Fresh out of law school and having endured the grueling bar exam, I was about to experience my first jury trial. Walking into City Hall as a trial attorney can be extremely intimidating for an inexperienced, young attorney. Add unexpected challenges that I encountered in this trial, including the Pennsylvania limited tort threshold, disputed liability and causation, a client who "looked fine to me," minimal damage to both vehicles involved in the accident, and a defense attorney with more than 20 years of trial experience, I suddenly concluded that the only chance I stood of a favorable outcome was to put my heart and soul into my preparation, say a prayer and hope for the best. As an eternal optimist with a competitive drive, I truly believed I could win this trial.
Four years have passed since I walked into the courtroom that first time as a first-chair trial attorney. For the most part, I have been rather successful during my first four years of practice. One of my biggest surprises was that during my first year in practice, I achieved an unassisted settlement of $850,000 on a case that other attorneys had originally undervalued.
As trial attorneys, it is typical to expect potential clients to inquire about our success rate (that, and "what is my case worth?"). We all take pride in reminiscing and telling anecdotes about our greatest successes. At the same time, we must be honest with ourselves and know that no attorney has a perfect track record.
The articles that frequently get published in The Legal Intelligencer and other legal columns reporting big verdicts and large settlements can give glory to the plaintiffs attorney. They usually end like this: "Counsel for the defendant was unavailable for comment." During the course of the last four years, I have often thought about lessons learned from being on the losing end of a large jury verdict. Unfortunately, I have made mistakes and lost my share of cases that were painful when they happened; however, what I have learned from these mistakes has proven invaluable to my career.
The purpose of this article is not to boast about my accomplishments, but, more so, to give the reader a perspective on what I learned, often the hard way, as a young trial attorney. A mentor and friend once told me that you don't learn from the wins; rather, you learn from getting your ass kicked in a courtroom. He was right.
The result of my first jury trial was a verdict for the defendant. One of the low points of that trial was jury selection. I realized early on in this trial that I lacked knowledge of the jury selection process. I decided to do some reading on the nights leading up to trial to become better educated with the process and to become familiar with some recommended jury selection strategies.
As voir dire began, I felt a sense of excitement as I was about to stand up and speak to a jury panel for the first time. After the strikes for cause and hardship were made, it came time for peremptory strikes. The peremptory strike sheet was handed to me first, and being unfamiliar with the process, I recall writing all four of my strikes at one time. The clerk retrieved the form and proceeded to whisper to me, so as not to expose my inexperience to the jury, "Hun, you are supposed to go one-by-one. You just showed defense counsel your poker hand." It was too late. There was no chance to redact my other three choices from the form. The defense attorney received the form from the clerk, looked over at me and smiled with a look of premature victory, as if to say, "This must be your first jury trial."
Another one of my earlier jury trials involved facts where, after settling with a co-defendant, I was left with a case that involved a sole plaintiff and sole defendant. The aspect that made this case unique was that the plaintiff and defendant were happily married and happened to be involved in a single-car motor vehicle accident -- the husband was the driver and the wife was a front-seat passenger. The wife sustained a significant lower-back injury when her husband hit a manhole in the middle of a poorly lit road on a rainy night in Philadelphia.
There was an offer on the case going into trial, and, in retrospect, I should have recommended to my client that she accept it and settle the case entirely. She was satisfied with the settlement against the other defendant who was responsible for leaving the manhole in dismal condition without any warning such as a cone or a sign. The case did not settle, and I was faced with the dire challenge of making an extremely difficult situational opening statement.
It began like this: "Ladies and gentlemen, as you learned in voir dire, the plaintiff and defendant are husband and wife. I want you to know that no matter what you decide as the outcome of this trial, they will leave this courtroom as husband and wife, as happily married as they were before they entered the courtroom this morning."