The Preparation Paradox: High-Stakes Meetings with David Rudolf from ‘The Staircase’

My guest on this episode is criminal defense attorney David Rudolf. I’ve been wanting to interview David ever since I watched ‘The Staircase’ on Netflix for the first time. In this documentary series, David represents Michael Peterson, an American novelist whose wife was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in their North Carolina mansion.

When watching the documentary, I was deeply impressed with David’s professional performance. Not only because of his legal expertise, but also because of his communication skills and his ability to connect with people – both in and outside the courtroom. 

“What’s really important is to not feel like you’re stuck in a script that you’ve prepared but rather to be listening and reacting spontaneously.” - David Rudolf

Our conversation offers interesting ideas and lessons for professionals who regularly find themselves in high-stakes meetings. We discuss the questioning strategies David uses during cross examination and jury selection, why transparency is key in bad news conversations and how he’s able to perform at his peak when the stakes couldn’t be higher. You’ll also learn how David builds buy-in from his clients for the crucial decisions in a case, which I think is useful for anyone managing or implementing change in organizations.

Attorney David Rudolf (r.) in court during the trial of Michael Peterson (m.), as shown in the Netflix documentary series ‘The Staircase’.  Photo: Netflix

Attorney David Rudolf (r.) in court during the trial of Michael Peterson (m.), as shown in the Netflix documentary series ‘The Staircase’. Photo: Netflix

Show Notes: 

2:15 – How David started his career as a public defender in the Bronx and why he went into teaching

4:39 – What law students learn in clinical programs

6:19 – Why David returned to full-time practice after four years as a professor

8:15 – The importance of putting yourself in the other person’s shoes 

12:02 – Building trust: “You can’t expect people to be completely honest with you the first time they meet you”

15:38 – The importance of communication skills in the work of lawyers

17:12 – How David stays calm when the stakes couldn’t be higher for his clients

19:17 – Putting on a protective cape: the role of preparation in building confidence

23:16 – “I was faking it until I could make it”

24:44 – The structure David used as a young attorney when interviewing jurors

27:32 – Why David could never work for a law firm that bills by the hour

29:26 – Reflecting on his famous Powerpoint meltdown in The Staircase

33:26 – Too much preparation is the enemy of being in the moment

34:18 – Using a roadmap rather than a script during cross examination

35:42 – Wiping down the blow poke: an example from The Staircase of the importance of listening in court

40:20 – David takes us behind the scenes of a challenging meeting in a potential death penalty case

44:00 – “There are times when you can’t be afraid of doing what you think is right”

45:34 – The importance of being transparent and honest in bad news conversations

49:05 – The power of open-ended questions in cross examination and why most young attorneys prefer closed questions

53:40 – Selecting jurors: a personal click is more important than the profile

56:50 – How to get jurors to talk

59:16 – Suspect-based investigations: the impact of tunnel vision on the criminal justice system 

1:02:15 – Good fact, bad fact: how to tackle tunnel vision

1:04:54 – Building trust with clients and getting buy-in for important decisions 

1:08:37 – Why David is on a speaking tour to talk about the work of criminal defense lawyers

Links to people, books and resources mentioned in this episode:

-      David’s personal website, his profile on LinkedIn and Twitter and the website of his law firm Rudolf Widenhouse

-      The trailer of The Staircase documentary series on Netflix

-      The scene from The Staircase in which David demonstrates the importance of listening when questioning Duane Deaver

-      If you want to learn more about how to prepare for public speaking gigs, I highly recommend my earlier episode with Spencer Waldron

-      Background on the poem ‘First they came…’ by Martin Niemöller, which David refers to

-      The interview with David on Russell Brand’s show ‘Under The Skin’, which I mention towards the end of our conversation