This week we welcome guest writer Jordan Dickson to talk about how to set yourself up as a law student to be a trial lawyer later on in your legal career.
The first kind of lawyers almost all of us are introduced to are trial lawyers. On those TV shows all aspiring lawyers seem to watch, we see trial lawyers yelling “objection!”, pointing determinedly at the defendant, and (improperly) telling juries to “send a message.”
For those of you who want to pursue a career as a trial lawyer, be it as a prosecutor, defense attorney, or some other kind of litigator, there are steps you can take in law school to prepare. These practical steps can help prepare you to come into the courtroom ahead of the game.
1. Get on Your Feet However You Can
Public speaking can be nerve wracking, even for the most experienced public speakers. But being a trial lawyer means speaking in public. You have to talk to judges, to juries, to other lawyers, and to your client. Every law school has different opportunities to speak in public. You should take advantage of as many as you can. Obviously, activities like mock trial or moot court are advantageous. Similarly, classes like trial practice, improv, or public speaking would be beneficial. But even things like speaking up in a large lecture class, leading a student group, or tutoring can all help you get out any jitters you may have with public speaking. The more you force yourself to get over any fear and nerves during law school, the less likely you’ll be to freeze when you have to think on your feet and speak up in front of some mean old judge.
2. Learn Evidence and Procedure
Any and all classes you can take related to evidence and procedure will be immensely helpful once you get into the courtroom. When you are preparing for trial, or for any hearing, it makes your life a lot easier when you already know the rules of evidence and the applicable rules of procedure. Take advanced classes if they are offered. Put yourself into situations through externships, pro bono, or anything else that will expose you to evidence and procedure concepts and applications.
Go to court! Going to court seems like a no-brainer, but very few law students take advantage of that opportunity. Almost every hearing, be it federal or state, is open to the public. Just walk inside of the courtroom and sit down. It might feel uncomfortable at first—the clerks will certainly look at you and try to figure out who you are. But you have a right to be there. So, use that right to your advantage. Watching other lawyers practice is a good way of figuring out both stylistic and strategic things that you want to adopt in your own practice. Watching is also a great way to figure out what types of tactics you don’t want to use in the future. Every lawyer is different. Watch as many court proceedings as you can and synthesize what you see to develop a style all your own.
4. Do a Practical Course
This is the most obvious suggestion, but one of the most important for a very particular reason. Obviously, doing a clinic or a practicum that puts you in court will be great practice for actually standing up in court as a real lawyer. But one of the most valuable parts of a clinical experience is one you get outside of the courtroom. Specifically, a clinic gives you the opportunity to talk to opposing counsel. Talking to lawyers on the other side of the aisle can be difficult at first. Sometimes they will use phraseology and acronyms that you’ve never heard before. Sometimes, they will try to sneak something past you because they know you are a student. Having those difficult conversations while in school, under the watchful eye of a professor, will make having those conversations on your own so much easier later on. Doing a practical course is one of the few chances you’ll have in law school to talk to opposing counsel. Make the most of it.
5. Talk to People
Networking can be a pain. But networking can do more for you than just helping you secure a job. Networking can open up opportunities for you to practice skills in situations that you wouldn’t otherwise have access to. For example, if you are in a clinic and have never had the opportunity to try a case in front of a jury, go talk to a public defender or an assistant district attorney. Ask your professor and that professional if you can sit “second chair” in a jury trial with them. If you are brave enough to ask for what you want, opportunities will open for you faster than normal. Being a trial lawyer requires a level of audacity and fearlessness. Go out and make a name for yourself!