There are as many kinds of lawyers in America as there are flavors of ice cream. Many lawyers labor away at drone jobs in great dungeons of the law; many are involved in investigative work from behind a desktop; any number of them whittle anonymously away at contracts for corporate America. But for millions of Americans, the world ‘lawyer’ can only mean one thing:
Jack McCoy of Law & Order.
He’s cagey. He’s ethical. He’s handsome, in a frumpy sort of way — which millions of women find attractive. Did I mention that he’s cagey? We love Jack McCoy, and whenever the Law & Order scriptwriters throw moral ambiguity at us, we ask, “What Would Jack Do?” Because we are, after all, morally unambiguous creatures. And lawyers bring that out in us, because, well .… they’re ambiguous. In fact, deep down we know they’re snakes.
But as the distance from Hollywood to reality is a march few Friends of Jack will ever make, this is as good a time as any to set aside a few misconceptions about what it takes to be a great trial lawyer. Having been a trial lawyer for as long as I have, I’ve had the privilege of knowing some really great trial attorneys. Herein is my attempt at condensing the elements of a truly fine trial lawyer —
1. They are geniuses at convincing folks that their client is an “us.” When it comes to winning jury trials, the secret is turning your client into an “us”, because if the jury sees your client as a “them”, you’re in trouble. And, as all good trial lawyers know, there are some clients who cannot be made into an “us” no matter what you do. So you waive jury and let the judge sort it out. Judges deal with “thems” all day.
2. Good lawyers know that people WANT to be manipulated. That may sound cynical, but there’s nothing people love more than a good story with a magic trick thrown in. One of the best trial lawyers I ever met learned that lesson the hard way, early in his career. He grew impatient as the defense attorney continued his detailed cross-examination about how the police officers removed the backseat of a car before searching the car. The jury was transfixed by this drama. The defense attorney had them convinced this was the heart of the entire case. It wasn’t, but it didn’t matter. The jurors were getting the show they wanted, and it took their minds off the evidence of the defendant’s guilt.
3. Every really great trial attorney I’ve ever known reads the sports page. Although sports hardly ever comes up in jury selection, people seems to sense who’s up on sports — and seem to believe that is important.
4. All really great trial lawyers understand that “justice” and morality hardly ever eat at the same table. Every juror comes in with a notion that someone best be dangling from a rope by the end of the day. Lawyers who get billion-dollar verdicts out of juries for the widow whose beloved smoked himself to death work on this principle. Sure, the deceased smoked 14 cigarettes an hour, BUT THE CIGARETTE COMPANIES LIED ABOUT THE DANGERS OF CIGARETTES!! Average people may not think that standard to themselves, but put a good looking lawyer with a $200 haircut in front of them, and let him talk for three hours — while they braid the rope.
5. All really great trial lawyers believe, deep down, they are making a difference. The personal injury lawyers I know believe corporations must be dealt with; their counterparts for the defense despise malingering plaintiffs. No matter how trivial the case, both believe they are rescuing the world from some evil and, in fact, they are. In America the best incentive to not steal from people is the fear of lawyers.
In the complex world of jury trials, there are never any certainties. Anyone who has tried 100 or more jury cases in his or her life will tell you there’s very little science to it. Almost always a jury trial is a Hail Mary pass. But the edge an attorney has to get is to make his client an “us” because he knows, deep down, facts and morals have almost nothing to do with it.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED BRUCE HANIFY 2012