I had a long weekend of work, but I’m ready for trial. The work I completed over the weekend wasn’t trial prep, though, because that was done long ago. I spent the weekend tying up loose ends.
Trial is like a really shitty vacation. You have to make sure all your ducks are in a row so you can take some time off. Instead of dipping your toes in the water and watching a sunset with your adult beverage of choice in hand, however, you get to endure grueling combat all day every day for days on end. It’s a break from your daily stress during which you forget about your normal troubles in favor of some more pressing troubles. Did I mention that I love it?
The point of the job is often trial. Negotiating and writing and analyzing are frequently the point too, probably more so, but trial is the most obvious display of skill. Lawyers phone in motions and avoid other important work altogether. People watch you at trial. You can’t escape scrutiny. If it weren’t for trial, we’d never know about Rakofsky or any number of others like him.
This trial comes at an especially interesting time for me, as I just completed my yearly continuing legal education requirements at the Arizona Public Defender Association’s annual conference. I met trial junkies whose lives revolve around the adrenaline of the courtroom. I also met lawyers who are ready to retire without ever having argued to a jury of a client’s supposed peers. I’ve known members of both groups over the past few years, and through them, I’ve learned some lessons that no continuing legal education course could ever drive home quite as well.
From the trial junkies, I learned that the job isn’t just a trek from one wood-paneled trench to another. You don’t forsake the clients without a snowball’s chance in hell of winning so you can someday fight for the ones with a real shot of going home. Most of my little impact on the tiny part of the world I touch on behalf of my clients comes from the daily grind, which I try to do each day with every bit of courage and intelligence I can muster. Trial is where people get to see me prove myself most clearly, but the work that matters most is whatever work I’m doing right now, whether it’s in the public eye or in the comfort of my office. The trial junkies taught me that a lawyer is a lot more than the sum of his verdicts. A good lawyer doesn’t wait around for the innocent client or a juicy set of facts to walk in the door in order to give his career meaning.
From the plea junkies, the ones who seek obscurity and dread the light of courtroom, I learned that the point of the job is to do every part of the job as well as possible. A big part of that job is trial. Whether that’s where you actually end up or not, it’s something no lawyer worthy of respect should fear. A lawyer’s time and advice may be his stock in trade, apparently, but some of that time is probably going to have to be spent in the well. Fear can lead to injustice, and that fear just as often comes from the lawyer as it does from the defendant. The fear I saw in many of my colleagues was disturbing, but the overall effect wasn’t all bad. A desire to resolve cases short of trial can inspire a powerful desire to fight for an acceptable non-trial resolution, and the plea junkies taught me that what makes it onto the record is often just the tip of the iceberg.
With a group as impressive as the one that attended last week’s conference, the best lessons came not from the lawyers who exemplify the traits to avoid, but from the lawyers possessing the best attributes of each group. In a perfect world, every client would be torn between a fantastic plea and a strong chance of success at trial. The decision is never the lawyer’s to make, and the toughest choices are often the ones that come from a position of strength on all fronts. The best lawyers taught me that Rousseau was probably right in that the wise man has all the virtues, but the hero compensates for the virtues he lacks by the brilliance of those he possesses.
The criminal defense lawyer junkies, whether their drug of choice is a plea or trial, all want to be heroes. Wisdom, as Rousseau defines it, at least, is far more valuable. That’s a good thing for any lawyer to know.