I remember taking Trial Advocacy at Seton Hall Law School with the great Professor Denis McLaughlin. This single class, in the Spring of 1988, had (and I hate this overused term) life-changing consequences. Indeed, the class changed my approach towards the courtroom and politics. Little did I know then that I would still be carrying forward invaluable lessons learned thirty-three years ago. And, certainly, who could have predicted back then that my trial advocacy classmate, Tom Scrivo, and I would start a law firm together thirty years later.
The class was small—about sixteen law students—charged with putting on a condensed trial. On a compressed schedule, we were trained to present an opening argument and closing argument for a murder trial and to navigate through direct and cross-examinations of sometimes difficult witnesses. We had to handle thorny evidentiary issues, and we argued seemingly spontaneous motions.
The class gave me an appreciation for the hard work that goes into trial preparation. Whether arguing for the prosecution or providing a defense, I grew to understand that you need to live with the facts, both the good and the bad, and you cannot make stuff up on the fly.
Also, I should mention, we were videotaped and watched our performance after the fact. Without getting too lost in the details of the case, what really stood out was seeing the performances on tape with all of my fellow students. Uncomfortable, but a game changer!
Looking back at the first viewing, I was struck by a few things.
What was I wearing?
Do I really sound like that?
What is with all the hand motions?
Am I really talking over the judge?
How many “umms” and “you knows” did I count?
At that moment, a hard realization suddenly appears and rains down on you. Your command of the English language suddenly seems at risk.
All in all, it was hard to see myself as others saw me. I thought I was confident, yet I thought I sounded sometimes uncertain. I thought I had had complete command of the courtroom and facts. Not so!
This nerve-wracking experience prepared me in ways I never contemplated.
The takeaway in politics: try to see yourself as others see you. Next time you give a speech or rail on the floor of the Legislature, think for a second—what are others seeing?
It is the hardest trick in life. Once you appreciate the view of others, you tend to have a better sense of the real world.
Class is over. Thank you to Professor McLaughlin for lessons of a lifetime.
P.S. Tom Scrivo and I both received an A+ in this class—the only one in three years of law school, for me at least.