“No case is worth losing your license for.”
Robert L. Habush,
"Don’t be a jerk."
That was the most common piece of advice that Milwaukee County Circuit Court judges and veteran litigators gave to a group of young lawyers and law students.
They noted that gaining a reputation as someone who is difficult to work with will hurt both the lawyer and the lawyer’s clients
The advice came as part of a half-day program about "Bridging the Gap" between law school and the courtroom, held by the Milwaukee Young Lawyers Association and the Wisconsin Academy of Trial Lawyers. A group of nearly 90 young lawyers and law students attended the Nov. 5 program, held on the Marquette campus.
"Don’t be a jerk," Judge Patricia D. McMahon stated as one of her top 10 tips for succeeding in the courtroom. "Your reputation starts now. If you lose your reputation for honesty and candor, it is hard to get back."
Robert L. Habush, who has 44 years of litigation experience, indicated that a lawyer could be a tenacious advocate without being disagreeable. He encouraged the lawyers to be relentless during discovery, "like a puppy pulling at a root on a tree." But he indicated that did not require being rude or obnoxious.
"You don’t have to be a jerk to be a good lawyer," Habush observed.
Joseph D. McDevitt, who spent 30 years as a trial lawyer and 10 years as a mediator, noted the benefits of getting along with opposing counsel and working with them.
"Being a jerk doesn’t mean you are advocating your client’s position any better," McDevitt said. "In fact, you may be doing them a disservice."
Two other circuit court judges, John J. DiMotto and Jeffrey A. Kremers, stressed the importance of civility with opposing counsel, judges, and court staff.
"You can disagree without being disagreeable," Kremers observed.
"We put a high premium on following the rules of civility," DiMotto told the group.
Top 10 Countdown
The following list is based on recommendations from Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Patricia McMahon.
10. Show up: Come to court on time. If you have to be late, call and let the judge know.
9. Use technology intelligently: Plan to use technology in a way that will enhance rather than detract from the case. Don’t use technology for technology’s sake.
8. Pay attention: Listen to what is going on particularly when questioning a witness. Don’t mindlessly work through a list of questions and miss an important statement by a witness.
7. Speak up: You can’t persuade anyone if you can’t be heard.
6. Tell the court what you want: When presenting motions in limine, it’s not enough simply to state the applicable law. Lawyers need to tell the judge what they want from the court as a result of the law.
5. Be organized: Good organization gives strength to an argument.
4. Comply with SCR 62: The rules for decorum are important to follow.
3. Get to know the staff: Take time to get acquainted with staff and treat them well. They are as important when trying to get things done on a case as the judge.
2. Don’t be a jerk: Your reputation starts now. If you lose your reputation for honesty and candor, it is hard to get it back.
1. Know your judge: Come in and watch the courts to see how things are done. Ask the judge how he or she likes things to be handled in the courtroom.
He noted that incivility in the courtroom can have an effect on the way a judge rules when there is a close call. Most of the time, judicial rulings are clear cut, he said, but when the decision could go either way, an obnoxious lawyer is less likely to receive the benefit of the doubt.
Several judges elaborated on the issue of attitude in the courtroom attitude regarding opposing counsel, the judge and the staff. Kremers noted that the attitude a lawyer brings to the courtroom either shows respect for the court or it doesn’t. In addition to treating the judge with respect, he also encouraged getting along with court staff, noting that they are as important if not more important than the judge when lawyers are trying to get things done in the courtroom.
McMahon also stressed the importance of getting to know the courtroom staff and treating them well. That was ranked as her number three tip.
Her number one tip involved getting to know the judge and how that official runs the courtroom. She urged lawyers to come and observe judges before appearing in their court to get a feel for how things are done. She also encouraged contacting the judge to ask what he or she likes and does not like to see from lawyers.
Habush also warned young lawyers against making a bad ethical decision. He cautioned them to
avoid the allure of testimony, which would benefit a case, but which the lawyer knows to be untrue.
"No case is worth losing your license for," Habush said.
He also encouraged the audience to take advantage of any opportunity that would help develop trial skills, including handling depositions in a senior lawyer’s case. He urged preparing for those depositions the same way a lawyer would prepare for trial.
"There’s no better training to prepare for trial work," Habush said. "Don’t run away from them. Run toward them."
Habush’s other words of wisdom included, reading everything available on trial practice and watching trials in the courtroom "not for entertainment but for technique."
The half-day presentation covered a variety of issues from discussions of pretrial conferences and the proper use of objections to potential changes to the ethical rules affecting the way lawyers practice law.
Tony Anderson can be reached by email.