Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Wrong Side Of The Mountain (Part 1 of My First Trial)

For a week I have been hearing all about him. "You will love working with him." "He is the best trial attorney in this state." "He is so much fun!" "The guy's a genius."

When I finally show up at the front desk, the receptionist calls him. She announces my presence and, after hanging up, she directs me to sit. I sit and try so hard to will the worries and nerves from my body. I feel sharply dressed for casual Friday in my dark denim jeans, soft pale pink blouse, and smart black blazer. I feel a strong need to make a great first impression, but somehow I suspect I'm being frivolous and my wardrobe choice will go un-noticed.

He opens the door. I do not see the tall, slim frame that I had expected, that I had imagined. His face is not friendly, his eyes are not shining with charm. He asks how he can help me. He does not recognize my name. I finally explain, "my boss said you were willing to train me and give me some trial experience." Finally, it seems to click in his mind, unapologetically he tells me he is not good with names and summons me to follow him.

We walk down cavernous halls, turning left, then right, then left, left again. I'm already lost. He waves me into his office. It is small, crammed with books and file cabinets. He instructs me to have a seat pointing to a large, overstuffed leather chair in the corner. It's the only thing indulgent about his office. As I glide onto the cool leather, I imagine that many witnesses, perhaps even victims, have sat here before me.

"Why are you here?" He begins.

I don't quite understand. My boss sent a detailed email, on which I was cc'ed, explaining how she would love if he could help me get more trial experience. I wonder if he is looking for a literal answer or if he is simply probing me.

As I attempt to explain, my voice trails off, as if his very presence and steady gaze were squeezing the air from my throat.

"Tell me about yourself." His next question is not much easier. I begin to feel like this is an interview. That I have to prove myself. That I am not worthy to train with the best. No doubt, he probably has a million cases to get to. I feel like a beggar. A pesky fly. I am probably more trouble to him than it is worth.

I hate this question. How do you sum up 29 years of life experience, hopes and fears, successes and failures, passions and personality in response to one simple question. I begin to anger, which thankfully does not show behind my nervousness. It's all I can do to keep my hands from shaking, my eyes from narrowing in terror. Instinctively I want to run my hands through my parted hair. I resist the urge.

Getting to know someone should be a collaborative effort. He is taking the easy path and putting all the burden on me. I did not prepare for an interview. I remember my boss assuring me that I will have a lot of fun working for him. I feel like I met the wrong person.

I provide a clumsy and inadequate answer to his question. He asks several follow up questions. Such as "What did you do at X firm." When I tell him I did tort litigation, he quips, "and what does that mean?" Is he treating me like a witness on the stand? I already feel like I have failed.

He gives me a spiel about trying cases. How you have to put on a show. Be deliberate about everything you do. Create a personality that will keep the jury entertained while also making them think that you are the most prepared person in the room. Exude confidence. Be forceful. That is not what I do, clearly I have already shown him this flaw of mine in our brief 5 minute meeting.

He hands me a trial notebook. "This is what a trial notebook looks like. You have to have all the information at your fingertips. You never know what will come up. You never know what the judge will ask you. You have to plan in advance how you will get all your evidence before the jury. Know the evidence rules." With that, he hands me a gigantic evidence rule book. I decide not to tell him that Evidence was my lowest grade in law school. To mask my terror, I just smile.

"Be careful about smiling in court." He continues. "You don't want the jury to think you are flirting with them. Women who are friendly in court often have a hard time reaching women jurors."

I let me smile collapse on itself.

Next he hands me a case file. "Here is your case. Trial is set for the beginning of next month. Create a trial notebook like the one I showed you. Then come back and we will practice."

Is it too late to back out? I can't try a case. I know NOTHING about criminal law. I am a civil litigator. (And I mean litigator in a loose sense: drafting pleadings, issuing discovery, and the occasional discovery motion in front of a judge.)We finish our session.

"It was nice to meet you," I say, trying to be pleasant. I'm determined to win this man over. I'm determined, despite my deeply-rooted terror, to succeed.

"You don't know that just yet," he responds quickly and waves me out of his office. He shuts the door. I'm alone in the cavernous, maze-like hall. My arms, now loaded full of cases and books. I relax and my body starts to shake intensely, so fiercely like a mad dog finally let loose from a cage. I take a wrong turn. I wander the hall, searching for an exit sign. "He could have at least shown me out!" I'm angry but mostly at myself. Why can't I be more easy going and confident. Why can't I at least fake it? I better learn before my trial.

My mind trips on those words. "My trial." Even though I'm out of that room, I'm not safe. I realize that I'm going to have to come back here, to this uncomfortable and unknown place to do something uncomfortable and unknown. As I walk farther and farther into the labyrinth, I feel lost in more sense than one. I want to cry. I want to go home. I want to not have to think about trials. Or court. Or jurors. Or my shortcomings. Shyness has always been a disability for me. It's limitations and burdens never felt so staggering as they did in that hallways.

Somehow I make it out. I find a glimmer of outdoor light around a corner. I then turn to find a door. I step out and sigh. The air is fresh. In typical Pacific Northwest fashion, it smells slightly of rain, sweet but heavy in the air, and the start of budding leaves. I know I face a mountain. But I've faced many before. LSAT tests. Oral arguments in legal writing class. Taking my first deposition. Arguing my first summary judgment motion (just last year). I stumbled through all those things. But I survived. And I came out the other side a little stronger, a little tougher, and a little more experienced.

I know it will be painful. And hard. And scary. But I have hope knowing that with the passage of time,  four short weeks actually, I will be on the other side of this mountain. I will still be standing. And I will be relieved.


  1. I felt that way before my first couple of trials! I sometimes still do, if it's a really big/bad one. You'll do great, and if you're anything like me, the nerves will actually help. Makes you over-prepare :)

  2. Your description made me laugh -- I've worked with quite a few people like that! Litigators, amirite. Be your organized, driven self and he will come to love you. Just don't EVER let him hear you giggle.

  3. Great post and reads like an excellent first chapter to a young-lawyer-kicks-butt kind of novel!!