Knowledge Is Power

Clients — whether they are criminal defendants or civil litigants — rarely get immediate gratification from the American justice system. It's not set up for that. In fact it's not set up to gratify anyone other than, perhaps, the more extreme masochists and irrationality-fetishists.

So when I can give my clients something that empowers them in an immediately apparent way, I jump at it. That's why one of my favorite things to do with a client before a deposition (or before the very rare interview with government officials, something I almost never permit) is to train them how to recognize and then ignore interrogation techniques. The results are immediate and gratifying. I've had clients burst into delighted laughter when an opposing attorney uses a deposition technique I've taught them to spot. (This has the side benefit of eviscerating the opposing counsel's self-confidence, especially if they are the blustering type.) It's immediately useful knowledge, and knowledge is powerful, and clients love to feel they have a little power in the brutal legal process. Very few things I do increase client's confidence in themselves (and in me) as quickly.

This works in areas other than law. A couple of weeks ago, whilst vacationing in Sedona, I lost my temper rather abruptly and explicitly with a time-share salesman who accosted us on the main street. I was reminded of this incident by today's interesting story on NPR about the science behind sales techniques. If I had been able to put names to the manipulative techniques the time-share dude was using on us, I might have felt more powerful, and therefore reacted in a more becoming manner. There are a number of sites out there that document and name such techniques — some pro, some anti-, some neutral. Here's one I found. Perhaps readers can suggest others. Remember: knowledge is power. Recognizing manipulative techniques others are trained to use upon you empowers you to think critically about them.

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. Courtney says

    Gavin deBecker wrote about the techniques that criminals use to get cooperation from their victims (and/or to test boundaries to see if someone will make a good victim) in The Gift of Fear. He drew some parallels between those techniques and sales techniques. In one chapter, he described the techniques, talked about why they worked, and described ways to diffuse them. It's pretty useful information if you can stomach the name dropping in his book.

  2. zipper says

    I'm a pretty shy person IRL. When I was a smoker, I found that an extremely easy way to have a pleasant interaction with someone was to ask them for a light. There are categories of people this doesn't work on–anyone who thinks you're going to use it as an opening to hit on them will probably not be pleased–but in general people like to feel helpful, and they really like to feel helpful in ways that cost them nothing.

    I got the idea from the story that whenever Benjamin Franklin had to negotiate with someone he'd first ask to borrow a book he knew they had, thereby both complimenting their taste and making them feel he was indebted to them.

  3. says

    > the American justice system …is not set up to gratify anyone other than … extreme masochists and irrationality-fetishists.

    Yeah but we ALREADY KNEW that it is a government run program designed to serve the government.

  4. says

    > I've had clients burst into delighted laughter when an opposing attorney uses a deposition technique I've taught them to spot.

    My favorite technique is instructing a client to respond to every single question with "Is this testing whether I'm a replicant or a lesbian?"

    And, for the record, no. I was never CONVICTED of practicing law without a license.

  5. says

    In 1997 my leg was broken by a guy who ran a stop sign and hit me on my bicycle; my attorney warned me that in the deposition the insurance company's lawyer would ask all sorts of vague questions to entrap me, so I should ask for clarification of every question which struck me as vague or over-general. I therefore either rephrased nearly every question myself ("Do you mean such-and-such?") or asked him to specify his meaning, and it drove him absolutely nuts; the stenographer pulled me aside afterward and whispered "good work." It was probably the most pleasant experience I've ever had with a lawyer who wasn't paying for my services.

  6. says

    My favorite recent example of an interviewee sidestepping trap questions was Mark Evanier's deposition in Marvel v Kirby, — over and over again the lawyer tried to get him to admit bias or ignorance, and over and over again Evanier deflected and defended his own considerable knowledge and expertise.

    All for naught, unfortunately, as his deposition was ultimately deemed inadmissible, but man it makes for a good read.

  7. says

    I've always been very curious to attend one of those time share seminars. I'm fascinated by high-pressure sales techniques and it sounds like a time share pitch represents the pinnacle of the art form.

    I enjoy watching infomercial hucksters, trying to identify the tricks they use to manipulate viewers. Self-help, Get Rich Quick and miracle cures are the best.

  8. says

    The best book I've read on compliance and persuasion is Robert Cialdini's "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion." It's written as a self-defense manual, but of course it is also a how-to.

  9. says

    From your other article: "Building up a fast question-answer rhythm to lull her into answering without thinking."

    Think this was a favorite technique of my father's when he had a defendant on the stand. One trial he got in such a good rhythm that the court stenographer threw her hands up in the air in frustration because she couldn't keep up and stormed out of the courtroom.

    Dare I ask what @Maggie McNeil meant by the last line of her comment?

  10. says

    @Bearman Cartoons
    "Dare I ask what @Maggie McNeil meant by the last line of her comment?"
    Pretty sure it means what you think it means.

  11. Luis says

    i love going to the presentations they are great sellers! and always make sure to leave the wallet at home :)

  12. Jordan says

    I came here to suggest the "Influence" book as well, it's designed to protect people from immoral sales "techniques" by recognizing that you're being played and not feeling guilty.

  13. says

    One thing I don't understand about interrogations is the legality of interrogating someone for several hours straight. Is there a maximum time? It seems to me that the system is designed to fail in the sense that innocent but physically or psychologically weak people are bound to confess falsely. Despite inadmissibility rulings and other evidence that doesn't corroborate, we know that juries tend to take confessions seriously. How is that okay?

  14. says

    The most fun you can have with one of those nearly criminally obnoxious salesmen is to use every technique back at them, buddy up to them and become their best friends and make them so very eager to close that sale that they can just taste … and having spent a couple of hours teasing them along, tell them "No, thanks anyway but I'm not really interested in X at all. But I've really enjoyed our time together!"

    It can completely crush their spirit. Delicious.