Should Trial Attorneys Use Complex Language? It Depends…

Today’s Read:

Alivia Zubrod, Lucian Gideon Conway III, Kathrene R. Conway, and David Ailanjian, Understanding the Role of Linguistic Complexity in Famous Trial Outcomes, Journal of Language and Social Psychology 2021, Vol. 40(3) 354–377,

I suppose starting off with a quote from one of the most famous trials in U.S. history is appropriate:

“If [the glove] doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”
Johnnie Cochran, Defense Attorney for OJ Simpson, June 15, 1995

Regardless of your opinion about the outcome of the OJ Simpson trial, you have to admire the beauty and simplicity of this contention by the defense. It does not employ any complex legal arguments, and it does not twist itself in circles trying to explain why the defendant is innocent. It just appeals to the common sense of the jury. Memorably, it even rhymes. And, clearly, it worked.

The article I’m reviewing today, published last year in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology, provides a fascinating look at the use of complex language in “famous” trials.

As their corpus, the researchers used Famous Trials, an open-access database established and maintained by Douglas O. Linder of UMKC School of Law.

The idea behind the research was to figure out whether and how the use of complex language by prosecutors and defense attorneys in their opening and closing statements appears to have impacted the outcome of the case.

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