by Gracen Daniel
Author’s note: While this article will make observations on the notoriety of the trial, it will not offer an opinion on the outcome or the merits of either litigant’s claims.
The Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard defamation trial just concluded in a firework ending. Briefly, Depp sued Heard claiming Heard defamed him by authoring an article alluding Depp was domestically abusive. Heard countersued, claiming Depp defamed her by calling Heard’s allegations fake. To a casual observer, the trial painted a picture of another high-profile celebrity relationship gone wrong. But to a Gen-Z or Millennial attorney, the trial posed much larger significance. The trial contributed to the fabric of pop culture in a new way by opening the courthouse doors and allowing the public to both consume and participate in the proceedings in an online narrative.
Many young lawyers’ career “firsts” were virtual.
Many young lawyers were licensed during the pandemic. Most of their hallmark “firsts” occurred on Zoom or were influenced by remote technology—including first depositions, mediations, hearings, and even trials. And while courts may be transitioning back to in-person proceedings, many digital “firsts” are now the new norm. As a result, many lawyers grew familiar with online proceedings previously not available. For example, prior to the pandemic, many state courts did not conduct remote proceedings, instead holding in-person docket calls for every matter both large and small. If young lawyers wanted to observe, they had to take the time to appear in-person and sit in the gallery. When courts started virtual livestreamed proceedings at the height of the pandemic, young lawyers were offered a front-row seat to observe court proceedings from the comfort of their own desk and sharpen their trial skills in a new way. Now that many courts are equipped with the necessary technology, various types of virtual proceedings are likely here to stay.
The Depp v. Heard trial was another “first.”
The Depp v. Heard trial offered many young lawyers another “first” hallmark experience – a livestreamed, high-profile celebrity trial. The five-week trial, occurring at the Fairfax County Courthouse in Virginia, was livestreamed worldwide on cable networks and social media platforms. While the public has many memories of high-profile trials, the public’s online content generation made this trial like no other. Livestreams on social media allowed content creators from all over the internet to join the trial narrative. Each day, users’ armchair analysis and recaps of trial highlights filled sites like TikTok and Twitter. According to NBC, the hashtag #justiceforjohnnydepp had nearly 20 billion views on TikTok, while #justiceforamberheard has over 80 million at the time of the verdict. And the buzz made its way inside the courtroom, for example, when attorneys questioned witnesses regarding the effect the social media buzz had on their testimony. Many users theorized that both trial teams were monitoring the online traffic and modifying their questions, mannerisms, and even their outfits accordingly.
The Trial Outside the Courtroom: Online Jurors Missed Nothing
The trial offered a front row seat to millions of daily viewers to see explosive testimony, evidentiary fireworks, and combative experts. The livestreamed trial invited users to participate in a larger narrative of which attorneys were more persuasive and ultimately which party should prevail. A star was born in Camille Vazquez, an associate attorney (just promoted to partner) representing Depp who cross-examined Heard and whose trial skills dominated the online narrative. The trial previewed the Millennial and Gen-Z perception of trials, and lawyers should take note as these generations are now of jury service age. Users watching from these generations picked up on the smallest details. They found endearing the Depp camp’s mass consumption of gummy bears at counsel table. Some commenters unfavorably observed Heard’s continuous note passing to her counsel. Users observed which experts relied too closely to their notes, which witnesses refused to answer direct questions, and which witnesses made too much eye contact with the jury. In-person attendees even tweeted from inside the courtroom gallery, noting which jurors paid attention to each witness and which ones were falling asleep during certain portions of testimony. These takeaways were shared via viral videos, memes, reactions, and tweets, with millions of users joining the comment section on each post.
Learning from the Online Jury
Young lawyers should take note of the trial and the surrounding commentary. While the trial offered a sounding board to the public, it also lent an opportunity for young lawyers to observe a real-life jury trial in the most accessible format. It offered a rare opportunity for dialogue and feedback from laypersons on different trial techniques and strategies. To any lawyer observing the commentary, this trial highlighted the need to be polished, prepared, and precise—or else jurors will notice.
Lawyers can learn by observing not only high-profile livestreamed trials, but also the surrounding online content created. A careful application and incorporation of the good, the bad, and the ugly lessons from future livestreamed trials can prove valuable. Of course, a lawyer cannot learn how to try a case by watching TikTok or scrolling Twitter. But the adage of observing court before going to court proves easier in today’s digital age.
Perhaps digitizing and livestreaming all proceedings is not sustainable for the future. But many Texas courts still stream proceedings, including Harris and Dallas counties. Until courts close their online feeds, younger generations largely communicating and socializing online will continue to participate in future livestreamed trials. Similarly, young lawyers should get online and join them. They may just learn a thing or two along the way.
Gracen Daniel is an associate attorney at Griffith Barbee PLLC. She practices intellectual property and commercial litigation, serving clients in a broad range of industries. As a uniquely experienced young litigator, having tried several federal and state trials, she uses seasoned advocacy to fervently protect her clients’ rights and interests at every stage of a dispute including trial and appeal.
 Hyperlink: https://twitter.com/GellertDepp/status/1519704414327558144?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw|twcamp%5Etweetembed|twterm%5E1519704414327558144|twgr%5E|twcon%5Es1_&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.newsweek.com%2Fjohnny-depp-brings-gummy-bears-sketchpad-court-hearing-1701916
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