You’ve probably had your share of “Best Lawyers” and “Super Lawyers” tell you about their selection in the past several months. While I’m pleased to be recognized on several such lists, what I really want to convey to my up-and-coming colleagues is this: Don’t be intimidated by those who have a lot of accolades, or even decades in the chair. There is no head-to-head matchup behind these marketing awards that determines who is the “best” lawyer.
While experience and expertise cannot be bought, information is free. Here are a few free tips to help the less experienced or less-connected attorney out-do the opposition in a courtroom battle.
Out-prepare the opposition
Attorneys with decades of experience charging $1,000 per hour cannot afford to read every case and think through every nuance of every document in evidence. They must rely on others to do it for them. But, their junior colleagues lack the pro’s expertise and overall vision for how to present a case in court. As a result, there is an inherent inefficiency in the transfer of knowledge up the ranks, from the worker-bees to the first chair lawyer. And, there is a corresponding inefficiency in the transfer of expertise and vision in the opposite direction. The bigger the case, the more these inefficiencies are compounded.
If you are a less experienced lawyer, take full advantage of these inefficiencies. At your billing rate, your clients can afford for you to work both ends of the spectrum – knowledge and expertise. You can research the law, read the original evidence, read the testimony, and work it into a whole cloth that you will present at trial. You can tap the experience you’ve gained to date and apply it directly to the cases you are reading and the evidence you’re analyzing – all while gaining valuable insights into the case and garnering additional expertise. You, and not your venerated opposition, are in the sweet spot.
War game it
You don’t have as much experience or expertise, but you can make up for this by war gaming the likely opposition points. What are your weak points? List them in “top ten” order. Prepare a response to each, outlining the critical issues, evidence and cases.
Then, get a colleague to argue the other side and practice your response to each, out loud. This step is critical, because preparation is the key to beating your more senior opposition. You will hear the weaknesses in your own position by stating your arguments out loud. Things that look good on paper will be useless if you can’t persuasively argue the points. Some things will just sound superficial. The key here is to air it all out prior to the hearing or trial.
And, for those of you who have participated in athletics, dance, or performances of any sort, don’t forget the value of muscle memory! Going through this exercise will seal in the most persuasive words you want to say in court and provide you with the muscle memory of how they fit together.
Bottom line: the way to sound like a pro is to practice, and the way to ditch the notecards and speak from a place of strength is through muscle memory.
Don’t be intimidated
When you show up to the argument, remember this: Every lawyer in the courtroom had to make a first argument or present that first witness at some point. And, every single one of them experienced fear and anxiety before doing so.
As one of my former partners advised associates who wanted to be promoted to partner, “You have to get out here on the skinny branches with the rest of us.” Climbing higher in the tree of success means you are going to have to move away from the big supportive branches lower down to the less secure ones at the top. But, the pro you are opposing had to go through this rite of passage too.
Bottom line: While you may not have the big reputation your opponent does, you can do exactly the same things that every lawyer must do to be good in court. Some of the best advocacy I have seen has come from college or law school moot court participants.
Being best in court isn’t about having a flashy style or reputation; it is about preparation and courage.
Chrysta Castañeda, the founding partner of Dallas’ The Castañeda Firm, is a commercial litigator focusing on oil and gas litigation. Her $145 million verdict on behalf of T. Boone Pickens and Mesa Petroleum in Mesa Petroleum Partners v. Baytech et al. was recognized as one of the largest in the nation in 2016 by the National Law Journal and one of the largest in Texas by Texas Lawyer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.