Reviewed by George R. Wise, Jr., ATLA Docket (Winter 2010)
A Review of Rick Friedman's Becoming a Trial Lawyer
Clarence Darrow once said, "The only real lawyers are trial lawyers, and trial lawyers try cases to juries." Increasingly, trial lawyers find it more and more difficult to follow that maxim. The number of jury trials completed each year continues to decrease. Jury trials are more complicated to prepare and more complex to present. Given these difficulties one may realistically ask, "Why become a trial lawyer?"
Rick Friedman on Becoming a Trial Lawyer helps answer this question. It is, in part, a reflection on the difficulties trial lawyers face. Although not a "how to " book, it also offers sound advice on trial techniques and tips for living a balanced life.
Friedman spends the first part of the book investigating the question of why one becomes a trial lawyer. He offers valuable insight both for the seasoned trial attorney as well as the young attorney considering a career as a trial lawyer. Early in the book, Friedman identifies Gerry Spence as one of his heroes and a great source of inspiration. He met Spence for dinner and asked him why he continued to work as a trial attorney. He says Spence did not hesitate in responding that, "It’s the best way I’ve found to learn about myself." Certainly, trials teach us about our fears, our strengths and weaknesses and the level of passion we have for this job.
Friedman laments the decline of opportunities for young lawyers to get trial experience. Cases which once offered opportunities for trial work now settle. It is not easy for a young lawyer to get experience in front of a jury. Friedman pointedly states that the young lawyer has to be responsible for his or her own development. Obtaining trial skills is hard work. Friedman advocates many obvious ways to educate oneself such as watching trials, attending CLE programs, doing pro bono work and volunteering to help experienced lawyers try cases; however, perhaps the best advice he offers is to develop good people skills and to watch how you treat people. Treating our fellow human beings with kindness and compassion is not just good manners but a good way to undevelop as a trial lawyer.
Mr. Friedman offers encouragement to those of us who do not possess the natural talent to try cases. He points out that hard work and learning to be oneself may be more important than natural talent. Hard work is a constant theme in this book. He writes that, "I don’t know a single successful trial lawyer who doesn’t work like a dog. In fact, I don’t know many marginally successful trial lawyers who don’t work like dogs. Hard labor simply has no substitute." This is a major truth in the book and something young lawyers may be surprised to learn after graduating from law school. The point is that if you are unwilling to work hard, don’t become a trial lawyer.
This reviewer particularly enjoyed the advice in Chapter 7 on how to deal with ones opponents. He examines the fact that defense lawyers are sometimes bullying, dishonest, stonewallers who fail to cooperate in scheduling, file frivolous motions and raise frivolous defenses, are rude and condescending and make unwarranted accusations about you. Friedman’s hypothesis is that this behavior is a product of fear and envy. He writes, "They envy you, they fear you, and they resent you. Yes, you, the guy who got a D in Civil Procedure, the woman who can’t stand in front of a jury without shaking uncontrollably, the one who lies awake nights wondering how to pay next month’s rent." Emotional detachment is the best way to deal with the difficult opponent. As Friedman says, "Simply stated, you signed up for a job dealing with high-strung, nervous French poodles. You are never going to have a warm and fuzzy relationship with these dogs. Sometimes you may be able to stop them from yipping and yapping, other times not. Your job is to win the case, not stop the yapping. The case and the yapping are almost always two entirely separate things." Taking the high road and maintaining professionalism is sound advice. As this reviewer is fond of saying, never wrestle with a pig. The pig likes it and you’ll just get dirty.
Being a trial lawyer is hard on personal relationships. It is hard to maintain a healthy relationship with family and friends, while putting in the hours necessary to do this job at a high level. Friedman suggests that these relationships do not have to suffer if one avoids two traps, the traps of emotional entitlement and excessive guilt. Your journey as a trial lawyer is not your wife or children’s journey. You are not entitled to expect that your family will understand if you have the attitude that your job is more important than your relationship with them. Friedman also advises not to engage in excessive guilt. There will be times when you miss a child’s sporting event because you must prepare for a critical deposition.
Rick Friedman on Becoming a Trial Lawyer is a valuable book for those wanting to practice trial lawyering at a high level. Helping regular folks achieve justice is not an easy job. The civil justice system is a jungle with many traps for the unwary. It can be an unfair system. After all, if the system was fair, trial lawyers would not be needed. This book reminds us not to be bitter or whine about these difficulties but to follow a path which helps us maintain our idealism about why we are trial lawyers.