Having the time and inclination to prepare as much as necessary–even over-prepare–really is a great equalizer when it comes to the trial lawyer’s craft. I had the good fortune to practice for a brief time with a distinguished aviation trial lawyer, Lee Horton, who gifted to me a primer he wrote years ago to help young associates learn how to try a case. In the Preface to this primer, he wrote:
“Whatever success I have had as a trial lawyer has been based on the following very simple rules. These are: 1. Recognizing that there are a lot of people smarter than I am, but only a few that can outwork me.”
I am saving the remaining 3 rules from his primer for future posts. But when I read this first rule I found it to be a comforting revelation. I rarely hold the opinion that I am the smartest guy in any room. But when I remind myself of this first “Horton Rule,” I am empowered with the notion that there is an additional X factor that I alone control: how much time and effort I devote to being the better prepared lawyer in the (court) room.
It can be difficult to know precisely how much preparation is necessary. I find that the first time I do anything I tend to heavily over-prepare. For example, I do not frequently argue before appellate courts. However, a few years back an opponent appealed a favorable ruling I obtained on an anti-SLAPP motion. Fully briefed, it came time for oral argument of the case. I knew that I would want to over-prepare because only then would I feel ready for my first appellate court oral argument. I also knew I didn’t want my client to bear the financial brunt of this need to over-prepare, so I queried a few of my partners who had more appellate experience about how long they would typically spending preparing for such an oral argument. While I ultimately spent about three times as much as my partners suggested, I only billed the client for a third of my time.
We can learn from other disciplines about how much preparation is enough. I studied piano as an adult, and my teacher had attended the Moscow Conservatory and often shared stories from his time learning from one great master or another. He once described how hard he would work to prepare for a solo performance: when he thought he had memorized every nuance of a piece he would set his alarm to go off in the middle of the night. He would wake from a deep sleep, go immediately to the piano and play the piece. Only when he could literally play the piece, including every nuance, while still half asleep did he know he was really ready to perform.
There are multiple ways in which excessive preparation can be a weapon. I have learned from judges and mediators that the party whose counsel is better prepared is always at a distinct advantage in a pretrial mediation or settlement conference. On the other hand, there is no rule that says you have to make your opponent aware how prepared you are. I am a great believer in treating opposing counsel as a mushroom (i.e., keeping them completely in the dark) when it suits my strategy. Sometimes I want the element of surprise that comes from not revealing how prepared I am until it’s too late for them to catch up.
Is there such a thing as over-preparation to the point of diminishing returns? Undoubtedly. The key is to have enough lead time to accommodate the preparation you need without sacrificing your health, including mental health. Like most everyone, I pulled the occasional all-nighter in college and law school. But it was exhausting then, and it would be really exhausting now. Definitely not a good way to start a trial.