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How To Stay in “Trial Shape”

This article was originally posted in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin on May 3, 2013

PUBLISHER: MICHAEL B. KRAMER | EDITOR: OLIVIA CLARKE

WORDS OF WILLENS

As my last trial wrapped up, opposing counsel and I were invited into chambers by the presiding judge to unwind from a weeklong battle. We started to shoot the breeze and I was humbled when the judge complimented me. He said I had done well for my client, and asked how us civil trial lawyers stay in “trial shape”, given very few cases ever make it to trial.

As a civil trial lawyer, cases that make it to trial can be few and far between. Though society often perceives a lawyer’s office to be the courtroom, in actuality, only a tiny fraction of our professional time is spent at trial.

The judge’s question about staying in shape had me stumped. I told him it was my previous experience in trying cases that kept me ready to go. But later, as I drove home, the question kept nagging me. How do I really stay in trial shape? Though previous trial experiences certainly help me feel comfortable in a trial setting, the judge was right about one thing: most of my time is not spent in the courtroom.

I thought about what other ways I prepare to stand in a courtroom that’s filled primarily with strangers, and pick a jury, present a case, make arguments and do all the other stuff lawyers do at trial.

Of course, there’s no denying that good trial lawyers are successful, at least in part, due to experience trying cases. However, the fact remains that a majority of civil cases settle prior to trial – well over 90 percent.

In a day and age where arbitrations and mediations are at an all-time high and becoming increasingly popular, there will likely be fewer and fewer trials. So when those less than ten percent of cases headed to court do come along, how do I ensure I’m ready?

Sometimes one element of life can unintentionally prepare us for other, unrelated situations. For example, as I considered this judge’s question, my mind wandered to my teaching experience.

For the past five years, I’ve been an adjunct professor of advanced trial advocacy at Loyola University Chicago School of Law. I spend time teaching law students how to try cases. In showing the students the ins and outs of trial law, I provide myself with an up-close refresher. What’s more is I learn as much from them as they learn from me. Seeing the various students’ styles of running their cases gives me a chance to observe their strengths and borrow nuances I had never before seen. Likewise, in critiquing them, I can make a mental note not to do something that seems ineffective or unprofessional.

Teaching also provides me an audience with whom I can practice public speaking. Like members of a jury, students bring a range of personalities to the table. Some are attentive, and others are not. It’s the perfect time to test my ability to hold an audience’s attention, i.e., to connect.

Students aren’t the only audience whose attention I have to hold. I occasionally give presentations for various bar organizations and other groups looking to hear about personal injury law. Before each session begins, I set a goal for myself to get a certain amount of people to interact. When audience members ask questions, make comments and discuss a point of interest with their neighbors, I know I’ve piqued their interest. With public speaking engagements I unintentionally practice reaching out to members of the jury.

Speaking in lecture halls and for professional groups keeps me spry for the courtroom, but interacting with people one-on-one is just as important. I find myself learning how to hold someone’s attention with the simple act of networking.

The act of networking, in addition to being essential for business development, also keeps me in trial shape. Going to networking events and connecting, or attempting to connect, with mostly strangers, keeps me in trial shape. After all, if I can connect with other fellow networkers, I should be able to connect with jury members.

As I sat down to write this article, and considered all the parts of my life that have inadvertently assisted me in preparing for trial, I realized that writing in itself is another exercise for me. If I can relate to an audience of readers, most of whom I do not know, and hold their attention, then I have successfully engaged them.

To that judge who asked me how us civil guys get in trial shape, here’s my answer: Trying cases, teaching, public speaking, networking and writing are all natural parts of my life that I learn from and apply during trial. Take a look around at the ordinary things in your life. When you pay attention, everyday situations have extraordinary potential to keep us ready for trying cases or whatever it is that we do.

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