What can a comedian teach an attorney?
Plenty, said Wabash attorney Emily Guenin-Hodson. Comedians have to think on their feet, improvise through unexpected occurrences that can happen while on stage, and always keep the audience focused on the matter at hand.
So it made sense when she was planning the agenda for the Indiana Trial Lawyer Association’s conference in November to include a stand-up comic who also happens to be an attorney, Joseph Novick.
He is “one of the more unusual speakers,” Guenin-Hodson conceded, but she is confident his presentation will rejuvenate and refresh the Hoosier attorneys.
Guenin-Hodson is the chairperson for the 50th annual ITLA Institute. The two-day conference in Indianapolis will bring nationally known speakers from inside and outside the legal profession to offer new ideas and spark inspiration. An estimated 300 trial lawyers are expected to attend.
For the milestone anniversary, Guenin-Hodson wanted the institute to remind plaintiffs’ attorneys why they should be proud of their profession. She has attended the yearly conferences for 10 years and always leaves inspired.
“When I walk away, I’m excited about being a plaintiff’s attorney,” Guenin-Hodson said. “I wanted to have people leaving feeling like ‘I’m glad I do what I do.’”
The institute provides the opportunity to connect with other trial lawyers from across the state to share stories, swap strategies and get their batteries recharged. Many plaintiff attorneys are solo practitioners or work for very small firms, so the chance to socialize with like-minded professionals is particularly welcomed.
Most important, the institute offers seminars on topics vital for trial lawyers. Institutes in the past have sometimes focused on specific practice areas like medical malpractice or construction law. But for the 50th event, Guenin-Hodson wanted to cover a broader range of subject matter that all plaintiff litigators deal with when going to trial.
Seminar topics for this year’s institute will include changes in state law and advances in technology as well as nuts-and-bolts courtroom techniques. Speakers include Kevin McGoff of Bingham Greenebaum Doll LLP who will present on ethics, and Richard Ebbinghouse of Ebbinghouse Law Group who will discuss tax issues that trial lawyers face.
Education is important because the law is not static, said Kokomo attorney Mark Scott. He has been a member of ITLA for 21 years and recently completed a decade of serving in leadership positions, which culminated in 2012 with the presidency.
Ladendorf Scott believes trial lawyers in particular have to constantly examine the way they practice because tort law is one of the most dynamic areas of legal practice. Keeping abreast of new practice methods and technology is critical.
Echoing Scott, Guenin-Hodson said even though trial lawyers take depositions, make arguments and examine witnesses as a regular part of their job, getting a refresher course is beneficial. From the opening statement to the closing argument, trial lawyers are telling their client’s story and lawyers can improve their skills by being reminded of best practices or introduced to new techniques.
In addition to focusing on traditional lawyering skills, the 50th Annual Institute will take a look at visual and demonstrative aides. Guenin-Hodson noted although attorneys rely on words to convey their point, a picture can instantly give the same message to a jury. The seminar will examine the technology that is available and how it can be used.
Learning happens not just during the seminars but also between sessions while talking to colleagues. Both Guenin-Hodson and Mark Ladendorf, past ILTA president, pointed out they can get practice tips and advice just through casual conversations with other trial lawyers.
“There’s always something that comes up where you say, ‘Wow, I didn’t think of that,” Ladendorf said.
The first seminar kicking off the institute will focus on Guenin-Hodson’s theme: why trial lawyers should be proud of their profession.
Guenin-Hodson became a trial lawyer because of her father, attorney Mark Guenin, and is now in private practice with him.
“He’s a role model for me,” she said. “I really admire the work he does. Growing up seeing the difference he made in people’s lives, that’s what I wanted to do.”
Being a plaintiff attorney, she explained, can be sad work because every client has been harmed in some way. Advocating for individuals who have been hurt or lost a family member to negligence can wear on trial lawyers.
The attorneys, she continued, want to fix the situation but they can only do so much. Still, Guenin-Hodson wants her colleagues to be proud of their work and the things they do to make their clients’ lives better.
Many attorneys see the Indiana Trial Lawyers Association as a key player in helping them represent their clients. Along with providing seminars, the association gives trial lawyers a voice to speak out on issues as well as proposed legislation in the Statehouse.
The association’s main role, said Ladendorf, is to make sure the jury system continues.
“ITLA’s mission is to safeguard the right to trial by jury and protect the rights of the citizens of Indiana,” Ladendorf said. “Our purpose and challenge is to ensure that injured individuals have redress in Indiana courts and that wealth and power do not determine one’s access to civil justice. Our fight continues at every level of government and through education of the citizens at large.”
Scott sees that purpose woven into the fabric of ITLA, noting that some of the attorneys who have led the association have been champions of the civil justice system in Indiana. The association’s annual institutes began in 1965 in the moot court room of the Indiana University Maurer School of Law and as the conferences continue to be held, Scott said he will be a part of history in a small way.
“The 50th Annual Institute to me,” he said, “is an opportunity to reflect on being part of something bigger than myself.”•