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January 04, 2017

Preparing for Your First Case

Preparing for Your First Case (a Career Process)

When I arrived for my first day of law school, I assumed that over the next three years I would learn all there was to know about the law and then I would share that knowledge with others over the course of my career. Nothing could have been further from the truth. As we all know, as law students, we simply learn “how to learn,” a process that will continue throughout our career, and a responsibility we will carry from the first day of practice until the last.

So how does one prepare for one’s first case while in law school? The answer may be surprising: We prepare for our first case during law school the same way we prepare for our last case and every case in between over the course of our career.

We prepare by exposing ourselves to good trial lawyers and the skilled trying of cases, both in real courtrooms and in motion pictures. We prepare by taming the demons of the fear of public speaking and transforming ourselves into persuasive and eloquent orators. We prepare by joining organizations where we will socialize and learn from the best trial lawyers in the country. We prepare by developing a ferocious appetite for reading about how one persuades the hearts and minds of humans, not only in the field of the law but also in the related fields of marketing, psychology, and drama.

In my view, the finest trial lawyers bring to their first case, and their last, more than the legal elements of a claim and defenses, more than a mastery of the federal and local rules and regulations, more than becoming familiar with the idiosyncrasies of a local judge or a local courtroom’s practices.

Set forth below are six examples of action that can be taken now while you are in law school and then continued throughout the course of your career that will enable you to prepare both for your first and last case, and every case in between. I trust that the examples will stimulate your imagination to expand the list as you become the finest trial lawyer you can be.

  1. Go to the courthouse and see actual trials. Make a particular effort to attend trials conducted by the best lawyers in your jurisdiction. Even attending criminal trials can allow you to learn the idiosyncrasies of local practice and the dos and don'ts of the art of persuasion.

  2. Read the masters and consider, select, and practice their recommendations. Examples:  Trial Notebook by James W. McElhaney; Trying Cases to Win (the trial series by Herbert J. Stern); and The Art of Storytelling: Easy Steps to Presenting an Unforgettable Story by John D. Walsh.

  3. See well-made movies about trial lawyers that will ignite your imagination and inspire you, such as The Verdict; Anatomy of a Murder; and My Cousin Vinny.

  4. Obtain public-speaking experience every chance you get by joining a Toastmasters group or becoming involved in other organizations where you are forced to engage in public speaking regularly.

  5. As a law student, interview both older and younger lawyers about their experiences in handling their first case or cases in general. Once in practice, join organizations such as the Section of Litigation of the American Bar Association, where you will socialize, work with, and learn from some of the best trial lawyers in the country.

  6. Read about winning people’s hearts and minds in fields outside the law, such as marketing, psychology, and motivational speaking. Read books such as Jeffrey Gitomer’s Little Green Book of Getting Your Way (how to speak, write, present, persuade, influence, and sell your points of view to others); Say It in Six: How to Say Exactly What You Mean in Six Minutes or Less by Ron Hoff; Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton; Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek; and Secrets of Power Persuasion: Everything You’ll Ever Need to Get Anything You’ll Ever Want by Roger Dawson.

Preparing for your first case—and your last—starts today.

Dennis P. Rawlinson, Miller Nash Graham & Dunn LLP