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Trial lawyers learn from experts, judges


Circuit Judges Junius P. Fulton III, Lorraine Nordlund and Clifford R. Weckstein

HOT SPRINGS – Virginia plaintiffs’ lawyers witnessed stark contrasts in courtroom styles as successful trial attorneys showcased their craft during the annual gathering of the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association at The Homestead last month.

New Jersey lawyer Tom Vesper donned a tablecloth at one point and then dumped ice water over his head for dramatic effect as he demonstrated his often bombastic trial strategy. Florida lawyer Dorothy Clay Sims explained how to methodically undermine vulnerable defense experts. Colorado attorney Tom Metier demonstrated his quiet-but-compelling story-telling techniques.

Some 450 trial lawyers attended this year’s VTLA annual convention to rub elbows with colleagues, hobnob with politicians and judges and see how they do it in other jurisdictions.

As the seasons struggled to change outside The Homestead (now officially The Omni Homestead Resort), lawyers picked up various tips at the sessions. Among the tidbits:

Judges: Extra persuasion can be effective

Even when a lawyer thinks he has struck out with a judge, many judges can be persuaded if you have some real ammunition to back up your position.

A low-key appeal to authority might be the best technique to get a second look from a trial judge.

“Many of us are amenable to you asking, ‘Would you take a look at this paragraph, Judge,’” said Roanoke Circuit Judge Clifford R. Weckstein.

“The judge would rather have the opportunity to gracefully retreat and be right,” he said.

Judges know they don’t always make the right calls, said Norfolk Circuit Judge Junius P. Fulton III, urging lawyers to persuade, educate and inform.

“Don’t assume just because the judge has the black robe that he knows it all,” Fulton said.

Asking for a recess to prepare another effort at persuasion could be the right approach for an important issue, said Fairfax Circuit Judge Lorraine Nordlund.

“So much of it is just being professional about it,” she said, adding, “Make sure you’ve brought some case law on point.”

Judges: Lead us not into error

Nordlund lamented efforts by some lawyers to foist bad law into her cases. She said she has been offered old jury instructions, “discouraged” instructions, instructions with word changes, and case citations that fail to mention the dissent as the source.

“You expect attorneys to be professional and not do that,” Nordlund said. “It’s disappointing, to say the least.”

For LGBT clients, get comfortable with the issues

Reviewing the state of the law on issues of concern to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, Richmond’s Colleen M. Quinn urged lawyers to avoid stereotypical assumptions and get to know their clients.

Lawyers of whatever stripe will find everyday folks with everyday concerns, she said.

“Gay people, transgender people – they’re just people. They’re just like anybody else,” Quinn said.

Popular culture with LGBT characters and situations can help with understanding. Quinn suggested getting training as well as reading books and seeing movies with positive portrayals of LGBT people.

LGBT people often have encountered resistance and even hostility with their legal issues, Quinn says. Displaying visual cues at the office, such as stickers or posters, can signal that the practitioner has an open-minded attitude, she said.

Skip the do-it-yourself computer forensics

Trying to go through a computer yourself to find evidence lurking within only contaminates the data trail and could mask important details from a proper forensic examiner, explained Michael Maschke of Sensei Enterprises Inc.

“The evidence may become suspect or rendered inadmissible,” he said.

Searching for evidence in a computer is a job for experts, Maschke said. Search terms and search strings are a science unto itself.

“Attorneys and their staff are generally not equipped to do an effective search,” he said.

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