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Tips for Associates to Maximize Growth During Mock Trial Exercises

R. Brady Herman

Tips for Associates to Maximize Growth During Mock Trial Exercises
RichLegg via Getty Images

Many young associates assimilate into Big Law firms with aspirations of managing their own cases from start to finish. This includes deposing fact witnesses and experts, briefing dispositive motions, arguing those motions, and ultimately, playing a role at trial. But in reality, opportunities to actually play a role at trial may be scarce for a young attorney at a Big Law firm.

Early on in their careers, most aspiring trial attorneys find themselves in a paradoxical situation where they are told they need more experience before they can take the deposition or argue the motion or examine a witness at trial. Because the high stakes in most litigations handled by Big Law firms create certain barriers to entry, associates may need to seek out other opportunities to hone their trial skills. One invaluable opportunity is the mock jury trial exercise, which is offered in-house by many law firms and externally through trial training programs. These exercises allow for less experienced, aspiring trial attorneys to argue motions in limine, present an opening argument, examine fact and expert witnesses, levy and respond to objections, argue a directed verdict motion, and present a closing argument, all in the presence of a mock judge and jury panel.

For many young attorneys, a mock trial exercise is the closest proxy for a real trial and one of their first opportunities to hone that craft. Maximizing this opportunity can pave the way to understanding how you are perceived by others, developing your own unique style, and becoming a better trial attorney. Here are the best tips to ensure young lawyers take full advantage of such an experience:

  1. Be Prepared—Treat the mock jury trial exercise like it is a real trial. Outline your arguments and examinations in advance of the exercise, study those outlines, and refine them as the exercise approaches. Be familiar with the exhibits you plan to use, whether you plan to move them into evidence, and whether you want to display (or publish) them to the jury. Practice your arguments repeatedly in front of the mirror or others until you are comfortable with the general framework of the argument. Overpreparation will allow you to focus on the nuances and refinements of your style and approach as a trial attorney as opposed to the basic explanation of the case to the jury.
  2. Be a Great Listener—Ernest Hemingway once said, “When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” Listening carefully to a question asked by the judge—rather than focusing too soon on the response—will improve your ability to try cases. Likewise, listening for an answer from a witness before asking the next question will help you be effective. Good listening is an acquired skill. Strong listening skills also help to enhance judgment—another trait that all great trial attorneys seem to possess. Most mock jury trial exercises are structured so that the judge, witnesses, and jurors will provide feedback to the participants. Set your ego aside and listen closely to their constructive feedback.
  3. Experiment—A mock jury trial exercise provides the opportunity to try out techniques that might otherwise be too risky at a real trial. Test arguments, draw analogies, use themes, and create demonstratives to engage the jury. Pay attention to what works and what does not and to what draws an objection and what does not. Think about the most impactful way to drive home a point or finish your cross-examination of a witness. Take notes during the exercise and prepare questions for the jury to confirm your suspicions about how the jury perceived your experiments.
  4. Accept Criticism, Learn from It, and Grow—Not everyone will see the case through your lens. You might hear conflicting feedback about specific aspects of your presentation, but even those inconsistencies may better your general understanding of the trial process, differing opinions, and how to avoid similar pitfalls in the future. Take the feedback and critiques seriously, but do not take them personally. Great trial attorneys receive criticism, make adjustments, and learn from the experience. Real juries provide a working laboratory for examining theoretical issues related to reasoning, memory, judgment and decision making, attribution, stereotyping, persuasion, and group behavior. A mock jury trial exercise is a controlled extension of that, so treat it accordingly.