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Baptism by legal fire.

It began as an innocuous day in the life of a 1981 admittee of the Nevada State Bar who had been a counselor for less than 30 days. I was still trying to figure out why the damn fools had passed me on the bar exam. Nevertheless, I fantasized about (well, actually, feared) the day I might be known as a master of courtroom drama, a trial attorney extraordinaire.

The day started out innocently enough at the law firm of Smith & Gamble in Carson City. I was a lowly associate, slaving away in the firm's law library, trying to figure out how the mumbo jumbo legal theory I learned in law school applied to the real world.

My sole distinction as a lawyer was that I worked in Mark Twain's former bedroom. The firm was located in a house Twain's brother had owned, and Twain had slept in the room that was now my office during his travels out West.

I like to believe the firm assigned me the special room as an office because it wanted to reward me for having passed the bar exam on my first try. In reality, the room was the only space that was left in the crowded house, but I still felt inspired by Twain's literary ghost, and as a fledgling lawyer, one must grasp at inspiration whenever possible.

As I sat in the room pondering obscure legal dogma through the phantoms of Twain's snores, my colleague Julian Smith stuck his head in the doorway and said, "Say, Jesse, you know the Walton case, the one you briefed for me several weeks ago?"

"Sure," I said. "What about it?"

"Well, it's set for trial this afternoon in Fallon, and I want you to come along and observe the trial since you did the paperwork. We can't bill the client for your time, but it would be a good experience for you. Can you break away?"

I thought for a second about the memo I was working on regarding the Uniform Commercial Code and said, "Do gamblers lose money in Nevada? I would love to go, Julian." We dashed down the stairs.

As Julian and I traveled toward the courthouse in Fallon, he asked me questions about the Walton case. I answered with confidence because of my extensive work on the brief and my perception that we were on solid ground with the facts and law. We were about 15 minutes from the court when he said, "I think I'm gonna let you try this case. You need to get some courtroom experience, and you might as well get started. You can do it, can't you?"

Mary, Mother of Jesus, I thought as my heart fell to my stomach. "Uh, I guess so, Julian," I said, wanting to jump out of the car. "Are you sure I should do this? I haven't had time to prepare for a trial." Adrenaline coursed through my body as I prayed he would change his mind.

"You don't need time to prepare," he said. "You did the briefing for the case, and you might as well get used to the courtroom."

I sank into my seat, gulping for calming breaths as a million thoughts flew through my mind. This was an impromptu baptism by legal fire, and I wasn't sure I could pull it off. I thought about the words Pete Neuman, a Nevada lawyer of national repute, offered at the ceremony when I was sworn in as a Nevada lawyer.

He said if we new lawyers thought law school was difficult, we had no idea what the practice of law would require. He said we would have cases where we would know--based on the undisputed facts and law--what was absolutely right and just, but that a court or jury would render a verdict that would be contrary. We would be powerless to change the decision and would have to accept the cold reality of permanent injustice.

Neuman's words compounded my fear. I knew my clients' case was just, but I also knew they could lose because of my inexperience. I didn't want to let them down, and I resolved to do my best.

We rose as the judge entered the small-town courtroom and banged the gavel. "Please be seated," he said, surveying the courtroom. "Mr. Smith, are the plaintiffs ready to proceed?"

"We are, Your Honor," he said, "and I'd like to introduce Mr. Robison, our new associate, and to inform the court that Mr. Robison will try the case today, if that's acceptable to the court. It's his first case, Your Honor, so please go easy on him."

"Well, we'll have to see about that," the judge said. He welcomed me to his courtroom and asked if I was ready to proceed. I rose quickly, breathed deeply, mustered all the confidence I could, and said, "Yes, Your Honor," as I shook in my wing tips.

The judge then looked to the defendant's table. "Ms. Burns, are you ready to proceed?"

"Yes, we are, Your Honor."

"Very well, then. Let's get started. Mr. Robison, you may call your first witness."

I was thinking, "Why should I telephone my witness when he's already in the courtroom?" Julian nudged me and whispered, "Tell him we call Mr. Walton to the stand."

"I know that," I said. Feigning a confident air, I asked the court to call Mr. Walton to the stand. I stumbled through a painful examination, although, as the afternoon progressed, I gained some confidence with each new witness. I was relieved when the judge asked if I rested my case. I wanted to tell him I was ready for a long winter's nap.

The defense lawyer presented her case, and I jumped up several times and voiced rousing objections to the testimony a la Perry Mason. The judge smiled and overruled me on most occasions, but there was such a pleasant twang in his voice that I tried not to take it personally.

My fear of allowing rampant irrelevant evidence to be admitted gradually subsided, and eventually the court granted a short recess so counsel could prepare closing arguments. The judge gave us 15 minutes, although I requested a week. I scrambled to gather my thoughts and rose to give my best effort at coherent summary.

As I spoke, I drew from the hard work that had generated my detailed brief. A lawyer who is prepared and who has the facts and law on his or her side usually wins, no matter how much he or she may fumble.

After the defense counsel presented her argument, the court took a brief recess and then returned and rendered a decision. The court ruled in our favor, citing my legal brief several times. (Funny--I don't recall that there was any reference to my courtroom performance.)

I was exhilarated as we prepared to leave the courtroom. The defense attorney came over and shook my hand. "Congratulations, Counselor," she said as she looked toward Julian. "There's no way that this was his first day in court. He was way too prepared and confident. This must have been another one of your ploys for sympathy, Julian." She shook her head as she walked away.

Julian smirked, and I swelled with pride at her comments and was relieved the clients had received justice in spite of their attorney. As we drove back to Carson City, all I could think of, besides killing Julian, was how I had managed to hide my fear throughout the roller coaster ride of trial advocacy.

Many years later, I have come to agree with the statement of another Pocatello, Idaho, trial lawyer, Lowell Hawkes, who confided that his "best legal work always comes about as a result of unmitigated fear." Isn't that ultimately true for all of us in the litigation business, even the courtroom denizens who roar about their love for trial work?

Jesse C. Robison is a partner at Jones, Chartered in Pocatello, Idaho.
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Author:Robison, Jesse C.
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 1999
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