Lawyers have reputations that precede them when appearing in front of a judge
At the recent CAALA New Lawyers Seminar the featured speakers were Judge Debre Katz Weintraub and Judge Roy Paul. Judge Weintraub is the Assistant Supervising Judge of the Civil Division of the Los Angeles County Superior Court. Judge Paul won CAALA’s Trial Judge of the Year award for 2015. Both judges talked about the importance of one’s reputation as a lawyer.
They were both incredibly candid about how they formed certain perceptions about lawyers who appeared before them and what lawyers did in the courtroom that undermined their own credibility with the judge. Here’s what I took from their very informative talk:
If you have been around long enough, then judges know your reputation as a lawyer before you walk into the courtroom. Judges talk, just like lawyers talk. And lawyers have reputations that precede them before they ever appear in front of a judge, like it or not.
If you have a reputation for not playing by the rules during trial, you can bet your next judge has heard all about it.
If you have a reputation for taking liberties with the rules of evidence at trial, you can bet your next judge has heard all about that, too.
On the flip side, if you have a reputation for being a professional trial lawyer who plays by the rules, follows the court’s rulings, abides by motion in limine rulings, and otherwise “plays hard, but fair,” I guarantee your next judge has heard that about you as well.
If you make one dishonest argument, or try to get away with one dishonest tactic during trial, do you realize the judge will remember that for a very long time? And that judge may very well share the story with other judges who ask about you. Suddenly your reputation is formed – and it will stick with you unless your behavior changes.
Of course our reputations as lawyers are invaluable. What has taken years to build can be ruined in a day. Once ruined, it is very difficult to rebuild your reputation. And, fair or not, that is the reality of the situation.
Civility can be difficult today, given how the opposing lawyer often acts. But civility is more important than ever, not just to our profession in general but to your individual reputation. Fewer and fewer lawyers try cases nowadays, and so judges know the lawyers who regularly try civil cases. If you are the lawyer with the bad reputation, that is very difficult to overcome.
The importance of civility
The best trial lawyers are the ones who are fierce when they need to be, yet who always play by the rules, who realize that the jury hates bickering lawyers, who realize that baseless objections rarely further a client’s cause in trial, and who generally carry themselves with the utmost professionalism from the moment they walk into the courthouse.
It is that lawyer who judges can’t wait to have come into their courtroom to try a case. A judge remarked that when he has two outstanding trial lawyers on a case, his job is suddenly the easiest in the world because the lawyers run the show. They make the judge’s job easy. No fighting, no lame objections, no excessive side-bars, no “We need to see the judge, we have a dispute” every morning before the jury comes in. No, those lawyers know how to move the trial along, entertain the jury, keep the sideshow to a bare minimum, and inform the judge of what he or she really needs to know and when they need to know it. That is the sign of a great trial lawyer. And it’s true no matter what side of the aisle you are on.
Civility has always been important to me. As a young lawyer, my mentors stressed the importance of civility in our profession. It is a topic that CAALA focuses on in seminars. In the upcoming seminar on May 25, to be held jointly between CAALA and the Association of Southern California Defense Counsel (ASCDC), Judge Daniel Buckley will address the issue of civility between our two sides, plaintiff and defense. Judges want lawyers to be civil. Judges respect civility. Jurors definitely respect civility. So why not try and be civil?
Civility is not for wimps. And to answer the question posed in the title: Your reputation is worth everything.
David M. Ring is a partner with Taylor & Ring, where he specializes in plaintiffs’ personal injury and wrongful death cases. He also specializes in representing victims of crime, particularly victims of sexual abuse, assault or harassment, in civil cases and has obtained many precedent-setting verdicts and settlements in that area of law. He was named Personal Injury Lawyer of the Year (2015) by California Lawyer. The Daily Journal selected him as one of the Top 25 Plaintiff Lawyers in California (2015).
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