Abraham Lincoln’s Jury Lawyering: Lessons for Sponsors Before FDA Advisory Committees

By John Ellis, Communications Coach

Recently, while reading “Lincoln’s Last Trial” by Dan Abrams and David Fisher, I was struck by strong parallels between Lincoln’s famously successful jury lawyering and the ways successful sponsors communicate with panelists at FDA advisory committee meetings:

  • First, Lincoln kept a laser-like focus on those one or two issues most likely to determine the jurors’ votes.
  • Second, he did everything in his power to keep the jurors’ minds and hearts open; he built a relationship with them as colleagues in a common enterprise; he didn’t pick needless fights; he treated everyone—from witnesses to prosecutors to judges—with respect.
  • Third, he marshaled the facts into a clear and compact narrative that embodied his interpretation of those facts in a way the jurors could easily follow and remember.

As you read the short excerpts from the book in the bullets below—with some coach’s comments from me in sub-bullets—please note that while some of the aspects of what Lincoln did in the courtroom and what a sponsor needs to do at White Oak are not completely interchangeable, their similarity in spirit is striking.

  • [Just before his summation]: “Abraham Lincoln spent several seconds straightening the papers on the table in front of him, took a moment to fix his stock [tie], then stood…and faced the jury. And smiled…When [he] approached the jury box and leaned over close, he was just talking to some friends.”
    • Lincoln gave the jury a moment so they could give him their full attention. For any of us to have a chance of persuading people, they must first be giving us their full attention. 
    • Also, it’s remarkable how quickly all of us can forge feelings of friendly respect with others when we’re bound together in a common purpose.
  • “…weaving facts and emotions into a plausible tale….”
    • When creating a persuasive argument, facts and emotions are not either/or. The trick, as Aristotle well knew, is to make facts and emotions reinforce each other.
  • “…people simply liked him.”
    • A gift? Yes. But it was also a reflection of the attitude he radiated.
  • “He showed jurors a different way of looking at the same facts….”
    • This, of course, is the nub of it.
  • “[M]ost cases, he knew, turned on one significant point. He willingly conceded those points he couldn’t win or that made little difference, building up goodwill with the judge and jury that might pay off when he pounced on the salient issue.”
    • What to say when becomes much clearer when you’re focused on the verdict or the vote.
  • [Lincoln once gave this advice to his partner, Herndon:] ‘Billy, don’t shoot too high; aim lower and the common people will understand you. They are the ones you want to reach. The educated and refined people will understand you, anyway. If you aim too high, your idea will go over the head of the masses and hit only those who need no hitting.’
    • While there aren’t, in Lincoln’s sense, ‘common people’ among FDA staffers and panelists, there are always salient differences in educational and professional experiences whenever an Advisory Committee is convened. So, speak in a way that includes everyone–clear, concise, and compelling, using easily grasped comparisons for highly technical points.
  • “Lincoln rarely attacked a witness, believing the damage done to his relationship with the jury by that action might be more harmful than any gain from disputing facts. These were all friends and neighbors, good people, and it was taken for granted they were telling the truth. But even good people tended to remember things different, ‘specially when there was a whole hullabaloo going on around them.’”
    • For “friends and neighbors,” read the panelists and FDA staffers (whether physicians, statisticians, etc.). For “telling the truth,” read interpreting and conveying the data the way they understand it. For ‘hullabaloo,’ read a highly complex data set.
  • “…in his summation, Lincoln’s real focus was on those few issues that made all the difference in the outcome…Slowly he wound his way into the core of the case, moving step-by-step away from the facts into his interpretation of them.”
    •  In a similar way, no therapy, or its clinical development program, is perfect. You keep minds open by acknowledging that. At the same time, you know that what influences votes is not so much the facts as what committee members think the facts mean.
  • “[As the summation proceeded] his voice grew louder and was colored by emotion. His words cut through the calm he had created. Lincoln had laid the groundwork, he had done the legal job, now he was going for the heart….[Yet] this wasn’t a performance; this wasn’t an attempt to manipulate emotions. Lincoln meant every word he said.”
    • May it be so for all of us.