The Trial Lawyer’s Need To Control The Middle of The Board

Visiting with my brother over the Thanksgiving holiday, our talk turned to strategy in chess. I confessed that, after about the fourth or fifth move in any game, I’m invariably at a loss for what to do next. My brother pointed out that, like so many games (and sports), the most important factor is to control a particular environment or space within the board.  “Just like you want to control the ‘T’ on a squash court,” he said, “you always want to control the middle of the board in chess.”

Later the same day, in writing another blog post, I was looking at the brilliant primer on trial advocacy prepared by my former partner, Lee Horton. Among his rules in the Preface, I came across the following:

“I attempt to control the case and the environment in which it is presented. The best prepared lawyer is almost always in the best position to control a witness or the flow of evidence. But controlling the courtroom environment is also important. I try to reduce the potential prejudicial variables in a courtroom to as few as possible. Remember, a juror associates everyone in the courtroom associated with you with your client’s claim. Therefore, I only want essential personnel in the courtroom. I also believe that those which do come into the courtroom should be properly schooled on courtroom attire and conduct. This may sound extreme, but I can point to three large cases that were lost because of a lack of consideration of the potential prejudice which can come from an out-of-control courtroom environment. In one case, the jury got mad because of the note-passing between the defense counsel and their client in the audience. In another case, the jury perceived the defense as dishonest because a paralegal frequently found herself in the bathroom with jurors on a break. In the last example, the jurors resented smirks from unknowing associates who came to watch their first trial.”  (Emphasis added.)

Taken in the most literal sense, I’ll admit it’s something of a stretch to analogize the courtroom environment with the center of a chess board, or the “T” in squash. But I think there is something here worth observing. While just controlling the courtroom environment by eliminating harmful distractions isn’t a recipe for automatic victory, the failure to maintain control at any point in the jury’s presence can be fatal.

In a less literal sense, however, there may be something more to the analogy.  After all, controlling the center of the chess board, or the “T” in the squash court, will always put the opponent on the defensive (at least until she over/re-takes the middle of the board or the “T” area of the court). As I’m a lousy squash player, I’m familiar with the feeling of trying to over/re-take the “T”. In other words, I’m familiar with being on the defensive in squash and, as a result, I lose most games.

But I never like the feeling of being on the defensive in a case or in the courtroom (even when representing a defendant). I do know the feeling, though. Naturally it can happen when one party has far better evidence, or when parties are not in comparable financial positions, such that continued or aggressive litigation will financially exhaust one party (or their lawyer) before the other. But these are circumstances beyond any lawyer’s control (at least any defense lawyer–a prosecutor or plaintiff’s lawyer should be able to choose better cases).

More commonly, though, I’ve seen it (or experienced it myself) by coming “late to the party” or being underprepared for an event, like a deposition or a hearing. I so hate that feeling I try never to be on the defensive for the wrong reasons. Like so much else in our profession, it comes down to preparation. By being the better prepared advocate, I control the “T” of the squash court, the middle of the board.

About Alex Craigie

I am an AV-Preeminent rated trial lawyer. My practice focuses on helping companies throughout Southern California resolve employment and business disputes. The words in this blog are mine alone, and do not reflect the views of the Dykema law firm or its clients. Also, these words are not intended to constitute legal advice, and reading or commenting on this blog does not create attorney-client relationship. Reach me at acraigie@dykema.com. View all posts by Alex Craigie

3 responses to “The Trial Lawyer’s Need To Control The Middle of The Board

  • Anonymous

    I could not agree more. The only skill more valuable to an attorney than being able to think on your feet is having gone through the necessary preparation to avoid utilization of those reflexive attorney instincts.

  • Will Prettyman

    I could not agree more. Preparation is the key to controlling all aspects in and involving litigation. Although I am not an avid squash player, I analogize controlling the courtroom with playing offense in basketball. When I have control of the ball and do my job, there is little the opposing side can do. In basketball, like the courtroom, great offense usually beats good defense.

  • Kristopher Leon

    Preparation is a lawyer’s greatest tool.

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