Friday, June 16, 2017

Love & Fear & Trial

I'm so high right now. I'm high on a wave of confidence, relief, and exhaustion.

I'm shaken up from an odd mix of complete and utter fear and the immense thrill of giving my first ever closing argument in a trial.

I just finished a four day trial. It was my first entirely solo trial. I've co-chaired trials before. In fact earlier this year, I was third chair in a six week trial where I was  primarily the motion bitch.

This time was entirely different. Not only was this my first solo trial, it was my first criminal trial. I am a civil litigator. I don't know the slightest thing about prosecuting a criminal case. In fact, one of my struggles during the trial was to remember to refer to myself as the "State" or the "prosecution" rather than the defense. At the end of the case, I nearly declared "defense rests!" Oops. Funny story....on the first day of trial, I referred to myself as a "prostitutor" instead of "prosecutor." It was not my most shining-star moment.

Let's go back to Monday. In advance of this trial, I was given a trial binder and told, "here you go, trial's next week." As I said, I'm a civil litigator. The world of criminal law is a dark and scary place for me. In criminal law, trials are "speedy" rather than 5 years in the making. You have no clue what the other side's argument will be until they start their case. You don't get 5 days notice to respond to motions. And, witnesses are rarely deposed in advance.

Nonetheless, I agreed to do a criminal trial to get more trial experience under my belt. I immediately regretted it. The day before trial, my stomach was in knots, I had serious questions about the adequacy of my opening argument, and the thought of talking and interacting with a room full of strange people made me want to vomit.

As I walked into Court Room 271 on Monday, I played Eminem in my head on repeat and tried not to cry:

His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy
There's vomit on his sweater already, mom's spaghetti
He's nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready
To drop bombs, but he keeps on forgettin'
What he wrote down, the whole crowd goes so loud
He opens his mouth, but the words won't come out

Those lyrics were me.

When it was my time to start voir dire, I stood up, looked into a room of 40 blank stranger faces, took a deep breath, and forged onward, despite the stomach knots, the shaking hands, and the violent wave of adrenaline coursing through my body. After the jury was impaneled, it was time for opening statements. I simply repeated the process: stand up, look forward, deep breath, go.

It was the same thing witness after witness. Deep breaths became my center of gravity. If you're taking a deep breath, you can't fumble over your words. My most challenging witnesses took nearly 2 hours to examine on the stand. But it felt like 15 minutes. Time flies when the pressure's on, when everyone's looking at you, watching you walk, watching you glance at your notes, watching you pause to think about your next question, watching you handle exhibits, watching you expectantly after every loud "objection!." They're watching the witness too, of course. But I felt like I constantly had the spot light.

Talking all day and interacting with people for hours at a time in a high-pressure setting is pretty much a nightmare for an introvert like me. I came home every night exhausted. Almost physically unable to string together coherent words. My brain was operating on fumes. But there was no rest during trial. Each night I was up late preparing witness outlines and my closing argument.

All the stress, all the anxiety, all the exhaustion, and all the emotions grew and grew as everything culminated into the final magic trick, the closing argument. I nearly had a panic attack at the thought of giving a closing argument. I just wanted the stress and the exhaustion to end as soon as possible. But there would be no rest until this one final terrifying act was behind me. When it came time for closing, I stood up, took my deep breath, and forged onward, trying desperately to ignore the desire to combust into thin air.

I can't even describe how terrified I was. I don't remember ever being that terrified in my life. I arrived at the court room 30 minutes before the proceedings were to start that final day. All the staff and counsel were chatting away in light conversation. I didn't hear a single word. I was zoned. I could hear my heart beat pounding in my ears. I made three nervous but completely unnecessary runs to the ladies room. How the hell had I gotten to this scary precipice. All I could imagine was me standing in front of an expectant jury, fumbling over my words until utter nonsense spilled out of my mouth. Why had I said yes to this again?

The jury was called in. The judge turned the floor over to me. I stood up, looked directly into the eyes of 13 complete strangers and forged onward. I was totally faking it. I know I spoke calmly and carefully. I know I sounded loud and sure. But it was 100% an act. At least at first. Then somehow, ten minutes in, I found my groove. This wasn't so bad. The things coming out of my mouth were pretty darn convincing, in fact. I sat down while the defense gave its closing statement. And as I listened to the defense's argument, I began to furiously plot my rebuttal.

By the time it was my turn again I was rearing to go, like a race dog waiting for the gate to drop. I started my rebuttal with a reference to 50 Shades of Gray (how many lawyer points do I get for that?!). I even got a chuckle from the ladies in the front of the jury box. And then I was completely unleashed. I tackled topic after topic, rebutting each of defense counsel's arguments. It felt good. It felt SO GOOD. And, to top it all off, in a room full of jurors and court staff, and judge, I confidently uttered the words "blowjob" and "handjob" without EVEN blushing. (I swear it was relevant to the non-sex crime case).

When I was done and had nothing more to say, I walked back to my table. As I exhaled I released all the stress and the tension from my body. Let it all drip down to my toes and onto the floor. I hadn't slept well in days. I was starving. I was exhausted. My brain was temporarily broken. But I had never felt so good. (which is a good thing because then I had to jump straight into a 4 hour deposition). And I didn't even know the verdict yet.

You know what I love about being a lawyer, and particularly, being a litigator? Being a lawyer presents endless opportunities to grow. At least for a shy introvert like me. Being a lawyer requires me to confront my weaknesses, face my fears, and to embrace new challenges on a nearly daily basis. I'm constantly placed in positions that fall far beyond my comfort zone. I don't always rise to the challenge, but most of the time I do. And succeed or fail, I always grow. Each new scary experience brings me that much closer to being a stronger, smarter, and more experienced me. It's absolutely terrifying. It's terrifying beyond measure. But I love it.

This trial is going to be a thing that defines who I am for a while. You know how after you become a mom for the first time, you want to run around and tell everyone you meet that you're a mom? I remember thinking that I needed to wear a badge that said "mom" on it. When it's your first kid, going from not-a-mom to being a mom is kind of a big deal. You completely change the way you see and define yourself. That is exactly how I feel right now having completed my first solo trial. It's going to be a little while before I stop thinking of myself in terms of "attorney who has done a trial solo." And I'm totally ok with that! :)