Pit bull or glad-hander? A trial attorney’s dilemma

The best advice I received in law school came from a professor who gave me my lowest grade, a C.

The course, New York Criminal Practice, was a one-credit course that did not get the attention it deserved from me. At the time, I had other priorities: 1) taking 15 other credits at school, 2) working 30 hours a week, 3) preparing for a mock trial competition (12 hours a week), and 4) prepping for a moot court competition (four to six hours a week).

His advice was simple and general in nature: “If you have any ambitions of becoming of successful criminal defense attorney, do not laugh, joke or give any indications to your clients that you like their prosecutor or arresting officer.”

My professor’s suggestion was not an invitation to be rude or harbor any animus against the other side; instead, it was based on the realization that most clients, especially criminal, view attorneys as their only recourse against an alleged wrong. For these clients, any evidence of good will towards the other side will be perceived as weakness.

One school of thought teaches you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar. In many ways, a better relationship with the other side can assist in fostering an atmosphere conducive to constructive negotiation.

There is the additional concern that following my professor’s advice will alienate you –- this is especially concerning for attorneys living and working in areas with small bars.

In my opinion, the remedy for both dilemmas is somewhere in the middle of being a pit bull and a glad-hander. Outside the courtroom, act as you normally would — if you like an attorney from the other side, do what you would normally do, whether it be telling stories, joking around, playing golf, etc. However, once you enter that courtroom your attention must be solely focused on your client’s aims.

Your client is constantly evaluating you –- your clothes, your walk, your disposition, everything. In many ways trials are akin to plays, and litigators are their actors. For a client whose nerves are likely jittery, any reassurance of your commitment will go a long way –- and who knows, maybe someone in the audience will enjoy the show and seek your services when they’re in need.

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