Most young attorneys eagerly anticipate attending their first deposition, oral argument, arbitration hearing, or trial. Yet, when they get there, they freeze like deer in headlights, thinking they should just watch, listen, and learn, offering no semblance of assistance to the first-chair attorney. Do not make that same mistake. As a second-chair attorney, you should not be a passive audience member soaking up the ambience of the moment. You should actively participate by following these five steps:
1. Get those contacts. A second chair should know the who and where of a case at all times. Gather the contact information for everyone involved. Always have the cell phone numbers and e-mail addresses of your first-chair attorney, your witnesses, your vendors, and anyone and everyone you will need to reach out to when the crisis occurs. Get the addresses of where you will be going and make sure you know how to get there before you leave.
2. Determine the procedural posture. Any outstanding motions will likely be addressed first, whether you appear before a judge or an arbitrator, and you, as the second chair, should know what they are and how to address them. A second chair can quickly earn top-billing by informing the first chair of outstanding motions or administrative matters and by being prepared to handle them.
3. Know the documents. A second chair must know the documents and their contents. Inevitably, in the heat of an important moment, the first chair will ask you if, when, where, why, or how something happened. You should know the answer to the question or be able to find it and fast. Better yet, you should alert the first chair to important information in those documents. For instance, when your opponent introduces their previously undisclosed documents at trial, you should be the one alerting the first chair to move to exclude those documents as not being produced in advance. Also, if a deponent or witness testifies contrary to documentary evidence, you should know that, pull the relevant document, and bring it to the first chair’s attention. You can easily become a distraction, however, if your attempts to be helpful become an annoyance; you must be aware of when your first chair would like you to share these insights. Does your first chair like sticky notes to be passed to him or her? Does he or she prefer you wait until breaks? Make sure you know this before you assist; this is not a lesson you want to learn because you have aggravated your first chair.
4. Be a right-hand man (or woman). Get things for your first chair before he or she asks for them or even knows they are needed, including the big things, such as exhibits your first chair is about to use, and the little things, such as water for your parched witness who has been on the stand or in the deposition all day. It is important to remember, however, that you are an attorney, and you are there to be helpful as an assistant and as a legal mind. You need to know the law involved in your case, including the legal elements of the claims and/or defenses that have been asserted and the answers to procedural questions that will arise.
5. Don’t react; anticipate. If the first chair turns to you more than you turn to him or her, you have failed as a second chair. Avoid this by anticipating where your first chair, and the case, is headed. Listen to your first chair, the opposing party, and the fact-finder. If opposing counsel directs the witness to an exhibit or references a specific case, you should pull it on your own before your first chair asks for it. When your witness leaves out a point in his or her testimony, bring it to your first chair’s attention.
Do not assume that serving as a second chair gives you a one-day sightseeing pass. A litigation team can only be as strong as its weakest link. Do not let the chink in the armor be a passive second-chair.
Myra Mormile is a litigator at Kelley Drye & Warren LLP in Chicago and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.