Lawyers come in all shapes and sizes, but the most widely recognized by far is the trial lawyer. Unlike their backroom and otherwise behind closed doors brethren advising members of the board, attorneys representing clients in court are out in the open for the public to witness. The high stakes of courtroom battles – particularly criminal but also some civil cases – is not only inherently interesting, but easily lends itself to popular television dramas, bestselling novels, and award-winning motion pictures.
However, unlike what many fictionalized portrayals of being a trial lawyer seem to suggest, it takes more than finding incriminating photos or composing eloquent closing arguments to be good at the job. Whether they’re working civil cases or criminal cases, representing plaintiffs or the defense, trial lawyers need to be good at a simple series of abilities which are nonetheless difficult to master.
If you’re considering becoming a trial lawyer, or are in need of one, read on to get a sense for what it takes to be exceptional in the courtroom:
During a trial, whether civil or criminal, both sides are trying to get jurors to empathize with their client or the alleged victim. It’s an easy thing to do when the client and/or victim is perfect – the problem is they rarely come in this variety. Great trial lawyers have to overcome the imperfections of someone’s past by accounting for them in a way which sits well with jurors, thereby establishing empathy.
Take, for instance, the empathy hurdles faced by Benedict Morelli of Morelli Law Firm in “The Case of the Barely Clad Broker.” Morelli had a client who was fired by a major trading firm after allegedly, among other things, conspiring to plant fake racist emails on his employer’s server to frame them for civil rights violations. After hiring a private investigator, Morelli uncovered evidence the company had his client setup.
The only problem was, Morelli had to explain how his client fell for the scheme. Stupidity, after all, is not an easy way to get empathy at trial. Rather than try and say his Ivy League-educated client was temporarily made dumb, Morelli rightfully focused on the man’s age at the time these incidents occurred. He was young – naive. Didn’t we all make foolish decisions when we were younger?
Great lawyers ask great questions regardless of their special focus of the law. In fact, it could be said a great lawyer could have probably also been a great journalist if he or she had gone down that path instead of law.
However, when it comes to being a good trial lawyer, the seemingly simple and basic human ability to ask questions gets split into two specific forms.
The first – which occurs pre-trial – is the form of asking questions we’re all familiar with: asking questions to which we do not yet know the answer. Basic investigative skills are crucial for uncovering the evidence needed to make a persuasive argument in court. At the heart of any investigation is the ability to ask great questions and get the answers.
Come trial, however, and lawyers must abide by this golden rule: never ask a question which you do not already know the answer. No lawyer can afford to be in a position where the witness or expert on the stand is not answering the questions the way they anticipated. To ask a witness or expert a question is to air the facts which the lawyer ought to have already learned.
Presenting a case comes down to making a good argument which not only withstands the opponent’s attacks on its integrity but successfully slashes at the foundations of their conflicting theory. It’s this back and forth chess game live in living color which makes for such great TV, books, and movies.
In the real world, however, successful trial attorneys abide by something known as Occam’s Razor when presenting their argument. In short, simplicity is key; events which can be explained several ways are most likely to have happened in the simplest manner. The 30-minute monologues tying a dozen conspirators together are, for the most part, for the movies.
No trial lawyer wants to be in a situation where they’re presenting the more convoluted and difficult to follow version of events. It may very well be the honest truth as backed up by 10 eyewitnesses, three video recordings, and 1000 text messages: it’s still an uphill battle if the other side has a simpler explanation.
There are many types of lawyers out there, but none with as much visibility as the trial lawyer. What it takes to be a good one is a bit different than portrayed in fiction, but the skills needed are relatively simple to understand. Of course, mastering them is a gift which sets apart the great trial lawyers from the rest.