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Trentalange-Kelley trial lawyer

What makes a good Trial Lawyer?

Experience and specialization aren’t always the most important qualities for a successful lawyer

Surprisingly few clients have the training to evaluate a lawyer’s performance, whether it’s related to a transaction, document or trial. So when you ask most corporate counsel how they go about selecting the right trial lawyer for a specific matter, you’ll probably hear terms such as “specialist,” “experienced” and “niche.” These are perfectly acceptable answers. Deep experience with specific industries, products and even courtrooms, “knowing the ropes,” has always been considered the litigation gold standard.

But if you ask the same clients, immediately after a significant positive outcome, what made the trial lawyer effective and successful, you’ll hear a different story. They’ll likely tell you that it wasn’t as much about background as backbone. After years in the courtroom, I’ve made a science of identifying the key traits of the most effective trial lawyers. Some I’ve argued with, some against. Although they all differ in age, gender, education and personality, there are some common characteristics. My four-plus decades of front-line observation have taught me that the most effective trial lawyers—the kind who thrive in any courtroom, with any client, in any matter—share these five key traits.

1. Credibility. The first is credibility, the foundation of trust. Building a high level of trust with clients, judges, jurors and even opposing counsel is the cornerstone of effective representation. But it is a trait that is earned, not just learned. When a credible attorney tells a client he must be available on a certain day for a deposition with no exceptions, that client will listen. It’s simple: When you make a promise, you keep a promise. No exceptions. When that same attorney makes a promise to a judge or to opposing counsel, the promise is believed and kept. The time and cost of undoing agreements with any party is not only a time-consuming distraction, but it also diminishes the chances that anyone will believe the trial lawyer, no matter how experienced he is. The most effective trial lawyers I’ve seen protect their credibility at all costs. They understand that every human interaction is a chance to build trust or destroy it.

2. Civility. Litigation at its core is an argument. But it doesn’t have to be confrontational. Effective litigators understand that in the art of persuasion, civility is not only the high road, but can also be a powerful tool. Using hostile tactics of volume, anger and intimidation may result in a short-term gain, but tends to undermine an attorney’s long-term ability to persuade.  It can pull attention away from key witnesses and facts in favor of emotional reactions that are more difficult to control. And in the case of settlements, uncivil behavior tends to harm an attorney’s ability to negotiate in a reasonable time and manner with the opposition. There will always be a role for celebrity pit bulls, but the most effective trial lawyers fight relentlessly for their clients with respect, intelligence and grace.

3. Confidence. During the course of a trial, a lawyer makes literally thousands of decisions and assessments about risk, timing, pace, advantage, leverage and value. She makes most of these without the benefit of absolute certainty, knowledge or a complete assessment of the facts. To be effective in the midst of such a large gray area requires enormous levels of personal and professional confidence.  And don’t confuse confidence with false certainty or hubris. No decision can be certain and no lawyer is always right. But the most effective litigators learn by instinct to translate mountains of structured and unstructured information into clear and decisive action, often in the heat of a trial. It’s a trait that every great military leader, athlete, coach and mentor shares. Confident trial lawyers can be spotted a mile away. You can see it in the way they walk, talk, sit, stand, listen and gesture.  They often radiate  positive energy and a sense of command that puts clients at ease and speeds the course of trials and settlements. While it can’t always be measured, it is a key asset of the most effective of our breed.

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