Written by Alison Walsh, J.D.
This is not always the first word that comes to mind these days when talking about a lawyer. But, according to two accomplished judges, both jurors and judges tend to side with the lawyer they most trust. The Honorable Richard Sankovitz of the Milwaukee County Circuit Court and the Honorable Rex Heeseman of the Superior Court of California, Los Angeles County spoke at our Judicial Perspectives Teleconference about what impresses judges the most from lawyers. Judge Sankovitz said, “lawyers who impress us the most are lawyers who consciously or subconsciously give us reasons to trust them.” If a lawyer can gain the trust of the judge their client often has the advantage.
Trust starts with showing the Judge that you have a plan and strategy for your case. The ability of a lawyer to present a concise crisp plan for the case, and break the case down to the core issues impresses a judge. This can be achieved by stipulating to certain facts and refining arguments to the real issues at hand. As Judge Heeseman explained, judges do not like lawyers who are just “trying to keep their options open.”
Targeted arguments also create trust. Get to the point of the lawsuit and what is truly important to the client. This shows that the lawyer is smart, knows what she is doing and how she wants the judge to decide. It also makes it easier for the Court to understand the case and reach a favorable decision. This applies not only to verbal discussions with the judge, but also in brief writing and witness and exhibit lists. “Less is often more,” Judge Heeseman said, when it comes to things like witness lists and exhibits.
Be the Ball, Danny.
“Be the ball Danny, be the ball.” Judge Sankovitz quoted this famous line from the movie Caddy Shack, to illustrate the importance of a lawyer’s brief. The brief is the “ball” in litigation. An impressive lawyer is one who understands that a good brief can become the template for the judge’s decision. They offered the following advice: don’t use form briefs; say what you want the Court to do right up front followed by your reasoning; put key cases first; put your critical arguments first; concede cases or facts that support your opposition; tailor your brief to the case; and make the brief clear and easy to understand.
Lawyers do not get to choose the judge who will hear their case, but it is important that they learn about the judge they are before. This includes the limits of the judge’s authority, how the courtroom is run and the applicable court rules. Judges Sankovitz and Heeseman are impressed by lawyers who call their chambers to determine their particular preferences and the rules they apply in their courtrooms, those “who speak plainly, without pretension or ingratiation or patronizing,” and those who cross their “t’s” and dot their “I’s”.
Candor and the ability to build trust and likability will go a long way in the Courtroom. If the law and facts are not clear for one side, then the lawyer who the judge trusts the most may decide the winner.
Judges Sankovitz and Heeseman offered these and other insights during one of our recent teleconferences. The recording and transcript is still available in our Archives. Alison Walsh is an attorney, freelance conference developer and writer living near Philadelphia.
At left is Judge Sankovitz on his daily commute to court.