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DTCI: Still learning after all these years in practice

February 25, 2015

DTCI donald smithThe practice of law is still exciting and challenging for me, even as I approach my 34th year of practice. It has been the right career for me (even though a recent opportunity to attend a press conference after an IU basketball game reminded me of my earlier desire to become a television sportscaster). I am not so sure I would still be learning after all these years if I had chosen another path.

There is a lot about the practice of law that I don’t know, but the following are some of the lessons I have learned.

First, no matter how good you think your performance at trial was, you are not going to win every case. One example in particular taught me that my performance at trial is secondary compared to the impact of witnesses on the minds of the jurors. After defending an employer in a wrongful-termination case before a jury in federal court, I thought my performance had been strong. I was shocked when the jury returned its verdict in favor of the former employee. The judge allowed us to receive feedback from the jury, a practice that has long since been eliminated (much to my disappointment). The key piece of evidence in the jurors’ minds was that the employer’s primary witness answered my questions confidently, but when she responded to cross-examination, her voice trailed off at the end of her answers. Because of that, the jurors believed she was not credible, and we lost the case.

Second, I have learned that it is important to get to know attorneys outside my law firm on a personal basis. Too often, I have assumed that my adversaries’ lives are defined by the clients they represent. Attorneys are able to work toward the common goal of resolving a case if they get to know each other and learn about their lives outside the adversarial process. I have developed friendships with attorneys who share my interests in youth sports, for instance, that have tempered our disputes over legal matters. This does not mean that either side is less zealous in advocating a legitimate position, but it appears that both sides are more reasonable when the attorneys know and respect each other.

Another reason to get to know attorneys outside their practices is that attorneys truly are colorful characters. One such character, an admitted “car buff,” shares a building with my firm. He saw me in the parking lot with my Ford Mustang. He told me that he had a limited edition replica of the 1968 Mustang from “Bullitt,” starring Steve McQueen. The next day he drove his “Bullitt” Mustang to work and offered to let me drive it. He was on his way to court with clients, but he suggested that I get the keys from his secretary. I sheepishly went to his office and asked his secretary for the keys. I wanted just to start the car to hear its engine, but she encouraged me to take it for a spin because she knew her boss would enjoy knowing that I had driven it. I felt like a 16-year-old when I punched the accelerator going down Pennsylvania Street with the throaty engine revving up. So, getting to know other attorneys can also be a lot of fun.

Third, I have learned that being a mentor usually results in my learning more than my mentee. I have been blessed with opportunities to mentor law students and new attorneys. Their questions have caused me to examine my practice in explaining how things are done or pondering how things could be improved. I am convinced that I have received more from the relationships than I have provided to my mentees.

The fourth lesson is that there continues to be a place for all attorneys – from solo practitioners to those who practice in mega firms or in-house. I started practicing in a mid-sized boutique labor and employment law firm and then moved to a small general litigation firm that has grown to a mid-sized business and litigation firm. A consultant advised our small firm that we needed to merge with a larger firm to be successful. I have seen many firms merge over the years, and I assume they have been successful, but we have avoided such mergers and still seem to be doing pretty well despite the consultant’s prognostication.

I certainly do not claim to have learned all that I can in the practice of law, but what I have learned is that there is no career path better suited to me.•

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Donald Smith is a partner in the Indianapolis firm of Riley Bennett & Egloff and is a director of the Defense Trial Counsel of Indiana. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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