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Litigation Journal

Fall 2022 | Work

How I Learned to Be a Great Litigator

Kenneth P Nolan


  • Your job is to win the case. If that means you say little or suppress your ego, then do so.
  • Jurors know if you’re a phony or a “showoff,” and will punish you.
  • If you acknowledge the deficiencies in your case, jurors will admire your candor.
How I Learned to Be a Great Litigator
Trifonov_Evgeniy via iStock

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My legal education began at the Prospect Park Zoo. I was 16 and desperate for money, so, like everyone in my narrow Brooklyn neighborhood, I applied for a job at the zoo. “He’s OK,” one of my buddies told Bob, and I was hired. I was then a busboy in the zoo cafeteria for a glorious $1.25 an hour. I was in heaven.

Every weekend, my friends and I would march through the park to the zoo, where we’d work selling Cracker Jacks and watery drinks from carts or collect tickets on the carousel. My job was the worst—cleaning tables, mopping up the mess, for the thousands of slobs who jammed the zoo trying to escape hot, cramped apartments to stare at the two pathetic polar bears, the fat, bored elephant, or the many smelly monkeys.

We used to pray for rain because on warm, sunny days, the zoo was packed with people just like us with nowhere to go and no money to get there. We hated everyone except the animals—the screaming, whiny brats who puked in their ice cream, the teens who put out their cigarettes in their food, the weary, angry moms and dads, and the Parkies, those lazy, uneducated workers who ran and maintained the zoo. Don’t forget our bosses—Bob, the heavy, white-haired guy who ran the place with never a smile, and the owner, whom we derisively called Junior, an unctuous entitled guy, always in shirt and tie, whose father must have had the concession with the Parks Department. He’d show up “to check on things” and, most likely, stick his hand in the till.

As I was taught, I worked without complaint or joy. I fetched the Parkies their second cup of coffee and said nothing while they sat for hours instead of cleaning the lion’s cage or shoveling manure away from the yak. I arrived on time and never left a second early, all so I could put a few dollars in my empty pockets. No family in my neighborhood had money, so we were ecstatic when we turned 16 and were able to get a real job instead of delivering groceries or newspapers, shoveling snow, or painting wrought iron fences.

Every moment was horrible, but we didn’t mind. No one ever told us work was going to be fun; and if any adults loved their jobs, they kept it a secret. We counted the minutes, collected our pay, and dreamed of revenge for the many and constant insults that were part of our job description.

At that age, I never thought of being anything, never mind a lawyer. Eventually, through error and luck, I studied law and practiced for decades. Not because of any great desire to appreciate the majesty and beauty of law, but because I could make more money than as a teacher. I never thought that cleaning tables was particularly productive, but in retrospect, the zoo taught me much that helped me in a courtroom.

Keep your trap shut. Everyone bossed us around, and we could do nothing about it. Sure, we wanted to mouth off, say something sarcastic, but we knew better. We would get killed if we were fired. “Warm” and “fuzzy” were not adjectives used to describe my mother. Whenever a judge, sitting high and dripping with animus, screamed at me, I waited silently until he was finished before politely trying to convince him that his every word was wrong. Arguing, interrupting with a snide remark would only make it worse, so I said nothing, as I did when I was chewed out in that hot, red-brick cafeteria when I was a teen.

Do every job well. My first chore at the zoo was to clean about 25 crusted mustard jars, filled with soggy French fries, cigarette butts. Made me gag. At first, I couldn’t believe it. Yes, clean them all, and hurry up. Use your hands and a brush. I did, reluctantly, until they shined. I was actually proud, not that anyone noticed. Since then, I’ve done everything as best I could. Might as well. And when the throngs overwhelmed the cafeteria, I would be called in the back to help cook the burgers and dogs, a reward for my efficient, diligent work.

Whenever I dreaded researching another arcane legal issue or responding to my fifth unnecessary discovery motion that day, I told myself it was better than cleaning those mustard jars. Yes, the law biz is a royal pain, but it ain’t the zoo.

Like almost all my friends, I commuted to college while living miserably at home. Brooklyn College had the one quality that I valued most—it was free! That’s right, no tuition. But I still needed money, so I worked as a copyboy for the editorial department at the New York Times on weekends. I had entered a different world—one of power, prestige, and wealth. The guys who wrote the influential editorials—no women then—were unlike anyone I had ever met—brilliant, worldly, and confident. They read Pravda in Russian, Le Monde in French, traveled all over to meet with presidents and dictators, while I had only been to Maryland to visit my cousins. And if our moms were too exhausted to wash the dishes or hang clothes on the line to dry, that was why they had kids. I never heard of anyone who had help until I delivered galleys to an editor’s apartment on Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park, where I was met by a maid in a starched uniform.

The Times exposed me to different ideas, cultures, and people, which made my ignorance obvious and embarrassing. I began to read and study the paper. Eventually, I was asked to become a substitute makeup editor for the editorial and op-ed pages. A prestigious position. I would be responsible for the editorials, letters, and columns, ensuring they fit properly, met the deadline, and were error-free. It was a stressful, demanding job, for editorials were often changed at the last minute, columns were often late and long, and you never knew how the news would affect your pages.

In those medieval days, the powerful union printers controlled production. They transformed the written words into lead type, which they then inserted into a metal frame that became the pages of the Times. These blue-collar guys were extremely protective of their jobs and despised the white-collar editors, who, in turn, were dismissive of these working stiffs. Just like today.

I had to deal with both. You couldn’t yell at a columnist for sending in his copy hours late and 20 lines long, nor could you interrupt a printer as he argued sports with a pal as your deadline passed. Inside you were seething, but you had to remain patient and polite, especially when the editor in charge would march over to me and yell: “Hey, kid, where are your #$%^ pages? You’re holding the whole #$%^ paper.”

Keep your eye on your goal. Too many lawyers make it all about them. Their brilliance—not law and facts—wins cases. They are contemptuous of jurors and, occasionally, judges. My goal was to get those pages to print on time without a comma out of place. Any way that I could. Your job is to win the case. If that means you say little or suppress your ego, then do so. Jurors know if you’re a phony, a “show-off,” and will punish you. If you treat everyone equally, courteously, you’re going to win cases. And that’s what matters.

Communicate clearly and honestly. I talked sports with the printers and politics with the editors. But I didn’t pander, didn’t tell them what they wanted to hear. The same with jurors. Connect with them, but not in an obsequious manner. Use language they understand, avoiding legalese and the vocabulary you learned for the SATs. Look them in the eye. Too many lawyers stare at their notes or over the heads of the jury. Communication is more than words. It’s your demeanor, your body language. How you listen, how you react. Jurors see every facial expression, every move.

Don’t forget to listen—to the witness, judge, and juror during selection. If the printer said something, I would concentrate and respond even though I had 10 other things on my mind. Listening signals respect and value. Everyone deserves that.

After much frustration, I decided to tell the printer—politely, of course—when we were running late. I feared the worst, but almost always he appreciated my directness and worked to make up time. Likewise, when the world-renowned columnist was 40 lines long, I told him he had to cut it within a half hour. He wasn’t happy, but he did it. Honesty is always best. With judges, jurors, and clients. Not the easiest, but most effective.

Admit mistakes. Once I received a memo from the editor that started off “Bad Day at Black Rock,” and then delineated a punctuation error, a typo, and the imprecise use of a verb. I explained that these weren’t really my fault. . . .  The response was clear: Yes, they were. I never tried to weasel out of a mistake again. I was upfront and admitted error. Same with the law: Disclose weakness and then differentiate. Yes, judge, there’s a case that ruled otherwise, but. . . . If you acknowledge the deficiencies in your case, rather than waiting for your adversary to pounce on them, jurors will admire your candor and be more likely to believe you.

I was blessed to have grown up when, where, and how I did. It wasn’t always comfortable, but it was certainly valuable. And it made me a better trial lawyer.