A legal summation, also called a closing argument, is the moment in a trial after the close of all evidence where the lawyers from both sides sum up the evidence in the case. The summation in law is an opportunity for both sides to remind the jury – or the judge, in the case of a bench trial – that the evidence in the case is in their favor. Writing a legal summation requires the lawyer to compile all the proven facts of the case and then present them in a persuasive manner to compel the jury to find for his client.
The Parts of a Trial
Most trials, whether civil or criminal, are conducted in a similar fashion, although the local court rules for each state and county may vary on details. After the jury is seated in the jury box, the lawyers on both sides present their opening statements. The plaintiff, or in a criminal case, the prosecution, presents evidence first, including documents and testimony. The defendant goes next.
When there are no more witnesses to present and no more evidence to introduce, the presentation of evidence is closed, and attorneys for both sides deliver their legal summations, or closing arguments.
What Is a Legal Summation?
A closing argument is the chance for each side to reframe the evidence presented at trial so that the evidence looks favorable to that side. A proper summation will recite to the jury the facts that were proven in the case. The summation will explain the laws at issue in the case and apply those laws to the facts presented to convince the jury that the law is in favor of that party. A lawyer can also use the summation to explain why the other party's arguments are weak or incorrect.
What to Include in Legal Summations in Court
The legal summation can include:
- A recitation of what the evidence showed.
- A clear and concise description of the laws that apply in the case.
- An illustration of how the law applies to the facts proven.
- Reasons why the facts do not support the other party's position.
- Mention of the judge's jury instructions and a reminder to the jury that they must follow them.
- A request to the jury to find in favor of the party giving the summation.
What to Avoid in a Legal Summation
Legal summations should be easy to follow and should stick to the facts in evidence. Attorneys may use emotionally charged language to make their pleas to the jury to find for their clients and may be creative in their presentation; the use of rhetorical questions, examples and storytelling is common.
However, lawyers should avoid certain things when giving a summation, including:
- The use of inflammatory, prejudicial language: Calling the other party or other attorney names or engaging in personal attacks may risk censure by the judge and may alienate the jury.
- Presentation of facts that were not put into evidence during the trial: Facts that were not presented to the jury, including evidence that was excluded by the judge, cannot be used in a summation. Only admitted evidence should be discussed in the summation.
- Insincerity and pandering: If the jury finds an attorney's theatrics off-putting and does not find the attorney to be authentic, the jurors may miss key points of the summation and find themselves turned off to the attorney's arguments.
Reviewing legal summation examples from past cases and from actual televised trials can assist in learning how to properly present a summation. Lawyers can also practice their summations in front of friends and family who are not lawyers to get a feel for how their closing arguments might be received by laypersons.
A legal summation should present to the factfinder all the evidence presented at trial. While the summation cannot include evidence that was not admitted or not presented, and lawyers should avoid insulting and prejudicial language, the summation can and should be used to point out the proven facts and use persuasive language to convince the jury that those facts are in the client's favor.
Rebecca K. McDowell is a creditors' rights attorney with a special focus on bankruptcy and insolvency. She has a B.A. in English from Albion College and a J.D. from Wayne State University Law School. She has written legal articles for Nolo and the Bankruptcy Site.