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“You are talking like a lawyer”

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Photo from website of U.S. District Court (W.D. Mi.).

The phone and emails are constantly ringing from clients, witnesses, courts, opposing lawyers, potential clients, and the list goes on. No sooner does one court date finish than the next court date begins. Snail mail is relentless. Common mid-day traffic jams in the Washington, D.C., area sometimes double and triple what should be a thirty-minute drive back to the office from court.

On the one hand, it is good to be so fortunate to have a full complement of clients and many successes in court and beyond. On the other hand, all these demands coming in almost as fast as orders at fast food restaurants (with fast-food restaurants only dealing with food and recipes, whereas criminal defense lawyers deal with people’s lives and liberty, constantly acting on instinct and not just on recipe). On the other hand, to remain the most persuasive and effective lawyer I can be for my clients, I need to keep centered with my own humanity and not get caught up in lawyerspeak and lawyerthink. Sometimes it takes reminding, including a trial workshop I recently arranged to prepare me and my client for trial.

Whenever there is a good chance that my client will testify at trial, it becomes all the more important for me to organize a workshop of lawyers — and preferably non-lawyers, too — to prepare me and to prepare my client to testify, and to stay grounded in court, and, in case, to speak for himself or herself at sentencing whether or not my client testifies at trial.

Recently, I was blessed with the participation of two excellent and very experienced criminal defense lawyers to help prepare me and my client for his trial, which ended up with an excellent resolution, all things considered. We met at my office on a late weekday afternoon. Both lawyers braved the annoying traffic from two counties away in opposite directions. Sometimes clients pay for a psychodramatist/trial consultant to prepare for a trial. For this workshop, we had no trial consultant.

All three lawyers at the workshop had attended the full-length summer Trial Lawyers College in Dubois, Wyoming, in separate years. All three had gone through the TLCs focus and stages of getting its participants back to the humanity zone and heart zone that law school, law practice, and the court system too often challenge law students and lawyers to dilute, diminish, and shed.

Early on in our gathering, one of the participants — who attended the TLC this pasts summer — asked what my goals for the workshop were. When I answered, she responded: “You are talking like a lawyer.” And I was. I was so wrapped up in how to deal with some huge-seeming hurdles in this case that I had moved too far away from the human/non-lawyer component as a critical part of persuading. On the other hand, answering her question at first seemed to call out for the lawyer’ answer about what I sought from the workshop, and I also felt I still faced big hurdles towards winning.

Then, I let go. I had spent so much time with my client over the last few months that I wanted to experience the fresh perspective of the two other lawyers. They immediately began engaging my client and me, each other, and the whole case. They were in the moment, despite their own immediate demands that night and the rest of the week on their schedules.

One of the lawyers had tried many bench trials, but not a jury trial yet. She could have fooled me. She seemed to know and understand my client at least as well as I. She spoke to him as human-to-human. My challenge as my client’s lawyer is to talk in just-folks terms with my clients about such otherwise legalese matters as elements of the criminal charge, sentencing exposure, assembling evidence, and getting witnesses identified and subpoenaed to court.

As is often the case, I left the workshop a better lawyer than I had started. My batteries were recharged. My good relationship with my client had improved all the more. My client had a more realistic grasp on what we needed to do to win his case.

Then, the next day, in the car, I got closer than ever before — much closer — to visualize how we would win my client’s case, as if the answer had been there all the time, but somehow shrouded in invisible paint, with our trial workshop having provided me more turpentine to strip away that invisible paint to reveal the answer. The answer came after I shed all my concerns about any uphill battles, evidentiary problems, and other hurdles, to focus on how to tell the most persuasive story to the jury, after having found the persuasive story. Getting to this point can be much harder when merely talking about my case with trusted colleagues over the phone, in the courthouse hallway, or through email. That hardly substitutes for assembling a workshop to last at least two hours if not the whole day or more, turning off the phone, and locking the door, on top of the many other hours working with the client, working with our witnesses, and working on my own.

I am eternally grateful to my many colleagues and to the non-lawyers who over the last nearly dozen years have joined me for many workshops to prepare me and my clients for trial, and to those who have invited me to do likewise. Jon Katz