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I learned very early in my career - while I was in law school clerking for Bill Wheatley at Jaqua & Wheatley - one of the best and critical qualities of a civil litigator is being a confident and skilled trial lawyer. It is not only that a confident and skilled trial lawyer knows how to litigate a case; it is that a confident and skilled trial lawyer is willing and able to actually try a case - and to try a case with confidence, thorough and calculated preparation, and know-how. Bill taught me that a lawyer's ability to try a case gives the client a key advantage - that the client and its lawyer are willing and able to take the case to trial.
I remember my first hearing as a baby lawyer. Before the hearing, I paced the halls of the Multnomah County Courthouse, filled with the nerves and an almost unbearable level of fear. With each court appearance, I became more comfortable and the nerves and fear decreased. Unfortunately, as a civil litigator, it is difficult to make enough court appearances to continue to grow my comfort and confidence to the level of a great lawyer, a great trial lawyer.
As a result, you can imagine that I felt fortunate to be asked to participate in Jury Trial Experience Project of the American College of Trial Lawyers. The Jury Trial Experience Project gives civil litigators the opportunity to work for either the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office or one of the several Multnomah County public defender firms. The goal of this program is simple and straightforward - to provide civil lawyers with trial experience.
I chose the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office. I spent four weeks working at the District Attorney's Office and was welcomed as a fully fledged member of "misdemeanor row." Over the four weeks, I tried four cases - one jury trial and three bench trials. I had numerous other court appearances; I was in court every day and appeared before several judges. These daily appearances increased my confidence and comfort level to the point that I was not nervous before a court appearance or trial. Instead, I was confident, focused, prepared, and excited - exactly what you want to be before trial. My experience in the program was successful because of hard work and persistence in seeking out as many court appearances as possible. In addition, Senior Deputy District Attorney Jeff Howes made sure that I had enough files on my desk to guarantee as many trials as possible in four weeks.
The trial judge for my jury trial was the Honorable Kenneth Walker. I had the pleasure to speak with him about my trial and the Jury Trial Experience Project in general. He is a supporter of the program and of lawyers obtaining courtroom and trial experience. Judges and juries notice when a lawyer is not confident or comfortable in the courtroom, which translate into an appearance of the lawyer's lack of belief in their own case and can create a disconnect with the jury. Confidence, organization and likability are key characteristics of a trial lawyer - which all come from experience.
This program was one of the best - if not the best - things that I have done in my career. It made me a better lawyer, a better advocate, and helped me transform from a civil litigator into a trial lawyer. The most important lesson that I learned - which you cannot learn until you try a real case - is that I love jury trials. I am the lawyer that I am today because of the great mentors and opportunities that I have had throughout my career. I am committed to passing this on to younger lawyers, and I am committed to being an advocate for others to participate in the Jury Trial Experience Project. You become a good lawyer by doing and I advocate for young lawyers to have the opportunity to do real legal work. I urge you and your firms to be committed to the next generation of trial lawyers and to support the next generation in becoming trial lawyers.
There is a serious issue in the current practice of law - the number of opportunities for young litigators to try cases is very small or even nonexistent. It is not unheard of - and is unfortunately common - that lawyers make shareholder/partner in litigation firms before they try their first case. It is completely understandable that clients want the experienced, gray haired lawyers to try their cases. However, these lawyers will someday retire and without investment in the next generation of lawyers, clients will not have experienced trial lawyers to handle their cases. It is to every litigation firm's and client's benefit to invest in the next generation of trial lawyers and to help them acquire the skills and know how to try cases.
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