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DTCI: A lesson not learned in law school

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freybergerI appreciate my law school education. I was given the tools I would need to analyze and apply the law to a given set of facts. I had been brainwashed by lawyer shows on television and in movies to think that I had to be smooth. I relished the thought of catching my opponent in a mistake and slamming the trap at the perfect time, while the jury watched and nodded with approval. Then I started the practice of law. It is “the practice of law” for a reason, and I quickly learned what I consider to be the most important lesson for trial work.

Trial lawyers come in all shapes and sizes. Moreover, the different styles of trying a case to a judge or jury are even more diverse. Although we abide by the same sets of trial rules, statutory law and precedential case law, how we handle and argue from them varies greatly from one lawyer to the next. Trial work is intellectual mixed martial arts in that respect, where a boxer may wage battle against a wrestler.

What’s important about this is that, despite the differences in style, none are right or wrong. The efficacy of your style is dependent upon the jury, not your opponent. And I submit to you that your style is just as effective as anyone else’s, irrespective of the fact finder. This is something I did not learn in law school.

A partner of mine named Chris Lee served two tours of duty with the United States Army. When he tries a case, he is concise and pointed. He doesn’t waste words and saves objections for when they count. His “high and tight” haircut gives him away. He never has to inform the jury about his military service – it is easily identifiable by the manner in which he handles himself in court. In contrast, I’ve never been in the Army. I would never be confused with Chris. I use relaxed humor in the courtroom, where he uses laser-guided precision.

I worked closely with Chris before and between his tours of duty. When he was deployed, I tried to replicate his trial style. I cut my hair, sharpened my points and checked my lighthearted humor at the courtroom door. What I discovered was fairly traumatic: the same points being made by me didn’t have the same effect on the jury as they did when delivered by Major Lee. I learned that I am not, and will never be, Captain America. I am thankful it only took a few cases for this to sink in. After some mental healing, I began trying cases in my own style. The result was a more comfortable and more successful trial experience.

Those first few trial losses also taught me that I am neither better nor worse a trial lawyer than my opponent, no matter how many years of experience he has. This was a fact that was hard for me to internalize. Up to then, I assumed that everyone else knew the answers to the questions still rattling around in my head. It was then pointed out to me that both lawyers in a dispute operate from the same facts and the same law. It is a comforting thought.

I’ve been practicing law for only 10 years. I’m hardly what one would call a wily veteran. However, I’ve been given the opportunity to try more cases than most lawyers my age … mostly because of Major Lee’s military service. I only wish I would have found the comfort of trying the first few cases in my own skin rather than feeling the pressure of wearing someone else’s.•

__________

Gregory Freyberger is a partner in the Evansville firm of Kahn Dees Donovan & Kahn and is on the board of directors of DTCI. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

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  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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