whole life was a million-to-one shot.” (Rocky)
  • “His triumph changed the world forever.” (Gandhi)
  • “This time he’s fighting for his life.” (First Blood)
  • “He’s having the worst day of his life… over, and over…” (Groundhog Day)
  • “It was the Deltas against the rules… the rules lost!” (Animal House)
  • “There’s everything you’ve ever known about adventure, and then there’s The Abyss.” (The Abyss)
  • “The snobs against the slobs.” (Caddyshack)
  • “Every man dies. Not every man really lives.” (Braveheart)
  • “If adventure has a name… It must be Indiana Jones.” (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom)
  • “Get in. Get out. Get even.” (The Italian Job)
  • “Just because they serve you doesn’t mean they like you.” (Clerks)
  • “Somewhere, somehow, someone’s going to pay.” (Commando) [Feel the alliteration? Can you use similar repetitive word sounds?]
  • “The truth is out there.” (The X-Files)
  • “There are degrees of truth.” (Basic)
  • “Lie. Cheat. Steal. Rinse. Repeat.” (Matchstick Men)
  • “Four friends made a mistake that changed their lives forever.” (Sleepers)
    “When friendship runs deeper than blood.” (Sleepers)
  • “Fifty million people watched, but no one saw a thing.” (Quiz Show)
  • “When he said ‘I do,’ he never said what he did.” (True Lies)
  • “Fear can hold you prisoner. Hope can set you free.” (Shawshank Redemption)
  • “Seen from a distance, it’s perfect.” (Life as a House)
  • “Not that it matters, but most of it is true.” (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid)
  • “Their only crime was curiosity.” (Hackers)
  • “His story will touch you, even though he can’t.” (Edward Scissorhands)
  • “There’s a good reason some talent remains undiscovered.” (Waiting for Guffman)
  • “Everybody loved him… Everybody disappeared.” (Jerry Maguire)
  • “He was never in time for his classes… He wasn’t in time for his dinner… Then one day he wasn’t in his time at all.”
    (Back to the Future) [Do you feel the power of the “3-peat”? Is there a phrase you could repeat occasionally throughout your opening?]
  • “Don’t answer the phone. Don’t open the door. Don’t try to escape.” (Scream)
  • “No one stays at the top forever.” (Casino)
  • “It’s a hot summer. Ned Racine is waiting for something special to happen. And when it does… He won’t be ready
    for the consequences.” (Body Heat)
  • “Freedom is not given. It is our right at birth. But there are some moments when it must be taken.” (Amistad)
  • “United by hate, divided by truth.” (American History X)
  • “An outrageous story of greed, lust and vanity in America.” (Bonfire of the Vanities)
  • In the heat of passion two things can happen. The second is murder.” (The Postman Always Rings Twice)
  • “Every dream has a price.” (Wall St.)
  • “It’s not who he is underneath but what he does that defines him.” (Batman Begins)
  • “He didn’t come looking for trouble, but trouble came looking for him.” (El Mariachi)
  • “He’s out to prove he’s got nothing to prove.” (Napoleon Dynamite)
    ·  “The truth can be adjusted.” (Michael Clayton)
  • “Justice has its price.” (A Civil Action)
  • “Sooner or later a man who wears two faces forgets which one is real.” (Primal Fear)
  • “There have been many courtroom dramas that have glorified The Great American Legal System. This is not one of them.” (My Cousin Vinny)
  • “Power can be murder to resist.” (The Firm)
    “They made him an offer he should have refused.” (The Firm)
  • “A district attorney out for a conviction. A new lawyer out of her league. A young boy who knew too much.”
    (The Client)
  • “No one would take on his case… until one man was willing to take on the system.” (Philadelphia)
  • “In the heart of the nation’s capital, in a courthouse of the U.S. government, one man will stop at nothing to keep his honor, and one will stop at nothing to find the truth.” (A Few Good Men)
  • “This man needs the best lawyer in town. But the problem is… he is the best lawyer in town.” (…And Justice for
    All)
  • “Sometimes it’s dangerous to presume.” (Presumed Innocent)
    “Some people would kill for love.” (Presumed Innocent)
  • “The story of what four men did to a girl… And what the town did to them!” (Town Without Pity)
  • “Some people will do anything for money.” (The Fortune Cookie)
    “Some people will do anything for $249,000.92.” (The Fortune Cookie)
    [The first phrase is a common theme that all of your jurors have eard before, but the second phrase is more specific. Does it feel more powerful hearing the actual number?]
  • “Nothing matters more than winning. Not even what you believe in.” (The Candidate)
  • “There are two sides of this mystery. Murder…And Passion.” (Jagged Edge)
  • “An act of love, or an act of murder?” (Body of Evidence)
    “This is the murder weapon. Her name is Rebecca.” (Body of Evidence)
  • “They locked him up. They crushed his spirit. But they couldn’t hide the truth.” (Murder in the First)
  • “You may not like what he does, but are you prepared to give up his right to do it?” (People vs. Larry Flynt)
  • “In a world of lies, nothing is more dangerous than the Truth.” (Shadow of Doubt)
  • “The first scream was for help. The second is for justice.” (The Accused)
  • “Suppose you picked up this morning’s newspaper and your life was a front page headline… And everything they said was accurate… But none of it was true.” (Absence of Malice)[This is obviously an improper Golden Rule argument, but you could re-write it to focus the attention on your client]
  • “On the other side of drinks, dinner and a one night stand, lies a terrifying love story.” (Fatal Attraction)
  • “Trials are too important to be decided by juries.” (The Runaway Jury)Every case should have a theme. One way to generate ideas for  a theme is to go over your notes from your initial consultation with your client. Oftentimes we form immediate impressions about a case and, in our mind, try to develop shortcuts about the overarching themes of a case. Or you might try to explain the facts of the case in 2 sentences or less and develop a theme from that description. If you have any themes you have used and you would like to share them, please let me know and I will post it here.

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