Becoming a Trial Lawyer

becoming-a-trial-lawyerWritten by Josh Taaffe. Partner, in-house counsel & Accredited Specialist, Doogue + George Defence Lawyers

As specialists in the field of criminal law, we approach our role as defence lawyers with the utmost seriousness.

Defence lawyers stand between an accused person and the state which brings a criminal accusation against them. Trial lawyers represent an accused person at trial – standing before the judge and jury and presenting the case on behalf of the defence.

Fundamental rights, like the right to silence and the presumption of innocence, are protected by trial lawyers as we defend our clients. We win cases and we lose cases, however trial lawyers ensure that the prosecution is held to its obligation to prove a case beyond reasonable doubt before an accused person can be convicted. When the prosecution falls short of that standard, the accused person is rightly found not guilty. This system of justice is the foundation stone that preserves the freedoms of a democratic society.

To be a trial lawyer is to wage war within the system of justice. To appear on behalf of another human being and present their case, to defend them in the most serious of circumstances is an incredible privilege. Very often it can also be a heavy burden. So much is at stake – someone’s liberty is in your hands.

Rick Friedman’s book Becoming a Trial Lawyer – a guide for the lifelong advocate is a guide for new lawyers wishing to become trial lawyers and for old hands seeking to continue their growth. It is not a book about legal precedents or advocacy techniques for use in the courtroom, rather it is about the psychological challenges of becoming and practising as a trial lawyer.

The book is an easy read and covers many topics with a light touch. Many useful lessons are delivered within its pages. Any lawyer considering becoming a trial lawyer or already on the path would do well to read it and reflect upon its lessons.

Friedman encourages self reflection and questioning – think carefully about even becoming a trial lawyer at all, why do it? It’s not for everyone and can lead to a special and crazy existence. Continuous learning, self-assessment, self education are essential along the way. Ultimately the responsibility for becoming a trial lawyer rests with you, you must teach yourself and never stop learning.

The book has useful information on dealing with opponents and dealing with losing cases (Of course we cannot win every case, some cases cannot be won and some are impossible to win). His lesson on technique: advocacy techniques are your weapons, study and perfect them but do not rely on only one weapon. Beware of formulas and teachers who insist their way is the only way. For every rule there is an exception, for every approach another method that may work just as well in a particular case.

The chapter called ‘the cancer of comparison’ starts with a famous Hemingway quote, Hemingway comparing himself to Tolstoy:

I wouldn’t fight Dr Tolstoy in a twenty-round bout because I know he would box my ears off. The Dr had terrific wind and could go on forever and then some. But I would take him on for six and he would never hit me and I would knock the shit out of him. He is easy to hit. But boy can he hit. If I live to sixty I can beat him (Maybe).

Who is the better writer – Hemingway or Tolstoy? They are each amongst the greatest writers ever to live. Each is great in different ways. Friedman tells us that it is important not to obsess about the abilities and successes of other lawyers:

We are not runners, all running the same distance, over the same type of track, trying to see who is fastest. Some of us are running sprints, others cross-country; still others are shot-putters or high jumpers. However we compare, we end up diminishing the enjoyment of our own, very real accomplishments. We also miss out on the experience of true appreciation of our remarkable colleagues. And if we can’t be open to true appreciation of them, it becomes difficult to absorb what they have to teach by their example.

Wise words that remind me of that old wisdom – be the best you that you can be, everyone else is taken. You must cultivate the best version of yourself, improving your skills, strengths and abilities rather than trying to become like someone else.

Friedman points out ‘traps in the jungle’ – pit falls along the path of a career as a trial lawyer and gives useful advice about how to avoid them. The book also has practical advice to look after yourself physically, psychologically and emotionally. To look after your relationships and colleagues. These things seem self evident but at times we can overlook them as we obsess about our cases.

Although our firm specialises in defence law and myself in trials, becoming a trial lawyer is a process that never ends. Skills are adapted, honed and we are constantly learning. It can be a hard job and any help is welcome. Friedman’s book contains much useful wisdom and encouragement; it is recommended reading for any trial lawyer.

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