Living through trial. The only thing most of us think about is winning. (Unless, like me, you get that 11 pm craving for carne asada burritos con guacamole, then you think about that, too.) After the verdict, win or lose, the last thing everybody wants is to go back through it and take stock of what happened, what went well or went poor and how we can do better next time.
But there is real wisdom, once the dust truly settles, in going back over everything to ponder, “What did we learn from this?” For institutional clients of every size, trials are a huge investment of time, money and resources. It makes a lot of sense for them, ideally in conjunction with their counsel, to do a trial postmortem. This not only helps prevent future “situations” requiring litigation but, if cases do arise in the future, it enhances the chances of success. Astute lawyers recognize the value and opportunities of this process and collaborate with their clients to do a comprehensive postmortem, possibly for free! Even if the client shows no interest, much can still be gained if only the members of the trial team come together for a postmortem session.
A generous article on this topic, “Trial ‘After Action Reviews,’” appeared in the August, 2013 issue of For the Defense. The authors, Milwaukee lawyers Ric Gass and Michael B. Brennan, point out that “Army generals as far back as Caesar in his ‘Commentaries on the Gallic War’ have learned strategic and tactical lessons through after action reports.” (Id. at 29) The article is sweeping in its scope. Among the valuable points made by the authors was the following:
“Crucial to the success of an after action review is, to use the military jargon, ‘leaving your rank at the door.’ If you are the lead counsel, you need to be willing to listen and to learn from the observations of others on your team. You were probably too busy while doing that crucial cross-examination to take in everything else in the courtroom, such as reactions of jurors, or of the judge or opposing counsel. But your co-counsel, your paralegal, or your jury consultant did watch for those reactions, and you need to hear what they saw.” (Id.)
The authors suggest some topics for review during the postmortem, including:
- Jury Research: “Did the jury research accurately predict the attitudes and reactions of the jurors and the ultimate result on liability and damages?” (Id.)
- Opening: “What worked well for us? What worked well for opposing counsel?” (Id.)
- Direct Examinations: “Did a certain witness’s testimony connect with the jury, and if so, why?” (Id.)
- Cross-Examinations: “Was the tone of the questions too harsh or too lenient? . . . How many of the admissions made on cross-examination made it into the closing argument?” (Id. at 30.)
- Expert Witnesses: “Would we use this expert again, and more importantly, why?” (Id.)
- Closings: “What worked well for each party, and why?” (Id.)
Finally, the authors point out that:
“Being a trial lawyer is a lifelong learning experience. . . . If you have had any kind of trial, but especially a major trial, you need to appreciate it for all the experience it brings and to wring every last piece of learning that you can from the experience. . . . [Y]ou need to figure out how to carry that understanding and the techniques that went right to your next trial.” (Id.)
I know first-hand how much clients appreciate it if, after the trial, you offer to travel to their offices and help your in-house counterpart prepare and present a postmortem, with the specific goal of avoiding similar situations in the future. They really, really appreciate it when you don’t charge them for the experience. If your trial counsel won’t do this for you, ask them why not. Then remember to call me.