For almost all of my legal career, I have been preparing and trying personal injury cases the same exact way. Due to a high number of mostly district court cases, I have developed a cookie-cutter method of organizing my files, obtaining information, drafting pleadings, answering interrogatories, identifying vital exhibits and preparing witnesses and clients. Even my questions on direct and cross examination of witnesses are very often the same.
Sure, auto accidents happen in various ways and each of my clients sustain different injuries. However, the underlying premise of the bulk of my cases is pretty much identical and the rules of evidence and laws of the road rarely change, allowing me to recycle my trial strategies no matter what court I find myself in.
Alas, I found out the hard way last week that I should not get so comfy with my trial skills. One of my typical strategies, that multiple judges have complimented me on, fell on deaf ears. This particular strategy seemingly annoyed the judge to such an extent that I was ready to ask my client one last time if she wanted to accept the previous settlement offer. (Luckily, the judge was very fair in his decision and he ended up awarding me a judgment almost double the settlement offer. Maybe I misread the judge’s annoyance or maybe I just had a really likeable plaintiff.)
Knowing your judge’s likes and dislikes is extremely important for trial lawyers, especially for us young lawyers. When you’re older and more experienced, you will most likely have your peers and contemporaries on the bench, so you may not have to worry as much about making a good first impression. (I am excited to get to that stage one day!) But while we’re still trying to figure our way through this maze, make sure to keep a mental log of judges’ preferences.
For example, note which judge gives a lot of weight to photographs of property damage, or which one makes decisions based on independent witnesses, or which one is easily irritated by witnesses with criminal records. We have a large number of diehard Orioles and Ravens fans on the bench so make sure if you have a trial on a Friday during football season, you wear something purple. Our Maryland judges frequently volunteer as panelists and speakers at various events and CLEs like the Bar Association of Baltimore City’s “Breakfast with the Bench” or the upcoming BABC Personal Injury Litigation Committee lunchtime event featuring practice pointers motions in limine in Baltimore City Circuit Court.
Researching judges in most circuit courts is fairly easy because the docket is published the day before a hearing, so you should have enough time to ask around about the particular judge who has been assigned to your case. In district court however, judges tend to move around between courthouses and even between different courtrooms within the same courthouse. You can try asking the security guards at the entrance of each district court building the morning of your trial about which judge is scheduled for the room in which your matter is to be heard.
Judges often vary dramatically in how they value tort claims, so you may find defense counsel in the courtroom lobby trying to get more money from the insurance company to settle the case right before trial. Plaintiff’s counsel may have to quickly restructure their trial tactics and reorder exhibits and re-prepare witnesses based on the judge’s preferences.
We’re fortunately part of a very friendly and helpful Bar, so take advantage of it and ask around about judges of whom you are unaware. Also, don’t forget to go to your local Bar association discussions, join email list-serves for your specific area of practice, and prepare for your trials or motions accordingly.