“As A Good Trial Attorney, You Always Must Have a Backup Plan”

 In Personal Injury, Tools and Tech

I stood at the podium in front of my computer and looked out at the 400 or so people assembled to honor the 15th annual SFTLA Trial Lawyer of the Year nominees. Seconds earlier, the video presentation of the award nominees that Cogent Legal had produced—a 20-minute video I had spent many hours working on—stopped working and cut to a blue screen midway through its airing, with all the guests in attendance watching.

Though inwardly my pulse was racing, I calmly and with a smile on my face told the assembled audience: “As a good trial attorney, you always must have a backup plan.” That got a good laugh, and I quickly proceeded to get a backup of the video playing. The presentation continued and was well-received in spite of that glitch.

I’ll give more detail in a bit on the technical difficulties that led to me standing in the glow of the spotlight, but that moment really reminded me of why we honor great trial attorneys like all the nominees at the event last night. The point is that trials are never, ever easy. They rarely go as planned, and they require the most amazing dexterity of knowing when to hold tight to your positions, and when to completely drop Plan A and go another course mid-trial as evidence comes in. The best trial attorneys do all the above on a regular basis, and the key is to always have backup plans and be able to think on your feet no matter what happens so you can keep going and not give up.

The winners of the award last night were Mary Alexander, and three attorneys from the Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy firm: Joseph Cotchett, Nancy Fineman and Brian Schnarr. They won for their 14-year fight in a case representing ten counties against paint manufacturers to remove the lead paint in the counties, based on the fact proven at trial that the manufacturers knew lead was dangerous way back in the 1930s and sold lead paint anyway. This case went to the Supreme Court on the issue of whether the private law firms even had the right to represent the counties before they could get to trial. The ultimate trial result of $1.1 billion is an amazing testament to tenacity.

Steve Brady, Craig Peters, Anoush Lancaster, Melinda Derish, Conor Kelly and Simona Frisse all had superlative results as well that show that same level of dedication, often in the face of offers of zero before trial, and all receiving awards within seven to eight figures.  They never gave up, and they always had multiple backup plans.

Here is the video that Cogent Legal produced to honor all these incredible nominees:

Now back to my story: If you watch the video above, there is a short newscast the introduces the Cotchett/Alexander verdict. While this clip had played normal sound on every computer it was played on, for some unknown reason it would not play through the hotel’s sound system last night; it was totally silent! Obviously, a muted video would not be a great way to start the presentation. But I was ready and had a backup laptop with everything loaded. We plugged it in to the hotel sound system, but same problem came up: no sound for the clip. So I resorted to backup number three. As attorneys were arriving outside, I used Quicktime to cut the movie into two clips to remove the newscast portion at the beginning, and then I put the two separate clips in PowerPoint so it would automatically start playing both clips.  This tested out just fine in the ten minutes or so I had to test it.

The good news is the video started fine, but running the movie through PowerPoint started to make the video slower than the sound the longer it played, so the speakers’ mouths and what they were saying got out of synch. Finally it just conked out and stopped.

I calmly walked to the podium and delivered my line, “As a good trial attorney, you always must have a backup plan.” Since I had save the corrected movie file right on my desktop ready to go, I just opened the movie, fast-forwarded it to the point it had stopped playing, and hit play.

I think any attorney in the room could relate to the fact that things may often not go as you planned, but having the ability to make it work in any way to get the job done is ultimately what counts. Tough cases with amazing results only come out of extraordinary work, flexibility and quick thinking!

Showing 2 comments
  • Marc of JDCOT.com

    Great piece, Morgan! I was recently exhibiting in a booth at a law careers conference, getting the opportunity to meet the law school career teams from around the country. In addition to explaining what we do at the JDCOT website, I brought a demo video to show what we do. I brought the video in 2 formats in case anything happened to 1 of them. After a great discussion with a career center director who also loved the demo video, she told me she was going to run to get her boss (a dean from the school) who happened to be someone I’d been trying to get on the phone for a year. The dean arrives, we finally get to meet in person, we have a great talk, she’s excited to see the video….and after I push play, the video freezes after 2 seconds! Not only did the video freeze, but my computer froze. I’d been showing this video for 2 days straight with zero problems…and my computer chooses this moment to freeze. It was too frozen to even reboot! Fortunately, I could say everything that’s in the video and was able to resort to my final backup plan which was to make the video available on line so this person could watch at her convenience. My sweat glands for sure got some exercise that day!

  • James | Legal Lookout

    Trial attorneys need to be prepared for the most unexpected things that may occur and get in the way of a supposedly smooth proceedings. Having a backup plan is like getting the assurance that you will achieve your goals, come what may.

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