PART I - THE INVITATIONAs any who have read this blog or conversed with me otherwise online are aware, I am majoring in three subjects in college; pre-law, political science and american history.
Of these, it's pre-law that I intend to make my mark. I will attend law school and become a practicing attorney -- hopefully in my hometown of Portland, Oregon. I've been interested in law as a career for the longest time; as long as I can remember. The source of this is very clear and has never been in question.
* * *
My Uncle Mike is two years younger than my dad and, for the past 22 years has been a practicing attorney in Southern California. A general practitioner with an emphasis in civil litigation, most of his cases take him to Orange, Los Angeles and Riverside Counties.
I was actually born in Santa Ana, California, not moving to Portland until I was almost eight months old. My Uncle Mike lived near my parents at the time. In fact, my older brothers stayed with he and my Aunt Amy when my mom was in labor with me and my dad was pacing in the waiting room in expectations of news that his third child had been born.
Whenever Uncle Mike and Aunt Amy would visit (most often with their own children, Laurie who is two years older than me, and David who is three years younger) or when we would visit them, I was always fascinated with stories about his cases and his work. Despite criticism or jokes directed toward attorneys, I'd always felt it was a noble and necessary profession. In many, many instances, a client's life can be greatly affected by the outcome of their case -- and specifically, the effectiveness of his or her attorney.
During those visits, I often found myself sitting with the adults as they discussed stories, including Uncle Mike's cases. Forget that my siblings and cousins were outside playing or in other rooms of the house consumed with their own conversations. I wanted to be there to learn as much I could. To say I was enthralled would me a major understatement.
From an early age, my parents learned that I have a high aptitude for learning and gathering information, and deciphering it. My comprehension level has always been exceptionally high and I possess a genius-level intelligence quotient (IQ). My father has often told me I am a lot like my uncle as we are similar in our ways of analytical thinking.
For my uncle's part, he has told me on numerous occasions that with my mind, I would make make for an excellent attorney. He once told me, and he was likely being overly complmentary, that if I ever went up against him in court, he would just quit working on his case out of futility since I would beat him.
It was when I was about 10 years old that I decided that I wanted to become an attorney in my professional life. Uncle Mike has been an amazing in his nurturing and encouragement.
* * *
As usual, my uncle has a huge slate of cases. He is mentoring a young attorney in his office, and employs two law clerks, and an assistant. As this summer approached, it appeared that one of his civil cases would going to go to trial. It was then that he called me with his offer.
He told me a little about the case (under the condition of the information being privileged) and offered me what I might just refer to as the opportunity of a lifetime; at least, thus far in my lifetime. Uncle Mike called it a working vacation where I would come down to his home in Westminster, California and he would show me the process that he goes through by preparing for a trial. This education was to include everything from case review to jury selection to witness preparation to trial observation.
Oh, and it would also give me a chance to visit he and Aunt Amy for the first time in four years.
Needless to say, I leapt at the chance to observe the trial process.
In early June, my uncle began sending me the case profile and other information to get me up to speed. I spent the last two weeks of June doing just that.
* * *
On the morning of July 5 while at work at my family's business, I received a call from my uncle. The trial was to start on July 10 -- the following Tuesday -- with jury selection. He had just found out the actual start date that morning. I was to fly down on Saturday the seventh and begin learning the following day.
I was also thrilled to find out I will be sitting at the plaintiff's table during the jury selection process. Uncle Mike and the respondent's counsel will sift through the jury pool to attempt to find the 12 people who will be most advantageous for their respective cases. He wants me to essentially keep score of their answers. Not that he needs me to keep track of it for him, but that it will give me an idea of how that process works and what he looks for in a potential juror.
During the trial itself, I will sit in the gallery of the courtroom observing, learning and taking notes. It will be a nearly empty gallery, as the courtroom will be closed due to the fact our client is a minor.
While I'm wide-eyed at this working vacation, I know I am fortunate to have this opportunity.
PART II - JURY SELECTION
The sun was peaking over the horizon when I woke up. From the moment my eyes opened, I knew this day would be like no other. This day was to be truly my initial first-hand experience in the profession I have chosen.
Though it was to be a serious day in a series of serious days, my excitement had turned me into a bundle of energy. Fortunately, thanks to my cousin, David, I was able to expend much of this energy with an extended morning run.
My Uncle Mike and I (which, by the way, is not his real first name, but a nickname - long story) got to his office at around 8:30. He worked on a couple other cases for a while before we were to head to the courthouse at around 10 for jury selection.
* * *
Secrecy is paramount in a civil case; even more so since our client -- the plaintiff -- is a minor. Beyond that, I really cannot delve into the specifics of the case. Technically speaking, most of it is protected under attorney-client privilege. As I am technically working with my uncle, I am bound by that as well. As you can see, it's quite technical!
The first order of business was for my Uncle Mike to meet with the respondent's attorney regarding a possible settlement. They've been discussing settlement possibilities for several months and, as it turned out there were no new offers, nor any new acceptance of the previous offer. We were to proceed with selecting the jury for the trial.
My uncle and I had studied the questions he was to ask potential jurors and how he wanted me to keep score. I would sit next to him at the plaintiff's table. We had two yellow legal tablets placed on the table between us; one placed at the edge of the table near us, and one toward the judge (or, "above" the first tablet). Both had notes scribbled on them, and each had a single word written and circled in the lower left hand corner. This was my uncle's idea; his game and teaching tool.
"Stanford" was to indicate yes and "otherwise" was to indicate no.
Following each question, my uncle would touch one of the pads and I was to score it. Then, any notes I had on a particular answer or potential juror, I would write down in a third column.
* * *
Court, and even the jury selection process, is not like what you see on television for the most part. Attorneys questioning a witness are not up walking all over the courtroom. There is no pacing back and forth for theatrics. By no means are they breaking decorum with adversarial banter with the opposing attorney.
Basically, the attorney's stay in their seats -- at least during jury selection -- or stand in front of a podium as they question a witness during a trial. Any documents or evidence which needs to be passed to or from a witness is relayed through a bailiff.
* * *
Per protocol, we rose as the judge entered. He announced the case number and case title, and asked if a settlement had been reached. His clerk indicated there had not. He then did a role call. My uncle stated his name as plaintiff's attorney and the respondent's attorney stated his on behalf of his client.
The respective clients were not in the courtroom on this day, as it would really serve no purpose for them to just sit in the gallery for duration of the selection process.
My uncle then spoke. "Your honor, if it please the court ... joining the plaintiff's table for today's jury selection is one of my assistants who just so happens to be my niece," and gave my name for the record. After the respondent's attorney said he had no objection to my being there, we proceeded with the selection process.
* * *
Exactly 28 potential jurors were interviewed both by my uncle and the respondent's attorney. Neither seemed to ask too many questions, and some of the inquiries were definitely irrelevant to the case. However, after about the fourth interview, I could see what my uncle was doing, and the purpose for his questions.
All the while, we used our little system to keep score, and after the second interview, I even started keeping my own score. I marked a "Stanford" here and an "otherwise" there as the interviews went along. Not that it mattered, but it helped me to learn better by judging the members of the prospective jury pool for myself.
I fully had no illusion that my uncle has done this enough times he did not need my help in the least. That turned out to be correct. Despite that, we discussed what we heard up to those points. His comments made sense to me. As I indicated in my previous blog, we think in a very similar fashion.
At about 4 p.m. both attorney's went through the jury list, accepting and dismissing those members each thought as best in regards to their case.
In the end 14 members remained in the jury box -- 12 on the active jury and two alternates.
* * *
So jury selection is complete and we're ready to move forward with opening statements on Wednesday (in fact, those may have taken place already as you read this). I feel confident those 12 jurors will render a fair verdict based on the evidence. Saying that, I am confident that our evidence will outshine anything the respondent will have to offer.
I'll be in the gallery tomorrow while one of my uncle's law clerks will join him at the plaintiff's table. I'll be taking notes as I planned and will be paying attention to all the special nuances of the trial. This experience has been amazing, and the trial has yet to start.
I feel as if I can already see tomorrow's sun peaking over the horizon as I think about it.
PART III - TRIAL AND VERDICT
With no more postponements -- and the jury set -- Wednesday was to be the start of the trial.
As I've mentioned in the previous blogs, I am unable to say too much about the contents of the case itself. Suffice to say that our client is now 14 years old girl and the plaintiff in the case. The incident which led to these proceedings took place approximately two years ago.
Aside from the principles involved in the case, the gallery was empty. My Uncle Mike sat at the left side of the plaintiff's table, which was set to the right of the respondent's table and nearer to the jury than the respondent. His law clerk sat on the right side of the table and our client in the middle. Her mother sat in the front row of the gallery, as did I.
The respondent's attorney was positioned at the right side of his table, with his client to the left of him -- the furthest from the jury of all the participants.
* * *
Opening statements by the attorneys can be brief or can extend to several moments. My uncle prefers the former. He lists the witnesses and a short summary of what their testimony will entail. He finishes with a description of the absolute and only conclusion to which the jury will be able to come to, including damages.
"I've been doing this a lot of years," my uncle told the jury. "I have a pretty good idea how the defense is going to try to spin this, and which laws they plan to twist to confuse you. However, when you hear from (our) witnesses, all you'll have to do is pay attention to the truth, to the facts and to the letter of the law. Once you do those simple things, your duty will be clear. There's no confusion there."
We had five witnesses, including our client, scheduled to testify. She would take the stand second to last, with the psychologist who assisted her following the incident being our final witness. The psychologist would confirm that our client both was severely impacted by the incident, and also reaffirm the validity of her testimony.
Often, the plaintiff will take the stand first or last, but my uncle told me before the trial that he preferred to shake things up a bit, having the jury's last memory being of a professional of some sort -- whether it be a psychologist, medical doctor or law enforcement professional.
* * *
Our witnesses consisted of a police officer, two eyewitnesses, our client and the psychologist. Uncle Mike kept their testimony confined to the specifics of what they saw. While it seemed he didn't want to leave an opening for opposing counsel to jump through during cross examination, he also didn't seem to hold back when it came to soliciting each person's respective testimony.
Each of our witnesses told their story, then were cross examined by the respondent's attorney. From my perspective, it didn't seem as if any of them were shaken nor discredited by the cross examination. I like to think that had a lot to do with my uncle's direct examination.
When it came to our client taking the stand, I received some confirmation on something I had already assumed. One of the areas in which I wish to practice law is in child advocacy. Our client had her attorney -- my uncle -- so there was no child advocate assigned. Had there been a witness under 18 directly affected by the proceedings, the judge may have appointed an advocate for that witness. I had learned that, but was unsure until talking to my uncle prior to the trial's beginning.
She was excellent on the stand. The judge was very good about slowing things down when they needed to, or giving a nudge to speed them up when they needed to be. She told of what happened to her and how it has affected her. In fact, the cross examination from the respondent's attorney was rather brief. At least, it was more brief than I had anticipated.
* * *
It was just after the lunch break on Thursday (the second day) when my uncle rested the plaintiff's case. It was a little quicker than even he had anticipated, but he later told me he had heard all the testimony he thought we would need. He felt even adding another witness would run the risk of cluttering our point. He wanted to paint a clear, concise and overall picture of our case, and what we were asking the jury to do.
At about 2:15 p.m., it would be the respondent's turn to begin presenting his case; for lack of better term in a civil case -- their defense. The respondent was to present testimony from four witnesses for the jury's consideration.
* * *
Two respondent witnesses testified Thursday afternoon. Both claimed to be eyewitnesses. They told their versions of what happened. My feeling was that they seemed very well coached, especially the second of the two. I dismissed that as me being overly critical and perhaps somewhat biased. That is, until my uncle cross examined the second one.
He was able to paint a picture, using the second witness' answers to establish that the witness could not have seen exactly what he said he could. It was all about angles and line of sight. As it turns out, the witness heard of a commotion, then came from around a corner to see just the end of the incident. In other words, he could not have actually seen the events leading up to what happened.
Needless to say, I was quite impressed and proud of my uncle.
* * *
We had been informed that a psychologist and the responded himself were set to testify on Friday.
The psychologist had visited with our client briefly twice in the weeks leading up to the trial. Her purpose was to essentially demean the testimony of our psychologist. She told a good story and, had I not heard it from our client herself, I might have believed this witness. My uncle was not phased by the performance. His cross examination was very short. It primarily consisted of clarifying the time she had spent with our client -- both the amount of time and the actually things discussed during that time. He didn't ask a single question to clarify her professional opinion.
The last witness to take the stand was the respondent. I had been informed to expect stubbornness from him. That assessment rang true. He essentially confirmed the events as depicted by our client and our eyewitnesses. However, he claimed he was in his legal right. It was "just something unfortunate" and our client was "in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Uncle Mike asked him just two questions on cross examination. They weren't attacks. Just basic questions. Again, my uncle told me later that he wanted to give the jury the impression that the respondent's testimony just wasn't all that important to the merits of the overall case.
* * *
Closing arguments were scheduled opposite of the openings. The respondent's attorney went first. His instructions to the jury seemed to echo the testimony of his client. He cited one case law which, to me, didn't seem to completely apply to the case. In the end, he told the jurors there was not enough evidence to justify finding in favor of the plaintiff.
I believe my uncle had his closing argument prepared a couple weeks prior to the trial's start date. He recapped each witness who had taken the stand; first the respondent's then ours. He then pointed to each piece of evidence. It was at this point when I understood why he hadn't dug deeper into the respondent's psychologist during cross examination. He was able to use the questions he did not ask as leverage. He painted the picture for the jury about our doctor knowing our client much better, much more often and for much longer.
It made perfect sense to me. This was also the type of strategy I had hoped to learn while observing this case.
* * *
During the entire proceedings I was scanning the jury to see when any of them might be affected by a certain piece of testimony, or something said by the attorney's during opening or closing arguments. There were raised eyebrows, confused looks and several nods along the way. Those mannerisms seemed to correspond to those things which made the most -- or least -- sense. It was fascinating to observe that type of human behavior.
The case itself seemed to go by quickly. My uncle had anticipated four days or so, and just before the lunch break on friday, the judge gave the jurors their instructions. Three-and-a-half-days later and the case was in the hands of the jury.
* * *
We figured the jury would be out for much of the afternoon. Knowing that, my uncle really didn't want nor need to go back to the office on a Friday afternoon. We went to lunch which, after three days of courthouse cafeteria food, was wonderful. We did go back to his office for a short time where he grabbed files from a couple other cases to look at over the weekend. This was something else about which I had been curious. Exactly how much of an attorney's work is done outside of the common 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. work day? My question was answered; quite a bit.
After a call to the court clerk where we found out the jury remained in deliberations, we went home to relax. My uncle looked over the files to one of the cases while laid down on the patio under some shade.
Uncle Mike's phone rang at about 5:30. It was the court clerk. The jury had come back. It was decided we would head to the courtroom to hear the verdict, rather than let the jury's decision linger over the weekend. This also would enable the jurors to get back to their everyday lives on Monday rather than have to come in and deliver their verdict.
* * *
It was a quarter after six o'clock when all the principles had arrived and the judge came out from his chambers. As Uncle Mike's law clerk was off for the weekend, I took his spot at the right end of our table. Then the judge called for the jurors to come out from their deliberation room.
We stood after the jury foreman confirmed to the judge that the jury had, in fact, come to a verdict. Then it was announced.
Verdict in favor of the plaintiff. I'm almost kicking myself now for not looking in the corner of my eye at the respondent to gauge his reaction. We stood expressionless. With the decision for the plaintiff, there is another step.
The foreman announced that the jury had awarded damages. The compensatory damages were pretty straight forward, as we had submitted the specific amount to the court prior to calling our first witness. At the same time we had submitted a schedule for punitive damages as well. The jury followed that schedule, awarding the exact amount for which our client was asking.
I had learned that the deliberation time in a civil case is two-fold. A plaintiff hopes the jury takes little time in finding in favor of their case. Conversely, the plaintiff hopes the jury takes quite a bit of time determining damages. My uncle was satisfied with the result.
* * *
As the reader of any of the blogs in this series can surmise, this has been an exhilarating, exciting and educational experience for me. It was everything for which I could have hoped.
I very much try to avoid making assumptions or having preconceived notions, but that at times is oh so difficult. What I've learned over this past week is a jump start into doing things in the correct fashion and in the correct order. Law is extremely procedural. That is what I will take away from this experience.
I'll be the first person to admit that I don't know it all, and one case certainly does not make me an expert. What I now have is a starting point.
That's something I really didn't have before.
Note: This Blog was originally written in three parts on separate days. I have compiled all of them here so they appear in chronological order of how events occurred.