I Wish I'd Known

Vol. 40 No. 3

By

Trey Cox is a trial lawyer in Dallas with Lynn Tillotson Pinker & Cox, LLP. He is board certified as a trial advocate by the National Board of Trial Advocacy. Cox represents Fortune 500 corporations, entrepreneurs, and leading firms in a wide array of industries.

My dad, a practicing lawyer of 30-plus years, always told me, “Experience is a tough teacher: It gives the exam first and the lesson later.” I did not understand his advice until I found myself staring down the proverbial barrel of a gun—30 days out from my first trial in federal court in Dallas.

Almost five years to the day from when I passed the bar, I had the good fortune (or unfortunate curse) of starting a $4 million fraud defense, involving a complicated and incomplete contract for the manufacture of computer circuit boards. I remember many a late night worrying how I was going to create an exhibit list from thousands of pages of documents. I wondered how to sequence my arguments in a fashion that would persuade a jury that my client had behaved in a reasoned and principled way.

What I gradually figured out is that the trial was not going to prepare itself while I worried away. I had to dive in and do it. As I put things together, I would bounce ideas off my senior partners, my wife, and, quite frankly, anyone who would listen. In the process, I gradually built a story that I felt, based on the advice and encouragement of others, would hold together and ultimately persuade the jury. Looking back, I made plenty of mistakes preparing and presenting the case. I still hold the dubious honor of being the only lawyer in Dallas to have had a “best evidence” objection sustained against him. But the trial worked out. The jury found no fraud. More important, I learned a lot from the experience.

My advice to any young litigator is to jump in and try it. Approach your trial practice as if you were Mikey from the old Life cereal commercials. You remember Mikey … and if you don’t (because you are so damn young), take 30 seconds and watch this refresher. There are two boys resisting a new experience, eating a bowl of cereal that “is supposed to be good for you.” They avoid the experience by giving it to Mikey, who, lo and behold, benefits from the experience—he likes it. Approaching your practice, be like Mikey, and embrace every experience put in front of you. In the end, my dad was right: experience is a tough teacher, but I would add that it is also the best teacher.

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