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December 18, 2013 Articles

Five Fast Tips for Young Trial Lawyers in Court

Learn the fundamentals from a husband and wife team with a collective 50 years of experience

By Paula H. Holderman and Judge James F. Holderman

We have collectively spent more than 50 years in state and federal trial courts. We have also taught persuasive trial court techniques to law students and young lawyers for more than 30 years. Based on our experience, we know that having good trial skills is only one fundamental part of what makes a good trial lawyer. So, in addition to being a quality lawyer, here are five fast tips to help young trial lawyers achieve career success.

1. Be professional, ethical, and civil. Having a reputation as an outstanding professional is your most valuable asset both in court and in your career. Professionalism is nothing more than conducting yourself in a way that garners respect for and confidence in your ability to advise and advocate for others.

And while someone could argue about what is proper professional attire these days, two principles of professionalism remain steadfast—civility and ethics. Ethics are required and civility is expected. In fact, making both ethics and civility mandatory for yourself in court will benefit you and your client. Practicing with civility and ethics will enhance your courtroom credibility with the judge and with the vast majority of your opposing counsel—and their clients.

Civility also includes promptness and reliability. Being on time for court proceedings is crucial to being professional, as is completing a task, such as filing a trial brief, by the set deadline. Of course, there are unexpected delays that occur on occasion, but having the reputation of reliability, as someone others can count on to do the job right and on time, increases your professional stature with judges and everyone else associated with the court.

In addition, your civility should extend to clients, court personnel, other counsel, and opposing parties. You should think of everyone you meet as a potential client. Nothing is more professionally gratifying than to have an opposing lawyer from an earlier case call to refer a matter to you. And it’s even more satisfying if that lawyer’s client calls to hire you.

2. Know your case and think like your judge. To know your case means not only having good recall of the facts that you can present at trial but also knowing how those facts fit into the elements of every claim and defense in the case. Also, you need to know the legal standard the judge is required by law to apply to every motion and argument you make.

To think like your judge, all you need to ask yourself is: “If I were the judge, what would I want to know about this case to help me make my decision?” We have found that one of the most enjoyable aspects of trial practice is predicting what the judge will do and being right. The more you are right about what the judge will do, the more successful you will be. So, think like your judge.

3. Know the rules and follow them. To know the rules, you should start by consulting adopted, published, court-wide rules of procedure and evidence of the trial court in which you are appearing. In the federal district courts, you need to know the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure or Criminal Procedure and definitely the Federal Rules of Evidence before you walk in the courthouse door. Know how those rules apply to your case and be ready to explain it (courteously) to the judge.

Also, many courts across the country have written local rules. In each federal district court, the court’s local rules can be found on the court’s website. You should consult those local rules and ensure that your conduct comports with them when in that trial court.

In addition, many trial judges put their standard procedures and practices on their court’s website. There are occasions when the customs and traditions of a court or judge are not stated in writing. It is recommended practice to consult a lawyer with experience in front of that particular court or judge to learn what these unwritten customs and traditions are for the court or judge. Also, a trial judge’s courtroom clerk and court reporter are good sources of information about a particular judge’s procedures. Follow the judge’s procedures carefully when in court. It will make the judge and you happier.

4. Choose your battles. If you can develop the judgment to choose your battles, you will be well on your way to a successful trial practice. Don’t fight over trivial issues or technicalities; don’t flood your opponent with motions or arguments just because you can. Such conduct will not enhance your case with the judge, and you may lose credibility.

Discovery issues are the number one battleground in litigation. With the explosion of electronically stored information over the past decade, e-discovery has become the most expensive and often the most irritating aspect of a case. Set reasonable parameters in cooperation with the other side without involving the court. Everyone will be better off.

Clients want value and are no longer willing to pay for excessive and superficial attorney gamesmanship. Establishing a reputation as a good trial lawyer who provides value will lead to repeat business. Likewise, having a good reputation for case management with a judge will help you each time you appear before that judge. And don’t forget that judges talk to each other and that they are part of the network where reputations—good or bad—spread quickly.

5. Ask for help if you need it. As a new lawyer, you should ask for help whenever you think you may need it or even when you are not sure you need it. Take our word for it—you do.

It’s not just a matter of wanting to avoid embarrassment—remember that the Rules of Professional Conduct provide lawyers with a professional obligation to provide “competent representation,” which requires the necessary “legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation.”

Don’t let your client suffer because you were too embarrassed, afraid, or arrogant to ask for help. There are all kinds of resources—other lawyers in your firm or agency, mentors, bar association or Inn of Court colleagues, list serves, live “learn-by-doing” classes, or online CLE courses. If you can, take time to observe respected trial lawyers in court. Watching other successful trial lawyers perform is not only educational; it’s fun, even if not directly financially rewarding. You are investing the time in your future as a trial lawyer.

These are just five fast tips on a topic that can take a lifetime to perfect, but starting now can help any young trial attorney establish an outstanding reputation and guarantee a successful career.

Good luck!

Keywords: litigation, trial practice,  trial skills, career development

Copyright © 2013, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).