By Monty Platz ’03, Assistant Attorney General
The trial attorney is a mix of artist, teacher, actor, and lawyer. A trial must be creatively assembled to best communicate and educate others on one’s message, and such must be channeled by the presence, charisma, and logic of its advocate – the trial attorney. Jurors (and judges) gravitate to the trial advocate to be the guide, master of the facts and law surrounding the case. If one seeks to make a career in the courtroom, the following skills are necessary, and the following tips gleaned from experience:
- Public speaking acumen, with attention to volume, cadence, and tone. You may have a great message, but if the jury cannot hear you or you ramble, the message gets jumbled as well.
- Critical thinking. Understand the justification behind claims, realize what is being inferred but not stated. Looking for rebuttal to all reasoning, even in your arguments.
- Research & writing. A trial is a fluid process; proper legal argument can funnel away irrelevant or harmful issues.
- People skills. Constant communication with your client, victims, and witnesses will glean more information than contained in any record or deposition and will make the process easier for them. You should also look natural when talking to your witnesses, having a conversation with them rather than testing their knowledge Jeopardy style.
- Trial practice. As much as possible before setting foot in a courtroom. You’ll still make mistakes, but you’ll have a head-start over your peers.
- Brief writing. It’s foundational. You can posture and speak grandly, but you need a fundamental understanding of how your law works and the legal waters. Brief writing is the best way to wrap your mind around concepts and learn to logically communicate them. Depending on your organization, you may be appealing your own cases.
- Be organized. Documents and exhibits should be neatly maintained, desks orderly, attire not disheveled. You should exude confidence, not carelessness.
- Be prepared. You should know your case so well you need no reminders of the facts. Juries are more apt to listen to the attorney who knows the case, not one who bumbles through and has to check their notes to see when X event took place.
- No notes in front of the jury. See above. Bringing notes in front of the jury suggests you don’t know your case as well as they think you should.
- Study your case law. While you cannot anticipate every issue, some are obvious. When the time comes, having a case or cite in hand is preferential than trying to persuade the court on your good word alone.
- Visit the Courtroom. Know your room, know the equipment and technology. The jury expects this to be your domain, and if you fumble, they lose confidence.
- Visuals. Watch news clips from 1980 and compare to 2010. Attention spans have changed, and juries expect to be entertained and have visuals. Much like a teacher, the trick is to educate at the same time.
- Never compromise your word. Never ever, ever, ever mislead the court on a point of law, or misrepresent a fact to a jury. This should be self-explanatory, but I have seen overzealous attorneys give it a whirl. You’ll find your credibility on trial instead of your client’s issue and that’s not a position you want to be in.
- Use a mirror. Practice laying out an argument and use the mirror to correct bad habits, such as talking with your hands to the point where you appear to be teaching a Tae-Kwon-Do class.
- Little punches vs. knockout punches. If you are constantly and frivolously making every objection possible (just because you can without a strategy behind it), you minimize the effect of making a point with a strong objection. The same goes for attacking a witness. Consider if it’s worth it to pursue every minor avenue or whether you should even make the point. In one trial the defense marched up 9 straight character witnesses. I didn’t ask a question of a single one and instead dismissed all their testimony with one closing argument line. My questioning would have indicated I was concerned with what they had to say.