Edward Bennett Williams: Don’t Lose Your “Instinct For The Jugular”

8300330C_1I found a fantastic interview of trial legend Edward Bennett Williams from the Winter, 1986 issue of Litigation which I intend to read and re-read like the Bible.

Among the myriad of topics he discusses was the kind of “team” he works with at trial, which led to a discussion of trying “big document” cases. Many lawyers, even seasoned trial lawyers, tend to make the assumption that the bigger the issues to be decided by the jury, the more witnesses and paper–documents–are needed to prove a party’s case or defense. If an outsider was to simply look at the kind of discovery conducted in any big case, he or she would easily assume that, if the documents were worth seeking in costly discovery, they must have been germane and, ultimately, indispensable to winning.

Williams takes issue with this kind of thinking. He suggests that, in all but the most complex cases, lawyers tend to “multiply documents” unnecessarily. In the end, being unnecessarily document intensive does not further their clients’ interests or bring them closer to victory. Responding to interviewer Priscilla Anne Schwab, Williams says:

“Mr. Williams: I was brought up in a school of practice in which one person tried a case and tried it in toto. Even with some help, in the courtroom there was only one voice. And I like that.

Ms. Schwab: What about a complex case, say, an antitrust action with thousands of pages of documents, hundreds of witnesses. How can you handle that in a courtroom singlehandedly? With total control?

Mr. Williams: My impression of that so-called ‘big document’ case is that 95 percent of the documents are worthless. Just piles of paper to impress the jury. One of the great tragedies of litigation today is these paper wars. The whole profession gains nothing but disrepute when one of these big firms puts 21 lawyers on a case, and they start multiplying documents, paper times paper.

Now obviously in a few cases, the issues are so complex that there are, maybe, thousands of documents. But my experience has been that law firms multiply paper unnecessarily. They make litigation more prolific than necessary. They don’t have an instinct for the jugular. They don’t isolate the major issues of the case and simplify them into comprehensibility. And they engage in massive overkill in discovery.

Ms. Schwab: But there always seems to be a need for more discovery. You say yourself you must uncover every fact, however remotely relevant.

Mr. Williams: True, but discovery today is not used primarily to uncover facts. It’s used to delay, to obfuscate, and, too often, to replace real investigation.” Litigation, Vol. 12, No. 2, Winter 1986, p.30.

As an armchair expert on the topic of laziness, I wonder if the tendency to use excessive discovery rather than going “for the jugular,” as Williams puts it, stems from the fact that isolating “the major issues of the case and simplify[ing] them into comprehensibility” takes really hard work and focused thought. I suspect this is part of it. I suspect the other part is related to the fact that there is big money in putting armies of lawyers on cases and multiplying paper. Cynical me!

Whatever the cause, the end result brings clients no closer to victory. So, even if you feel the need to burn everything to the ground in discovery, remember when it comes time to try the case to isolate the major issues and “simplify them into comprehensibility.”

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

2 responses to “Edward Bennett Williams: Don’t Lose Your “Instinct For The Jugular”

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