Earlier this month I attended a seminar in Indianapolis at the behest of the partners at our firm. The week-long program focused on building trial skills and was headlined by the Hon. Nancy Vaidik of the Indiana Court of Appeals as well as a cast of well-experienced trial attorneys from across the country.
Where I work, it is the usual practice of the partnership to send attorneys with my level of experience (five to six years) to this seminar in order to prepare us for the eventual responsibility of trying a case on our own. That is a big investment for the firm since it foots the bill for room and board, the cost of the seminar, and the “lost” time an attorney is away.
As one might imagine, there was a considerable amount of pre-seminar grumbling on my part as I lamented missing a week of billable hours to attend what I thought would be an elongated and typical CLE. In my naiveté, I hoped to work after the daily seminar was completed. Before my departure for Indianapolis, one of my mentors advised me that I would have no time for other work while at the conference. This frustrated me further. However, he also advised that I would be so engaged, that missing other work would not bother me. He was absolutely correct.
Once at the conference, I very quickly understood what my mentor was describing. We were immediately asked to get out of our seats and begin practice drills pertaining to story-telling and, eventually, direct examination. That was hour one of Day One. The hands-on approach continued throughout.
This particular seminar’s pedagogical theory is learning by doing. As opposed to sitting through an esoteric lecture, attendees are encouraged (read: “told”) to actively engage with each other so as to perfect techniques in opening, direct, cross, entry of exhibits, impeachment, rehabilitation, handling experts, closing and all other things associated with trial. Risk-taking is encouraged. (What better time to try and fail?) Constructive and thoughtful critiques were given not once, but twice. The first was given by the experienced trial attorney running the in-person drill. The second was delivered by an additional attorney who reviewed a participant’s video footage immediately after the drill.
After an intense (and quick) four days of drilling, participants partnered and presented a half-day trial to jurors. At that point, my partner and I had enough invested in the seminar that neither wanted to lose. Our mock trials were competitive and educational. Jurors were polled after each trial so they could give personal insight on what they liked or disliked about each attorney’s presentation.
I met attorneys from varied practices and multiple jurisdictions. Each contributed something to the seminar, and I am certain each took many things from it. I have already received emails from several of the attending attorneys – almost as though we were newly initiated members of some fraternity. In retrospect, I am extremely grateful to have been able to attend, learn and meet others who could help me get better at my craft.
I will admit that I would not have attended the conference unless I had been asked by my partnership to attend. I did so because I knew it was expected. However, I now know why they consider this type of program so valuable. Upon my return, several of the partners in our firm stopped by to ask about the seminar and to reflect upon their own experiences. Each of them smiled as they recounted their own personal experiences. They also noted how happy they were that I could attend.
Sacrificing a week is a big “ask” for many of us. In a profession where we find difficulties making time for our families and ourselves, taking yet another block of hours to attend a seminar seems unduly burdensome. However, once I arrived and began to participate in the event, I threw myself into the conference.
We were told that we would be better lawyers when we finished the week. I cannot argue that point. Every once in a while it is worth our time to focus on our craft for the sake of making it better, sharper and more nuanced. Attending such a focused and dedicated conference allowed me to do so by investing my time instead of that of my clients.
I highly suggest taking the time to dedicate a week to refining your trial skills or enhancing your practice in some other way. There are several options. In fact, DTCI co-sponsors the North Central Trial Academy every year. Although it will not show up on your ledger at the end of the year, I suspect the experience will show up in your overall performance for years to come.•
Mr. Ross is an associate in the Fort Wayne office of Hunt Suedhoff Kalamaros and is a member of the Defense Trial Counsel of Indiana. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.