By Farron Cousins
The practice of law is constantly evolving. The pandemic has put that evolution on steroids and helped to turn everything that we thought we knew upside down. Navigating the evolution of the legal practice can be tricky, especially if trial lawyers try to do it on their own.
Major corporations in the United States have massive networks of lobbyists, defense lawyers, politically-connected groups that help give them the upper hand when fighting off lawsuits, whereas most trial lawyers have their small team to take on the biggest corporations in the country.
But all that is changing. We don’t have to be stuck in the “David vs. Goliath” mentality that has been common for trial lawyers for far too long. We can now build off of the wealth of experience that so many great lawyers have built up over decades thanks to Trial School.
Trial School is an innovative new program that offers lessons from some of the top lawyers in the country on everything from jury selection to closing arguments. The greats are offering up their knowledge for lawyers all over America, giving up-and-coming trial lawyers – and even seasoned veterans – tips and skills that they may have never even thought of.
I recently had the honor to talk with Rich Newsome, a founder of Trial School, who explained how the program started and why it is so important to the practice of law today. Here is that conversation.
Let's start at the very beginning. How did the idea for Trial School develop?
The background actually started about 10 years ago. There's a great jury consultant by the name of Jay Burke. Jay is legendary, especially here on the east coast for developing what he called the “cause is king” method for picking juries. And so there was a case that I tried up in north Florida about 10 years ago. It was an incredibly sad case involving a 19-year old paraplegic. And Jay Burke was my consultant and we did focus groups, we practiced the voir dire because it was a very conservative jurisdiction. We went through hundreds of jurors to pick a jury over the course of several days. And at the end of it, we got a jury and Jay was very pleased with the method. We had done it exactly according to Jay's algorithm which was a very precise method for getting the jurors to talk about a bias and then to have challenges for cause developed as a result of that.
So we went to trial, we took the jury, and at the end I got floored out. I lost the case and I was devastated. Devastated for the client, devastated for my ego and just really wondering what happened. But I really felt like we had a bad juror and the results proved that the foreman was a guy we never should have allowed on the jury. And a couple of things happened. There's a great lawyer named Alex Alvarez who has done a lot of important work in the area of jury selection. And there's another, a good friend and a great lawyer who's the managing partner of the Spence law firm in Wyoming, who was one of the lead faculty members for the Trial Lawyers College and through conversations with them and another named Joey Lowe, who's another faculty member at the Trial Lawyers College, it was apparent to me that there were different ways of picking juries, different methods, different approaches that I wanted to learn about.
And so four years ago, we basically had a laboratory here in central Florida, where we got these different lawyers from across the country together to curate method, to talk about it, to, to explain the very specific approaches to voir dire, the theories behind it, and then to demonstrate it to each other. And so we had a series of mock juries brought in where we tested a lot of different methods and a lot of different approaches. And we all learned a lot from each other. And some of us walked away believing that there is a way to continue this experimentation, this curation of method from great lawyers, that if these lawyers would share, be willing to share their method with each other, really good things could happen.
And then after that, we started of course, trying to experiment more, to practice it. And then we realized, well, gosh, there's other great methods that we could curate as well for opening statement, for the structure of a trial, for evidence, for depositions, for closing arguments. And so we started holding regular meetings, first in person here in central Florida. And then we started reaching out to some of our other friends across the country who had great methods. John Gomez in San Diego did a really great job of curating pieces on closing statement. Troy Rafferty, on opening statements - Troy did an entire a program on pulling together different methods, visuals, rules of the road for opening statements. And then other faculty members as this thing started to grow and to really gain momentum, it became a collaborative effort that we started even before COVID because some of these lawyers of course, are from all different parts of the country. We started using Zoom and trying to hold these monthly meetings where we would have small group gatherings of what we call chapters.
So what happened as these chapters began to grow?
We had a Pensacola and we had a central Florida chapter, a South Florida chapter and other chapters across the country. Pete Flowers up in Chicago, started a chapter. So we had about a dozen or so of these local group meetings where we would stream content. The great Mike Kelly out of San Francisco was one of the pivotal, early members of this thing. Chris Stombaugh, who is a great lawyer, who's done a lot of really important experimental work in personal state. So all of these lawyers were sort of collaborating and then COVID hit. Actually in 2019 before COVID, we had our second in-person event where it was again, another laboratory workshop, retreat, whatever you will, but where we brought in different thought leaders in these various pieces of trial to try to curate method in a protected way where it's only lawyers who represent people, that was always our big criteria. And to always make it available for free so that we may charge to cover the overhead, but it's a not-for-profit organization that we created. And we started to call it Trial School.
So is this the goal of Trial School – To get these legendary lawyers to teach new generations their skills and to pass along this knowledge?
The mission of Trial School was first of all, to collaborate with each other, to curate the best methods for trying cases and through that collaboration to learn, to experiment and to advance the state of the art for trial advocacy, and then to share those teachings, those lessons with other lawyers who represent people and to do it for free, to do it in a way that's not for-profit. And so that's what happened with Trial School. So after that second retreat, we had all these local workshops planned, we had more retreats or laboratories people would plan, and then COVID happened.
You have got a lot of heavy hitters that you’ve mentioned so far. These are people that most trial lawyers have heard of, and they couldn't even dream in the past, really of being able to sit down with these individuals to learn from these individuals. You see them speak at the conferences and that's wonderful, but that's not the same thing as these lessons. And I've gone through the website, I've watched many of these programs that you have, and they're wonderful. And you do get that one-on-one feeling like this person is talking directly to you and it's such an amazing tool. So, I did want to ask, how are people responding to this because I have to imagine, everybody would be fairly excited to be able to get these lessons from these legends of trial law.
It’s been an incredible reception. Since COVID happened, we started doing everything virtually. We've gone from about 800 members to now almost 5,000 members and growing like crazy because the mission has drawn in, to your point, some of the best teachers, some of the best thought leaders, people like Rick Friedman, people like Joe Fried, Carl Douglas, Zoe Littlepage, Lisa Blue, Randy McGinn. Amazing teachers, amazing faculty members who've said, “you know what, this is the not-for-profit. We want to help. We want to pass the torch to younger lawyers who need these instructions.” And so now that COVID is over, we hope to go back to more in-person events where we can continue to learn, continue to teach best methods. And one of the things, Farron, that distinguishes Trial School from, I think every other approach out there is, we're intentional about the curriculum.
A traditional CLE with a state trial lawyers or a national trial lawyers organization will typically be, you have some spectacular faculty members, but you also have some that really are just okay, who may be great trial lawyers, but don't teach that well. And then you have some horrific, terrible teachers who are boring or just teaching bad method. And that's because the curriculum directors for the typical legal CLE for plaintiff lawyers is, who's friends with the person setting up the program, who has given money or who is a big donor to the organization that we need to let speak. And it's just sort of a hodgepodge of method. Now, there are a few individuals CLE programs, Don Keenan's program, for example, is spectacular. And that it's Don's specific method, his approach that he teaches. Jerry Spence, Trial Lawyers College, same thing. it's Jerry's method, Jerry's approach.
S0 what we seek to do is to combine the best of both types of CLE, where we apply, or we have different practitioners, different experts, different thought leaders speak, but we're very intentional about the content. We want to really make sure that we're not just asking people to participate because they may have a big name or they're friends with whomever: There's a very intentional curation of method so that when we teach this and we tell a young lawyer, Hey man, here is a program to teach you how to do opening statements or jury selection. It's intentional. And we've been very purposeful in trying to present methods that a young person or an inexperienced lawyer, even someone who's got experience, but wants to up their game can take what are the best methods today. The way that people like me and Troy Rafferty, when we were coming up in law school trial team programs or trial advocacy programs, the ways that I was taught to pick a jury 25 years ago were very, very, very different from the best methods today, and same with opening statements.
And so that's what we've tried to do is we've tried to cull through that and be very intentional about teaching best method and to also curate some of the little secret pockets of goodness. For example, Troy Rafferty was talking to me one day about this thing they call a theme grid at his law firm, as if I was supposed to know what that was. I'm like, "What is it?" He goes, "Oh, it's this thing, Mike Papantonio and I came up with." I'm like, "What?" And so I asked Pap and Troy to give presentations on theme grid. And it was truly a groundbreaking tool that their firm had developed. And there's other examples of that. There's Joe Fried, I'd heard Joe was trying three week cases and boiling it down to three or four days. I called him up and said, "Joe, Hey man, what are you doing?"
He goes, "Well, I'm doing this thing and I'm just trying to make it faster. And I've got some ways that work." I said, "Well, would you mind sitting down with me and let's really try to distill that into a template that we can share with our members." He said, "Of course." Joe is an incredibly giving guy. So I flew up to Atlanta. I spent a lot of time with Joe. He just sort of talked about this method on a video. And then we kind of crunched it down and distilled it into a template that any young lawyer can use. And it is a spectacular new tool and it was something new, so we called it, we came up with a name, we decided to call it Speed Trial. But we actually distill Joe's method down into a very specific template that we've provided to our members. And those are just a couple of examples.
And so for me, the most important pieces of Trial School personally has been through this collaborative effort of great trial lawyers who are thought leaders, who have come up with new tools, new approaches, better ways of trying cases that we, through Trial School, this collective of brilliant faculty members, have collaborated with each other to share, to advance the state of the art and help all of our members get better at trying cases to win bigger verdicts for our clients.
I keep thinking about legacies of trial lawyers. I’ve done work with the Trial Lawyer Hall of Fame, I’ve interviewed many of the members personally – met with them at conventions. And so many have now passed on, leaving their knowledge with their law partners and friends. Trial School is also an opportunity for these legends to leave their knowledge to young lawyers for generations.
That knowledge lives on and a good message too is, you can't take it with you. So it is best to be able to do what you can to pass it on. And that's a great lasting legacy for some of these folks.
Well, that's one of the reasons why we've made sure that we keep the motives pure, because I think unlike some of the other trial advocacy programs that are presenting online content, we are a pure not for profit. Every single dollar that we bring in from sponsors or from contributions goes to promoting content. All of the faculty members do this for free for the good of the order. I got a call from ... that changed the direction of the program and really took it from something small to what it is today. I got a call from Mike Papantonio and he said, "Hey man, I like what you guys are doing." And Troy, obviously Mike's partner had already been involved. Troy was really one of the principles of the Trial School, along with Mike Kelly and Andrew Finkelstein.
But Pap called me and said, "Hey, man, I love what you're doing. Troy's told me about it. I've got a daughter, Sarah, who's graduating. This is right up her alley." He said, "So how can we help?" And of course, Mike is the best marketer mind on the planet, right up there with the best of the best and lent his resources along with Troy of the firm. And we got Sharon Booth involved and really ignited this thing in terms of growth and putting form and an organization together that's able to really continue this mission of curating a best method and sharing it with younger lawyers.
So what’s in store for the future of Trial School?
I think this thing's going to continue to grow. I mean, we've got so many exciting plans for the future. One of the things that I would encourage anyone reading or who hears about this program, if you'd like to get involved, it's completely free to join. You just go to trialschool.org, you have to fill out an application. You've got to put down your bar number. You have to sign our joint prosecution agreement because we are very, very serious about the work we do. There's a lot of shared information about specific cases that we work on together about really confidential trade secret approaches to trying cases. And so we're very serious about the ethics of this and that if anyone, we've had to have this happen a couple times where lawyers try to get in who do defense work. If you do any defense work at all, if you represent any corporations you're not allowed in, it's just that important.
And we take that mission very, very seriously, because if we can have that bubble of confidentiality, we can truly share work product in a safe environment and know that we're not going to have it used against us by some defense lawyer who represents a corporation. So if you are a lawyer who only represents human beings, visit trialschool.org, fill out the application. we will vet and you have to put down references. We will vet you. But if you only represent people, we'd love to have you. It's completely free. And man, just join our group because I promise no matter your level of experience, you will learn, you'll get better and you'll hopefully be able to better represent your clients to win verdicts.
For more information, including how to get involved and to help spread your knowledge to others, visit TrialSchool.org.