Amateur Life Coach Answers, “How do I Prepare for Trial?”

James J. Bell, ICLEF's Amateur Life Coach

The Amateur Life Coach (also known as attorney James J. Bell of Bingham Greenebaum Doll) is back to dispense his unique thoughts, advice and wisdom to his real and imagined viewers…

This week our question comes from Neurotic in New Albany….


Dear Lifecoach:

My first jury trial is coming up and I’m freaking out! What can I do to calm my nerves?

Neurotic in New Albany


Dear Neurotic:

Slow down, take a deep breath and follow these simple steps.

Step #1: Find the Root Cause of Your Anxiety
You may be feeling pressure because the Wise Old Attorney (WOA) just told you it’s your job to win the jury trial. Well, as shown below, it’s not.

And you shouldn’t listen to the WOA anyway. He desperately wants the world to view him as some sort of gladiator, so he hung a quote from General Patton on his office wall that says: “Battle is the most magnificent competition in which a human can indulge. It brings out all that is best.” He constantly corners associates to spin various yarns about his trial battles. (For example, we’ve all heard on multiple occasions about the time when he caused a wee Irish geologist to admit on the stand that his blue diamonds were really just marshmallows. A Perry Mason moment indeed!)

There’s a reason they call war stories “stories” and there’s a really good reason the WOA ends his stories before he tells you about the jury’s verdict. And when was the last time you saw this supposed gladiator “gladiate?” Or step into a courtroom? Or even leave his office?

So disregard anything the WOA says on this topic. If the WOA wasn’t so interested in inter-firm marketing his “warrior” image, he would’ve put the second part of that Patton quote on the wall which says “All men are afraid in battle. The coward is the one who lets his fear overcome his sense of duty.”

So a little case of the nerves is natural and some extra adrenaline may be necessary, but “freaking out” helps no one. After all, there’s so much to figure out: opening statement, the direct examination of your client and the proper pronunciation of “voir dire.” So get out of the fetal position and get down to business.

Remember: you don’t deliver verdicts. Only judges and juries do. Your job is to put your client in the best position to obtain a verdict.

Step #2: Take Care of Things At Home Before You Prepare
Before you begin your final trial preparation, go ahead and apologize to your family. “Trial mode” is a little like Bill Bixbey turning into a muscular green monster and you shouldn’t wait until after you’ve gone all “Christian Bale” or “Bob Knight” or “Christian Bale as Bob Knight as The Dark Knight in Celebrity Meltdown” to apologize to your significant other or children. Give your loved ones a preemptive “I’m sorry” now and a gift that costs the same as three of your billable hours (per Martha Stewart).

Also, you need to get out of your house and down to the office. You might think it’ll be good for your family life if you work from home here and there over the course of the weekend. Wrong. The opposite is true. If you stay at home and try to play Uno with your 4 year old while you’re obsessing over what could go wrong at trial, your daughter will feel you’re ignoring her, have her feelings hurt and worst of all, you’ll forget to say “Uno” when you have one card left. It could cost you the game.

So leaving the house will help your family life. It will prevent you from ignoring your kids or growling at your spouse. It will be addition by subtraction and your family will thank you later.

Step #3: Prepare
Write out your closing argument first and then make sure that there is a piece of evidence that supports every argument. You probably think you know what you want to say in your closing, but until you put it on paper (or a computer screen) and look at what you are doing, your thoughts will not be succinct. You won’t be able to evaluate your arguments and see which ones really work. Bad arguments kill credibility. Discarding bad arguments (and therefore dropping the corresponding meaningless evidence) will help you become the organized, knowledgeable and therefore, credible lawyer you need to be at trial.

Once you get your argument written down, the rest is easy. (Well, easier.) Your voir dire and opening statement themes will be contained in the closing argument. And so will every question you wish to ask of a witness. If one of the other side’s witnesses testifies and it does not affect your closing argument, maybe this is a time to simply stand before the jury and show them that you’re not there to waste their time and say “no questions.”

And this is more tedious than it sounds. You’re going to have to review that entire file and pull your client’s story out of those dusty documents. This means wading through those dictionary-sized depositions you conducted a year ago and getting over the fact that you say “um” a lot.

Beware that as you study these depositions, you’ll realize that you’re not perfect and that you didn’t ask every deposition question perfectly. There will be small holes in your preparation. Don’t take this opportunity to freak out.

Fine. Go ahead and freak out. But just a little. This is a marathon, not a sprint. After three minutes of freaking out, get back to work.

Step #4: Exercise and Eat Right.
These are two things you must not do during trial. Your body may be a temple, but you’re in a court of law. That means you have to eat, drink, and (not) sleep this trial. Let the adrenaline course through your veins for the next five days and then rot inside your body for a month afterward, all in the name of justice. (Editor’s Note: The ALC is a juris doctor, not a medical doctor. Please consult with your primary care physician before eating or drinking a trial or letting anything rot inside your body.)

Step #5: Maintain Good Karma
Sometimes jury verdicts come down to something we can’t explain. I’ll just call it karma. Could the result of your case come down to karma? For your sake, let’s hope not. But it’s never too late to stop parking in the handicap parking space. Maybe you should leave a big tip for housekeeping at the hotel or make a donation to the SPCA so Sarah McLachlan will stop singing that song. That’s a win-win-win.

Step #6: Worry About Preparation, Not the Result.
The WOA once said that the three secrets to winning a trial were “Preparation! Preparation! And most importantly, Preparation!” That’s the only time the WOA got it right.

Trials are unpredictable. You can do everything right and still come up empty. Just remember that you didn’t pick the judge, you didn’t create the facts and you didn’t choose the jury. Well, you sort of did choose the jury, but you didn’t write the law. So stop sweating the many things at trial you can’t control.

And before you leave to the office to go to court, walk past the WOA’s office and enter Milk Toast Mary’s office. She has a quote on the wall from Mahatma Gandhi that says “Satisfaction lies in the effort, not in the attainment, full effort is full victory.” Milk Toast Mary may not be the best marketer, but she is smart.

You know your case, you have given “full effort” and you‘re ready to obtain “full victory.” Go get your evidence in, and make your best arguments. Trials can be fun, so don’t let self-doubt be the wet blanket that ruins the party.

I’m the Amateur Lifecoach and I hope this helps.


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Written and performed by James J. Bell. Produced by the Indiana Continuing Legal Education Forum.
This video is for informational purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for professional advice.


James focuses his practice in the areas of criminal defense; attorney discipline defense and health care law. As a Marion County Public Defender, he represented clients in numerous jury and bench trials. James also represents clients in juvenile delinquency, appeals and post-conviction proceedings. James is a frequent ICLEF speaker on ethics, trial practice and criminal procedure. James just completed his first semester as an adjunct professor at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law where he teaches a course on professional responsibility. To date, no student has yet stood on their desk and shouted “Oh captain, my captain!” Follow James on Twitter @jamesjbell

ICLEF • Indiana Continuing Legal Education Forum, Indianapolis, IN

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