Attorney Sidebar: On the Value of Primacy in Your Opening Statement

~ Peter Perlman

The psychological principle of primacy teaches us that people tend to believe the first explanation or impression they get on a topic. Accordingly, in a trial, jurors are most likely to believe the story they hear first (if they have a good impression of the storyteller). Once a first impression – whether good or bad – has been made, that impression will be readily retained and difficult to alter. Therefore, if you impress the jurors favorably with your version of the facts, your opponent will be hard-pressed to change the jurors’ minds.

~ Peter Perlman, “Opening Statements”, ATLA Press, 2007, page 1.

We have heard the principles of “recency and primacy” so often that I believe they are discounted, if not ignored.  But you would be ignoring these persuasion rules at your own risk.  A trial lawyer must make a favorable impression.

First minimize the negatives in the way you appear and talk to the jury.  This begins during jury selection, but hopefully builds in your favor as the trial progresses.  In voir dire, the jury gets the flavor of the case and whether you area the “go to” person for guiding them through this trial maze.  You cannot/should not jump into anything even resembling an argument during void dire, but you can set the stage and pique their interest when you make the opening statement.

Second, expand on the positives which usually begins in earnest in opening statement. There are many suggestions on how to do an opening, and I won’t digress here.  But, the rule of primacy should tell you to chose your method carefully and select your words wisely.

In it’s basic form, recency and primacy and its effect on learning is expressed as —

The Primacy/Recency Effect is the observation that information presented at the beginning (Primacy) and end (Recency) of a learning episode tends to be retained better than information presented in the middle.

Click here for source of this quote.

I include an article from Courtroom Sciences, Inc by Bill Kanasky, Jr. Ph.D. will digs deeper on this topic, entitled The Primacy and Recency Effects: Secret Weapons of Opening Statements