By Seth Darmstadter
Meckler, Bulger, Tilson & Marick
I recently had the opportunity to defend a case at trial alongside one of Chicago's most seasoned trial lawyers. On the opposing side of the aisle was another veteran trial attorney whose name also carries with it a high degree of cachet.
The advocacy styles of these two men could not have been more different, but still there were commonalities that tied them together - civility, respect, legal acumen, and fierce competitiveness.
Just days before we selected our jury, I was privileged to observe a casual and festive interaction between these men while they sat with their families at breakfast tables after St. Patrick's Day Mass.
They exchanged pleasantries and joked with one another - they shared a very "human" moment.
However when these same men sat at adjacent tables in a Daley Center courtroom and the judge claimed her seat at the bench, it was all business.
They demonstrated a competitive fervor that I rarely have witnessed in a sporting arena, let alone a courtroom. Previous to this trial, I had extensive civil litigation experience, including past trial experience, but still, I learned many lessons during that four-week jury trial - not the least of which is that I still have loads of learning to do. Still, there were three lessons that I know are worth sharing with other young lawyers who, like me, aspire to climb the ladder.
Tip #9 - Practice Civility
Civility among attorneys is perhaps the most basic and fundamental principal in our practice, and it also is probably the simplest one to ignore - especially among my contemporaries.
I find myself coming into the office every day and strapping on my gloves, gearing up for the next round of legal sparring; be it on a conference call, in a legal memorandum, or during live deposition or courtroom action.
Often it seems that the vast majority of my interactions with opposing attorneys are adversarial and it is natural, if not instinctual, for a certain degree of animosity to carry over into my non-work life.
Frankly, I knew when I decided to litigate cases that I was entering an adversarial profession. What I did not know, and what I continue to learn, is that it is not only okay, but even honorable to maintain a high degree of civility with your opponent. For example, just because you win or lose a legal battle in court does not mean you cannot grant a professional courtesy at the request of your opposing counsel.
Similarly, virtually all discovery disputes can be worked out between attorneys in a simple 201(k) conference; it is possible to respect the process and make reasonable concessions without compromising your client's interests. During my recent trial, it was remarkable how favorably the judge and jury both responded when attorneys came to agreements and showed deference not only to one another, but even to the other side's witnesses.
The ability to turn-up the level of competitiveness is proving far less valuable a skill than the ability to tone it down when the situation calls for civility.
Tip #10 - Show Deference and Confidence
In large part, I am more junior to this profession than my adversaries. Often, tenured attorneys take certain liberties during oral arguments or at trial that are perfectly acceptable for them, but that would be inappropriate for me.
For example, they may approach the bench or witness without first asking the judge for permission to do so. Similarly, they may simply say, "objection" without stating any grounds whatsoever and the judge may sustain their objection.
Also, they may move to admit an exhibit into evidence without first laying a complete foundation for the exhibit, yet the exhibit is admitted without objection. At this point in my career, I take none of these liberties because I have seen too many examples made of young lawyers who took unearned liberties in a courtroom.
Attorneys earn the respect of a judge by displaying a high degree of legal acumen coupled with an even higher degree of deference.
When I ask senior attorneys and judges the biggest mistake made by young attorneys in court, they often tell me it is cockiness.
During my recent trial, I attempted to conduct myself with deference to the court and opposing counsel, but also with a degree of confidence.
For example, during pretrial motions, jury selection and at the outset of trial, every time I wished to approach the bench or a witness, I requested the court's permission.
Eventually, the judge gave me a green light to move freely about the courtroom. This may seem like an insignificant accomplishment, but to me it meant a probationary invitation to the grown-up's table.
Tip #11 - Know When To Stop Talking
Once it is apparent that you've won, even if you haven't had an opportunity to fully express your point, shut-up!