The motto of the Defense Trial Counsel of Indiana is “Excellence in civil defense litigation,” so 2017 DTCI President Michele Bryant said celebrating the organization’s 50-year reputation for excellence will be her main focus as president. Here’s a look at what the Evansville attorney has to say about DTCI’s legacy and the future outlook for defense attorneys.
Indiana Lawyer: What made you want to become an attorney?
Bryant: I did not dream of becoming an attorney. There is something about reaching the end of the undergraduate education track and needing a job that demands a certain level of attention. In other words, I was a political science major who did not have a clear career path and decided that law school might be a good idea.
Specifically, why did you become a defense attorney?
I really had no idea what I might find to be a good match for me until I saw my first real trial. I was hooked from the outset and knew that being a trial lawyer is what I wanted to do. I have been involved in athletics all my life and played basketball at the college level. Nothing is closer to that kind of competition than trial work. From the preparation to the event itself to the process of closing the door and moving on to the next event, so much of what we do as trial lawyers is a mirror image of how athletes approach their sport.
What is the best part about working on defense cases?
The best part of working on defense cases is the variety — learning something new substantively on every case. In a malpractice case, we learn the medicine of a particular disease or procedure literally inside and out, and at the same time deal with multiple specialties. Then we move on to the next case with an entirely new set of circumstances and terminology. Learning the underlying substance and complexities of a case and then applying the law makes every day different and challenging.
And the hardest part?
The hardest part for me is juggling the various responsibilities I have with respect to the matters on which I am working — making sure clients are well-advised and are on board with the approach; making sure the insurance company is kept informed in a timely manner; making sure my billing entries are complete and accurate and in compliance with requirements; making sure that court deadlines are met; and making sure that the matter is staffed with the most appropriate personnel.
What’s been your involvement with DTCI, and how has it been beneficial?
I would describe my involvement with DTCI as progressive, starting with attending conferences to chairing a committee to joining the board of directors to then becoming an officer. The benefits have been many, but two stand out for me. First, since my office is in the southwest corner of the state, I have really enjoyed getting to know lawyers from all over Indiana. These are lawyers I would never have known otherwise. It really is a relationship business. Second, there is no question that DTCI enhances practice skills and leadership development. Our organization has some of the most skilled trial lawyers in our profession, so just being around these talented people and listening to their war stories helps me become a better lawyer.
What are your goals as DTCI president? Are there any specific issues you want to address?
I firmly believe that defense lawyers are among the best and brightest in our profession and provide outstanding legal services to our clients. We are also committed to our communities and are actively engaged in making them better places to live. So this year, it will be our mission to celebrate the history of our organization, to engage in some service projects, and to end the year with an all-time great party in French Lick, the place where the organization was founded 50 years ago.
What is the biggest challenge facing defense attorneys today?
The reduced number of cases going to trial. The question has been, “How do you develop excellent trial skills and experience with no experience available?” Maybe 10 percent of cases or less go to trial, and when they do go to trial, you want somebody with experience, so if there are fewer trials available, there are fewer options to get hands-on experience.
What advice would you give young attorneys interested in getting experience in defense work?
I would tell them to be their own advocate. Actively look for and seek opportunities — maybe not a direct trial, but it could be a second chair, comparable experience or even be pro bono experience. They can’t wait for somebody to hand them an opportunity.
Besides DTCI, what other legal organizations have you been involved in?
The Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program and the Evansville Bar Association Lawyer Assistance Program. That’s been pretty significant for me because I’ve learned more about compassion. In JLAP, you see lawyers as people who suffer from some of the same ailments as the rest of society, sometimes in greater degree.
How did you end up in Evansville, and why did you decide to build your career there?
I got a job right out of law school in Evansville, and it was the best job I could find. I think I’d been to Evansville once before in my life. My family is in central Indiana, so that would have been more of a natural fit geographically, but then I met my husband in Evansville and got married. I love the size of the community. It’s big enough that there are good things to do, but every time I go to Indianapolis I think about the traffic and I think, “Oh, I could never do this.”
Outside of work, what are your hobbies?
When you have kids and a pretty intense job, it’s hard to find time for hobbies. I used to play golf, and I like to be pretty active and work out.•