Advice to Young Associates Who Want to Be Trial Lawyers

Vol. 37 No. 4

The author is a partner at Freeborn & Peters LLP, Chicago.

Five years into my practice, I realized that I had spent nearly all my time reviewing thousands and thousands of documents, drafting discovery, responding to discovery requests, presenting unopposed motions for extensions of time (most of which I won), writing compelling letters expressing discontent with the other side’s obviously deficient discovery responses, arguing discovery motions, participating in lengthy joint-defense meetings, crafting motions in limine, and watching the senior lawyers win summary judgment motions and argue in the courts of appeal. There had been no jury selection, no direct or cross-examinations, no opening statements, no closing arguments, no interminable waiting for a jury to return with a verdict, no victory lap, no despair from the loss of a hard-fought battle.

This was not why I had gone to law school. I amassed my best grades in Evidence and Trial Ad, not document review or mind-numbing database-box checking. Would it ever end? Was there any hope?

To curb my frustration, I began doing some things very early on, most of which I still do today. When I started on a new case, I practiced my opening statement. When I saw the other side’s list of people with knowledge, I imagined my cross-examination, an artful craft with the perfect first question and the perfect last question. When I found a document that my opponent would call a “smoking gun” and that I might objectively call a “case killer,” I dreamed up ways to show how that piece of evidence actually helped my theory of the case.

The collision of how my mind works (always thinking about trial) with the reality of how many cases actually go to trial compelled me to figure out how to prepare to be a trial lawyer even when there were no cases to be tried and how to put myself in the best position to be called upon if a case needed to be tried. From the moment I graduated from law school, I knew I wanted to try cases, but I nevertheless chose to start at a law firm where, given its size and complexity, fewer cases than even the norm get tried. I was at that firm for five years, and everyone I came into contact with knew that what I wanted most, professionally, was to try a case. My assistant knew, those in my associate class knew, the junior partners I worked with knew, the senior partners knew, the review committee knew. This is to say nothing of my friends and family. In those five years, I never tried a case. Yet, I became a trial lawyer.

I didn’t realize it until I had my first trial, well into the sixth year of my practice, but six habits—­or perhaps they should be called disciplines—helped me to get to where I wanted to be. These six disciplines helped me to develop trial skills, escape from drowning in documents and petty fights, and gain a “go-to” reputation among partners and colleagues. What are they, you beg?

 

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