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The Tao of the Courthouse Shoeshine

March 12, 2019

By R. Steven Haught

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As a trial lawyer for 40 years, I have prepared countless witnesses to testify at trials or depositions. Each witness is unique, requiring preparation specific to the personality and skill set of the witness as well as the type of case involved. With some witnesses, the naturals, I merely engage in a general discussion of the subject matter of the testimony, while others require intensive preparation with a mock trial with direct examination and cross-examination.

Some witnesses need to be videotaped and coached with regard to gestures and facial expressions. Some witnesses are so nervous that I have taken them to the courthouse to watch other trials or to sit in the witness chair in an empty courtroom. I thought I had seen it all, but then I witnessed a new technique employed by veteran Oklahoma City trial lawyer John Vitali.

I saw Mr. Vitali with a client at the courthouse. They were in the lobby, and his client looked nervous and somewhat despondent. He was well-dressed in a suit and tie with nice shoes. He looked ill at ease. Mr. Vitali was upbeat and chatty, but he noticed his client’s demeanor as well.

Suddenly he made a suggestion to his client, “What about a shoeshine?” The client declined, pointing to his shoes that were not in particular need of a shine. Mr. Vitali persisted, directing his client to climb on the chair while engaging in friendly banter with the shoeshine man, a seasoned courthouse veteran who served as a counselor and courthouse guide and could tell you what verdicts were rendered that week and what kind of mood your judge was in that day.

Reluctantly the client obeyed. As Mr. Vitali and I visited, I saw the client’s demeanor begin to change. The transformation was gradual at first but then the improvement was quite dramatic. As the shoes became shinier, so did the client’s disposition. He sat up in the chair. He began to smile and joke around.

I departed to go to my courtroom, but as I saw Mr. Vitali and his client walk down the hall with confidence and a sense of purpose, I realized that I had witnessed a new form of witness preparation – the transcendental power of the courthouse shoeshine.

Mr. Haught practices in Oklahoma City.
Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal — OBJ 90 pg. 88 (March 2019)

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