The Value of Trial Experience to a Young Lawyer

As a new lawyer, I struggled to come up with blog topics. Being only two years out of law school, I don’t pretend to have near the amount of knowledge or experience as the frequent contributors and readers of this blog. I contemplated a post about the recent United States Supreme Court decision in Missouri v. McNeely, but Dean O’Hear would cover that topic in a much more eloquent and researched fashion. I then contemplated a post about the privacy implications regarding the recent news on the NSA collecting phone records (or even more recently—the criminal defendants demanding the records as exculpatory evidence). However, as a past student of Professor Boyden’s Law of Privacy class, I’m inclined to believe his post on that issue would make a much more interesting read. I finally decided on a topic that has monopolized my attention this Spring and Summer: jury trials. While a post on jury trials authored by Professor Blinka would likely be deemed so sage as to be cited by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, I’ll tackle the area from what I’ve learned as a new lawyer.

Jury trials are on my mind because I had a two-week medical malpractice trial in May (more on that in a later post), and I am currently preparing for a week-long criminal trial that will start on Monday. I am nowhere near an expert on jury trials, but my recent experience has caused me to re-examine the benefits of jury trial participation for young lawyers. The skills used and learned at trial are transferrable to almost any other area of practice. The confidence and reputation gained from trying cases is paramount to becoming a strong negotiator, and I have learned the value of all of the pre-trial litigation and preparation that goes into any case.

The skills developed and practiced in a trial setting are transferrable to every other part of being a strong advocate. In trial, I practice articulating a position confidently and persuasively to judges, to lawyers and to jurors from all walks of life. I am forced to think on my feet, which is used outside of the trial setting during client meetings, depositions, motion hearings, and even when a firm partner asks an impromptu question in the hallway. I am able to practice highlighting strong points in my case while mitigating weaker points–a skill I am then able to utilize outside the courtroom in negotiating a settlement. Lastly, trial lawyers must develop the ability to maintain a professional demeanor even when disagreeing with opposing counsel or the judge.

Another important benefit of trying cases is to build confidence and reputation within the legal community. A young lawyer who is unwilling to try a case will find it very difficult to get a decent settlement offer, in either a criminal or a civil case. Most young lawyers have experienced “bullying” negotiation tactics from more senior opposing counsel. I’m often advised by my mentors that one of the important ways of combating or counter-acting this form of negotiation is by gaining enough self-assurance in my own trial skills that I can confidently walk away from an unsatisfactory offer of settlement.

Finally, trials put the importance of a successful pre-trial litigation practice into perspective. Through my trial experience, I have learned that I will not have the benefit of information at trial without having sent out adequate pretrial discovery requests. If I take a subpar deposition, I will struggle to effectively impeach a witness with the transcript in cross-examination. If I fail to disclose information through supplemental discovery, I’ll find much larger obstacles in admitting that evidence at trial. In criminal cases, if I don’t give the discovery a close read before trial, I may miss out on a suppression motion that could have kept out damaging evidence at trial, or find myself wanting to subpoena a witness the weekend before a Monday trial. Nothing highlights the importance of these pre-trial litigation practices more than seeing them at use in the endgame of trial.

I am incredibly grateful to be part of a firm that allows me to gain trial experience and learn these lessons firsthand. I am free to try cases in the face of an undesirable offer, and more importantly, I can do so with the knowledge that my firm will stand behind my decision. I anticipate that both with next week’s trial and the many left in my career, I will continue to learn the never-ending lessons of trial and explore the vast benefits of jury trial experience.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Lezlie Knox

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, Emily! You articulately addressed the outcomes of your legal training–and I also saw echoes of the skills you learned as a history major.

  2. John Carter

    It’s very difficult to get a decent settlement offer, in either a criminal or a civil case.Most young lawyers have experienced bullying negotiation tactics from more senior opposing counsel.

  3. Mel Stephens

    Well written, interesting and perceptive. I would only add the following:

    I have practiced law for more than four decades. Many, many years ago, when I was first starting out, I encountered an arrogant and less than highly skilled opponent who claimed to have 25 jury trials’ worth of experience. He didn’t. He had one jury trial’s worth of experience repeated 24 times. Don’t be like that guy.

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