Experienced lawyers speak about trying to learn something from every case you handle. This is valuable advice, and something most of us probably do without really thinking about it. But I’ve found it more valuable and interesting to try to learn at least one thing each from at least most lawyers I come across in the course of my practice. In many ways our professional education only begins in earnest after we finish law school, pass the bar and start plying our trade. I was fortunate to have a great mentor during these formative first years, but I recognize the reality that not every new lawyer is going to bond with a mentor.
In an odd way, however, every lawyer we encounter in our practice can act as a mentor of sorts and, if we’re perceptive, can open our eyes and help shape us into better lawyers. Let me offer a couple of illustrations. Let’s first take a positive example. Some years back, my partner and I defended a catastrophic product liability case against an older aviation lawyer. This guy, who is now retired, was quite literally a trial legend. He was sharper in his early 80s than most of us at our peak. Our case together resolved pretty early on, but I still had an opportunity to share an almost empty courtroom with him one morning while we waited for our judge to rule in chambers on an ex parte application.
What did I take away from the experience? Probably more than I realize, but what struck me at the time, and has stuck with me since, was the way in which he interacted with the courtroom clerk and bailiff. We’ve all seen how lawyers parade into courts and treat the courtroom staff with . . . let’s call it indifference, or sometimes worse. We litigators often see clerks and bailiffs as impediments to what we’re trying to accomplish. I know at my worst moments I’ve done it. But I saw how my opponent’s manner was different. When he spoke with the clerk and bailiff he engaged them. From his attention and questions, it was obvious he had a genuine interest in their backgrounds, their interests and families. It wasn’t a stretch to imagine he would take a similar interest during voir dire in the prospective jurors who would decide his client’s case.
We all know people who are have this kind interpersonal curiosity—they’re often very successful, as politicians, leaders—or trial lawyers. Why are they so successful? Because being interested—genuinely interested—is the first step in creating a bond, which involves trust. And the ability to garner trust can be among a trial lawyer’s greatest strengths.
Not every lawyer we encounter is worthy of emulation, and that can be a valuable learning experience, too. And we don’t learn only from seasoned lawyers, newbies who have a trait or style can help shape us, if we’re paying attention. In particular I’m thinking of a young associate I came up against a while back. I previously wrote about this guy. On the surface, he had a lot going for him. He seemed intelligent, charming and had scored a job working for an LA-based “Nader Raider” automotive product liability lawyer who boasted a string of six and seven-figure trial verdicts.
It wasn’t too long, however, before it became clear to everyone on our side of the fence that this associate had something of a . . . reckless relationship with the truth. Not only did he make calculated and blatant misrepresentations to our judge, but every telephone call or conversation with him was followed by a letter purportedly “confirming” several things that were either not discussed or never agreed upon. From this lawyer I learned how precious is a lawyer’s reputation for honesty. It is an undeserved gift; one that we must never squander.
Sometimes the way an opponent practices forces us to confront our intuitions about whether something is ethical or appropriate. We learn from this, too. For example, I am presently litigating a civil case against a pretty seasoned lawyer who spent the first half of his 35+ years practicing criminal law. There are numerous “independent” witnesses in our case—witnesses who would not be expected to have any inherent bias in favor of one side or the other. We’ve just wrapped up a long string of depositions, including several such independent witnesses. During these depositions, it has become clear that my opponent has gone out and met in person with every single witness in anticipation of their deposition. In some cases he literally spent hours with them preparing for their deposition.
Undoubtedly, readers will have different views on whether this is appropriate. There is another party in our case and its lawyers are adamant that our opponent’s behavior is the worst kind of slimy. And I’ll admit that my initial reaction was not positive. But after serious reflection, I’ve come around to think it’s not necessarily inappropriate, and could in fact be a prudent thing to do in some circumstances. It obviously leaves the witnesses somewhat vulnerable to cross-examination (“Now, how long did you spend with Mr. So & So preparing for your deposition today?”). On the other hand, my opponent knew before we went on the record what the witness was planning to say, and he could tailor his examination to capitalize on positive aspects, while anticipating and diffusing negative testimony.
I realized, too, that while this kind of interaction with independent witnesses might seem unusual in civil litigation (it is more common to interview witnesses through the medium of a third-party investigator), it is the most natural thing in the world in criminal law, where my opponent cut his teeth. After all, depositions and other prior testimony are rarely available in criminal trials; an interview is often the only way to know what a witness will say before he/she takes the stand. So, while I try to learn something (or a bunch of things) from every case, I also make it a point to try to keep my eyes open and learn something from every lawyer I’m up against.