So recently, I won the COVID breakthrough infection lottery and got to spend ten fun-filled days in quarantine. I’m fine, relatively speaking, and thankful that the worst that happened to me was a runny nose.


But during that period, I did have to look for things to watch on TV since I had pretty much already exhausted the more well-known offerings. And I stumbled onto a channel showing reruns of old half-hour black and white drama series.

One in specific held my attention: Gunsmoke. For those not familiar with Gunsmoke (which may be most of you), it was television Western drama series set in and around Dodge City, Kansas, in the 1870s. The central character was a U. S. Marshal named Matt Dillon, played by James Arness. Gunsmoke was the longest-running, primetime, live-action television series until Law & Order. It ran for 20 seasons (1955-1975) and 685 episodes.

Says Wikipedia, “Gunsmoke is routinely placed among the best shows of any kind and any time… At the end of its run in 1975, Los Angeles Times columnist Cecil Smith wrote: ‘Gunsmoke was the dramatization of the American epic legend of the west. Our own Iliad and Odyssey, created from standard elements of the dime novel and the pulp western as romanticized by Ned Buntline, Bret Harte, and MarkTwain. It was ever the stuff of legend.’” Pretty high praise.


For the first six years of its existence, the show was in black and white and, most significantly, 30 minutes long. It was these 30 minute episodes that got my attention.


The writers had to quickly develop a plot, flesh out the characters, and tell a believable story


Because of the limited length of these episodes, the writers had to quickly develop a plot, flesh out the characters, and tell a believable story. A story with a beginning, a middle, and an ending that resolved all conflicts. All in less than 30 minutes (they had commercials in those days too.)


What was interesting to me in watching the reruns was how consistently good the storytelling was. It was easy to understand the story, which was sometimes complicated with multiple subplots and complex characters. And often surprises. Yet show after show, the writers straightforwardly presented compelling, believable stories. I usually would be so absorbed watching the show that it didn’t dawn on me that I was watching a 30-minute show that told a complete story every time.


It got me thinking about what good trial lawyers have to do: tell our story in a believable ways that people understand and grasp. And do it concisely.


So how did Gunsmoke do it? First, it had a small core cast that was always in character. You knew what Matt Dillion was going to do, and you knew he was competent and would always do right. You knew Doc Adams (the town doctor) was irascible but good. The kind of Doc you would go to. You knew what Matt’s sidekick, Chester, and even saloon owner Miss Kitty would do time after time.


In trying cases, it’s vital to be that kind of dependable competent character as a lawyer for your client. You want the jury to know how you will react because they see you in a certain way. You establish that way from the very first and always be faithful to the character. You become credible, just like Marshall Dillion was competent and believable.


The writers focused on language and statements that not only advanced the story but which revealed the character of the person talking


Next, Gunsmoke used dialogue, more than in today’s shows and approached it differently. The writers focused on language and statements that not only advanced the story but which revealed the character of the person talking-for better or worse. Once the audience understood that character, we could and would believe that the person would act the way the Gunsmoke writers wanted us to believe. It was all about credibility: we could accept the story based on what the characters revealed about themselves in what they said. Their actions were consistent with those revelations, and, as a result, the story was believable.


Yet in a courtroom, it’s not all that easy, right: you can’t predict everything and anything, and you can’t write the script. But we often know what the witness will say. We know the story we want to tell. What do the witnesses say that reveals something about themselves that makes the story we want to tell more believable? That’s what the Gunsmoke writers would do.


And yes, actions speak louder than words. But in a trial, it’s often not necessarily the actions that count in telling our story. Its whether our story about the actions is believable. One way to get there is to focus on what the witnesses reveal about themselves and make what they did or didn’t do more believable.


Ah yes, actions. There was a lot of action in Gunsmoke for sure. But I noticed something. When it came time for the action, the action, in essence, confirmed what we already knew about the story through the dialogue and character development. We knew if there was a gunfight, the right person would win. If it involved Matt Dillion, we knew he would win because we knew of his competence. (and of course, he was the lead character). If someone was sick, we knew Doc Adams would move heaven and earth to save them even if it meant self-sacrifice and even if it did not always turn outright.


We knew this because the writers convinced us of the nature of the characters. Based on this, there could be only one ending that made sense and which was believable.


Think of your trial as a half an hour show


The lesson: you want the jury to know how your story will turn out because you have already revealed it. You reveal it in the development of your witnesses, the testimony, and the story you are telling. You want them to conclude there is only one fitting ending to the story because nothing else fits the characters you have developed. Just like Gunsmoke.


Oh, and one more thing. Think of your trial as a half an hour show. Not an hour TV show, not a two-hour movie. Not a 6-week series. 30 minutes.


Not sure how to do it? Watch Gunsmoke.


Photo Attribution

  1. Insomnia Cured Here via Flickr

2. Photo by Sammy Williams on Unsplash