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Is a great trial lawyer only born, or can one be taught?

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Can great trial lawyering be taught, or is one only born with it?

When I was a college senior considering law school, a relative panned my consideration of possibly being a trial lawyer. This relative, not a lawyer himself, viewed successful trial lawyers as being successful actors, and said I had not proven myself as an actor (I had barely acted). Of course, since being real and honest is a key ingredient to being a great trial lawyer, that does differ from when an actor is part of an effort to create a fantasy setting.

Fortunately, being driven to reach my goals of making the world a better place through the courtroom, despite the naysayers, I chose law school and became not only a trial lawyer, but a trial lawyer doing the criminal defense work that I most love. Along the path have been great teachers who have taught me that one need not be born a trial lawyer to be an excellent trial lawyer. Two of my strongest inspirations on that path are Steve Rench and Sunwolf.

Steve Rench is a powerhouse of a trial lawyer and human being. On first meeting him, criminal defense and civil trial lawyer Steve Rench may look like an ordinary mortal, which is an inspiration that one need not be born a great trial lawyer to reach that level. By the time Steve opens his mouth, he reveals himself as an amazing persuader and caring teacher to lawyers who advocate for the underdog.  Steve Rench knows that many people — even if not all — can learn how to be great trial lawyers. Appearing to be nobody out of the ordinary at first glance, he provides all the more emphasis to his slogan “Dare to be great.”

Sunwolf gives the inspiration to find our inner magic and power as trial lawyers, and to simplify even the most daunting-seeming task, to make the more difficult parts of the task powerfully flow in the right direction, right into trial battle. Sunwolf is at once ferocious and gentle and loving, not needing to bare any fangs, just as a great baseball pitcher need not bare any fangs, but just needs to deliver great pitching.

Gerry Spence is another of my influential trial teachers. Gerry at first comes across as a natural-born trial lawyer. However, he has often revealed his own substantial challenges to becoming a better person and trial lawyer (to become a better lawyer one first must become a better person), and discusses this at length in his autobiography The Making of a Country Lawyer, from around 1995, and in many other places. He may have learned more quickly some of the approaches to becoming a great trial lawyer, but still he had to learn.

When Gerry teaches how to become a better trial lawyer, at least at the multi-week Trial Lawyers College, which I attended in 1995, Gerry assumes the attendees already know the law and trial technique, and first focuses heavily on enabling the attendees to find out who they really are and what they really want to do with their lives, which means shedding putting money and career as the first priority, shedding keeping up with the Joneses and often leaving the attendee with a pile of emotions that have remain suppressed for too many years. The next step at the Trial Lawyers College is for the attendees to learn how to empower themselves to do justice, so that they can do justice for their clients, even if that means taking tremendous financial and personal risks in doing so, whether that be as small as becoming one’s own boss and leading to such bigger steps as refusing certain potential clients, refusing certain bar association appointments and refusing to keep one’s mouth shut against injustice and unfairness when doing otherwise clashes with serving justice and with the person’s life goals.

Next, the Trial Lawyers College moves into integrating the attendees’ enhanced self-discovery and empowerment to more fearlessly stand up for their clients in the courtroom and during the stages leading up to the courtroom, even when naysayers claim the lawyer has lost his or her marbles to try a case radically different than anyone in the community has seen before, and even when some actual or potential clients feel compelled to switch to a new lawyer upon proclaiming that the TLC attendee is some kind of cult weirdo, and that the client wants a more “traditional” lawyer.

Whereas many people try to hide their warts as they seek success, the Trial Lawyers College focuses on coming face-to-face with and understanding our biggest fears and pain, to embrace the pain before sending it on its way, and to be all the more empowered in the process. As Gerry’s late close friend —- and my late friend, too —- John Johnson said, it is far more preferable to have a bucket of fresh cow dung than a bucket of beautiful fake flowers, for at least the cow dung bucket holds something real. Juries will relate better to a lawyer in a thrift-store-purchased suit (with Tony Serra being a good example of that) doing his or her best to cross examine an opponent, than a lawyer in a brand new Armani suit with gold cufflinks looking superficially smooth but leaving out any personal reference point to the lawyer’s past trials and tribulations.

In The Making of a Country Lawyer, Gerry Spence acknowledges how he bumbled along in one of his first jury trials, struggling with simple evidentiary issues. Even when he was winning in a later trial, a spectator (a law student or newer lawyer) expressed surprise that instead of Gerry’s opening statement having the fire of the greatest orator, he started by talking about how he feared making any stumbles that might let his client down. Of course, by sharing such fears with the jury, we look more human, more honest, and more reliable, rather than someone sent over from Hollywood casting, and we release a weight from our shoulders, so that we may proceed to the heart of the battle.

Ultimately, a strong trial lawyer will be able to shed and reduce more and more fears, because doing so is empowering, as demonstrated by the following tale I frequently have retold: To be fearless, I take inspiration from t’ai chi master Cheng Man Ching, who spoke of overcoming our fears in terms of imagining that we are practicing t’ai chi while balanced atop a narrow pointed cliff. To not eliminate one’s fears while atop the cliff is to guarantee certain death. Eliminating fear also calls for keeping and tempering the fearlessness of a child filled with wonder, and living in the moment, as wonderfully detailed in the following story of the man and the two tigers: A man is chased in the wilderness by two tigers, only to be forced off a cliff, hanging for life from a vine. One tiger waits above and the other waits below for a human meal. Two field mice gnaw away at the vine. The man sees a wild strawberry growing from the side of a cliff, reaches for it, tastes it, and — with his life hanging in the balance — thinks of how delicious the strawberry tastes. When one lives in the moment, one fears little if at all.

Consequently, becoming a great trial lawyer is a never-ending process, just as is the process of becoming a great t’ai chi practitioner. Similarly, the most awkward-feeling, unsuccessful-feeling person can learn how to reach new and more fearless and self-empowered heights. Trial lawyers have a challenge to help people do that, including with their clients, opponents, judges juries and, most importantly, themselves.

Fairfax criminal lawyer Jonathan Katz pursues your best defense against Virginia DUI, felony and misdemeanor prosecutions. Call 703-383-1100 for your free in-person confidential consultation with Jon Katz about your court-pending case.