What They didn’t teach you at the Law School
Law School prepares you to think, write and research like a lawyer, but once you’re at the door of a law firm or a courtroom, there’s a whole new set of skills you need. The present series of articles aims to enrich a new lawyer with all these skills in order for him/her to excel.
As a trial lawyer, you will always be challenged to try and figure out if your client, witnesses, and opposing counsel are being honest. Even a person who is telling the truth is looking at the situation through his or her own perspective and not in the same way as a neutral observer would. So, how would you know if what people are telling you is the truth?
While you can never be 100% sure whether the person you’re talking to is telling the truth, there are certain things that can help you get much better at making this determination.
The easiest way for you to tell if someone is lying is to determine certain facts that are true and then when you meet, ask the person about those facts. Carefully watch how he responds to your questions and how he acts during the conversation. It’s an easy to follow process.
For example, you come to know that the person you’re negotiating with has just returned from a family trip. So start a conversation about his experience on that trip. Observe carefully as to what the other person says and how he acts. If while telling you about his trip, he comes across as being nervous, make a mental note to yourself that this particular characteristic doesn’t necessarily mean he’s lying.
Watch his body language. Is he rocking back and forth? Did he clear his throat before answering your question? And so on and so forth.
You can then move on to ask a question which, according to you, the other person might try to avoid answering and may even lie about and of which you know the correct answer.
Now listen to the tone of the other person’s voice; did the characteristics he just exhibit are different from how he acted to your first question? Pay attention to what his eyes are doing, his body language, any noises he makes like clearing his throat, and other mannerisms.
You now have a good understanding for the other person’s mannerisms when he tells you the truth, or lies, in response to a simple question or two.
Now it’s time for you to ask the question that you want him or her to answer. Try to incorporate the question into the conversation and then watch and listen.
Based upon the other person’s response together with his voice and body language, you’ll have a much better idea if the other person is being honest with you.
But what about people you are unable to research, as in last minute meetings? For such people, micro-expressions (split-second facial expressions) work. For instance, a fast smile or fidget at the beginning or end of a lie that is made by someone who feels as if he’s going to get away with a lie.
Always pay attention to any delays in answers to your questions. But remember that the nature and context of your questions dictate the importance of, and the significance of, the delay. For instance, if you ask your client what he was doing on November 1, 2013, it might take him some time to recall the relevant events. But if you directly ask him if he was in jail on November 1, 2013, there might be a hesitation but no delay in showing that he knows the answer.
In open-ended questions that require more than a simple “yes” or “no” answer, try to see if someone is nodding his head while responding in a contrary way to your question. The key is to search for inconsistencies between what is being said and what you are watching the other person do.
A person who lies will often clear his throat or engage in an exaggerated swallow before answering your question. This happens because the individual who is lying is intentionally or unintentionally prefacing his lie with a non-verbal confirmation that what he’s going to say is important.
Another simple way to tell if someone is lying is by watching his eyes. If the other person stops making eye contact, then he’s probably lying. Another good way to tell if someone is lying is to watch if he blinks often or if his eyes are darting back and forth.
Remember that everyone is different and there’s no perfect or full proof way to spot someone who is lying. So always make sure to take the totality of the circumstances into account when using the above tips. This allows you to weigh, balance and put what you hear and observe into proper context.
*Executive Editor, Lawyers Update; Director General, Universal Institute of Legal Studies