My partner and I have been practicing full time for about a year now. It has been a whirlwind. Like any newer attorney, I’ve made mistakes. Like any attorney with any amount of experience, I will continue to make mistakes. But some mistakes stick out. Not necessarily for their idiocy (although that is definitely a thing) but for how avoidable they are. Or how silly I felt after making the mistake. In reflecting on this past year, my partner and I sat down for a drink and spoke about some of the mistakes we’ve each made that we hope not to repeat.
I won’t air his issues here, but I have no problem writing about my own mistakes. Specifically, I’ve made three mistakes over the last year. None of them were life-threatening, but they all provided valuable lessons, some in and some out of the courtroom.
1. Allow a Witness Within Earshot During Sidebar
At my first trial earlier this year, I thought I had the affiant trapped in an impending impeachment. I was laying the groundwork for the impeachment and walking the officer through the necessary questions. That required some seemingly irrelevant questions. The District Attorney objected, and we went to sidebar to argue the objection.
The problem was the proximity of the witness to the sidebar. The witness was less than five feet from our discussions. It hadn’t occurred to me while I was arguing the objection, but he could probably hear everything we were saying. How do I know? As soon as we stepped back from sidebar, he gave up the answer immediately.
This may sound like a good thing, but it wasn’t. That particular impeachment required a bit of presentation. I had documents I planned to use to make the impeachment, and it would have made things stick a bit better with the jury. But because the officer was ready for the impeachment, he completely took the wind out of my sails. Now I’m very cognizant of who can overhear arguments at sidebar, and if it came up in the future I would ask the witness to be temporarily instructed to step down.
2. Forget to Leave a Suit at the Office
On the first day of the same trial, I was wearing a new suit. I had taken it to the tailor a week or so before, and tried it on. I knew it fit. Like any other day I got dressed and hung my suit jacket in the back seat. I drove the forty-five minutes to my office and went into the back seat to grab my jacket. That’s when I noticed it: the security tag still on the suit. I’m not talking about some small tag either. This thing was the size of a small donut and it was prominently on the back of the suit.
Our office is next to a clothing store. But they couldn’t remove the tag. I was pretty much without a paddle at that point. Luckily I had a crappy backup suit in the office. Problem solved.
But the suit was only there because I had accidentally left it there a week or so beforehand. Now I keep a regular suit and an old matching pair of shoes, shirt, socks, and tie in the office just in case of an emergency. I got “lucky” that particular day, but I’m not generally a lucky person.
3. Go to a New Court Without Calling Ahead
A few months ago I got a case in a county several hours away. Before the first hearing I called a local attorney to ask about the magistrate judge and the area. Later the case went to the trial court, which is an entirely different part of the system here in Pennsylvania. But I did not make a second phone call. I didn’t check in with the court staff to see about local procedures. Nor did I talk to local defense counsel to get a feel for the assistant district attorney I would be facing.
None of these mistakes actually hurt my client. Everything went well and we reached a fair deal with the prosecutor. But things could have gone very poorly. When I got there I remembered that despite the “unified judicial system” we have here in Pennsylvania, each court is completely different. I did not know where to go, what the DA looked like, if computers/tablets were allowed, and so forth.
In theory I could have looked like a complete idiot. Again, luck held out and things went OK. But now any time I’m in a new court I make a call to a local defense attorney and the court staff. Better safe than sorry.