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What Makes a Great Trial Lawyer?

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We asked attorneys as well as other legal professionals throughout the United States, What makes a great trial lawyer? We hope you enjoy their responses as much as we did.

What Makes a Great Trial Lawyer?
Joe Akrotirianakis was for several years a faculty member at the U.S. Department of Justice's National Advocacy Center in Columbia South Carolina, where he taught trial advocacy to federal prosecutors from all over the United States and at times prosecutors in emerging legal systems from other parts of the world. The first two slides of his presentation were titles "Some Thoughts on Trial Lawyering." Of those two, the first was a quote from a law school professor of his. It read, "Trial lawyers are the fighter pilots and emergency room surgeons of the law."

The point to his students was, "you don't always have to be the most genius of lawyers to become a good-if-not-great trial lawyer, just as you don't need to be the most brilliant of all physicians to become an emergency room (or perhaps battlefield) surgeon. Being smart is necessary but not sufficient and, if you are going to be a "fighter pilot of the law," what is required for success is that have a particular type of intestinal fortitude, such that when things start exploding all around you (i.e., you've just lost a motion relating to an important piece of evidence, the opposing attorney is poking you in the eyes and kicking you in the shins, and the judge says, 'Bring in the jury!'), it can fall away like water off a duck's back and you can return to the lectern poised and professional."

His second thought on "trial lawyering" is "like pugilists, the skill of a real trial lawyer is not best measured by how hard you can punch, but how well you can take a punch and then counter-punch. Your evidence will provide the force in your punch, in opening statement, direct examination, and closing argument - things that can, for the most part be plotted out in advance. At some point, however, you are going to have to take punches too (or there would have been a settlement rather than a trial). For me, the great trial lawyering part of it is a lawyer's ability to deliver the counterpunches of cross-examination, redirect examination, and rebuttal argument, where frequently the most significant pieces cannot be plotted out in advance.

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