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The trials, tribulations, and triumphs of a judge and three accomplished attorneys recently engrossed a room of students who attended “How To Be A Great Trial Lawyer.” The hour-long discussion at the Law School was laced with humor and practical advice.
Professor Daniel Richman
, who has litigated his share of colorful cases while at the U.S. Attorney's office, introduced Judge Paul G. Gardephe’82 of the Southern District of New York, who presided over the panel. The judge’s questions elicited strikingly similar advice from the panelists, who despite varied law practices now, were all once federal prosecutors.
Among these litigators, there was no argument about how to become a great trial lawyer. Find a mentor. Be detail oriented, as there is no substitution for preparation. And, just do it – join clinics in law school, take advantage of internships, and when at a firm, find litigation to be a part of.
“Just get out there and practice,” said panelist Karen Patton Seymour of Sullivan & Cromwell. “If somebody gives you an opportunity to be in court, take it.” Tai Park of Park & Jensen agreed. “Join a clinic, represent clients, get comfortable speaking, thinking on your feet, which is the most valuable asset a trial lawyer has,” he said.
Gardephe, who said his favorite Columbia Law School class was Trial Practice, also offered advice for the students about not just how to, but why, be a trial lawyer? “Juries take their obligation very seriously. Everyone understands something significant is happening,” he said. “It matters a lot who your lawyer is. You will have the opportunity to make a huge impact.”
Seymour described trial work as team work, and as creative work. “It’s a lot of fun,” she said. “It’s theater. You get to know characters, use real people to tell your story in their voices.”
Park described the personal impact his work has on him. “Few things are more gratifying than addressing a jury, especially in summation,” he said. “There is nothing quite like having the jury nod with you, but nothing quite so devastating as having a verdict that says they didn’t believe your argument.”
What motivates Milton L. Williams Jr. of Vladek, Waldman, Elias & Engelhard? He grounded the discussion by reminding the students there is a person – a client, at the center of a case. “Your client is relying on you for a recovery,” he said. “He needs the best possible result.”
Near the end of the session students asked the panelists questions. “How do you keep yourself going through the preparation?” asked one. Gardephe, and the panelists answered almost in unison. “It’s fear.” Although the students and the panel laughed, the judge followed up with a serious point. “You want to be comfortable and confident. From that confidence comes credibility. Which is the most fundamental and necessary aspect to being a trial lawyer.”
Park agreed, and elaborated. “It’s fear, but it’s competitive drive, too. You want to win and fear you’re going to lose. If you don’t feel it, you probably shouldn’t be a trial lawyer!”
Days after the panel, when asked about the possibility of his doing trial work, student Michael Ausubel ’11 said, "I am internalizing the ‘confront the fear,’ aspect, it’s an important take-away. If the opportunity comes around, I’ll be sure to grab it.”