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A Key to Training Up New Trial Lawyers: Pass On the Opportunities When You Can

“Jurors, I think, tend to get tired of hearing from the same one or two lawyers all the time,” says Kirkland’s Jim Hurst. “Their ears and eyes perk up when suddenly some new younger lawyer gets up and he or she is doing a good job.”

I think this is how it is supposed to work.

When Kirkland & Ellis trial wizard Jim Hurst handled a key bellwether for AbbVie Inc. fending off claims the company misled consumers about the risks associated with its prescription testosterone supplement Androgel, his younger partner Hariklia “Carrie” Karis was his second chair.

They delivered a defense verdict.

When Hurst had a conflict with an August trial date last year, the company turned to Karis as first chair and she brought on their younger partner Richard “Rush” Howell as second chair.

They brought home another defense verdict.

Now, with the company facing another testosterone trial, Howell is poised to sit first chair.

“In many respects, it feeds on itself,” Karis said when I spoke with her and Hurst last month about Kirkland’s efforts to build out its bench of first chair trial lawyers, get younger lawyers stand-up trial experience, and the many other challenges that come with a shortage of civil trial opportunities industry-wide.

I admit that the summation above about how Kirkland is managing to grow the number of its litigators who are true first-chair trial lawyers is oversimplified. But if there’s going to be something to break the cycle of lawyers eschewing trial for wont of trial experience, there has to be a parallel virtuous cycle of lawyers getting experience and figuring out a way to get more experience for others. Pointing to successes is one way to get that cycle going. Of course, a nudge from clients and judges also can help get that cycle started.

“Frankly, thinking from a client perspective, clients want to see that your bench strength is more than just one or two people standing up in a courtroom,” Karis said. She added in an opioid case she’s currently handling the judge’s standing order specifically encourages putting forward younger lawyers. Karis said the implication is that the judge will be more forgiving of things when a young lawyer is presenting than perhaps if she or Hurst were at the lectern.

“Of course, we need to deliver quality and results to clients — never compromise or sacrifice that,” she said. “But bringing young talent in and putting them forth is key to recruiting, key to retention, and key to the firm’s ultimate performance.”

Hurst agreed, especially on that last point. He thinks that bringing lawyers into the mix has the extra benefit of making the overall trial presentation more engaging for the ultimate audience and decision-makers. “Jurors, I think, tend to get tired of hearing from the same one or two lawyers all the time,” he said. “Their ears and eyes perk up when suddenly some new younger lawyer gets up and he or she is doing a good job.”

“They root for them. They want them to do well,” Hurst said. “And the fact is when you give a younger lawyer not the most important witness in the world but a pretty good witness, they work their tails off to do a great job.”

He sums it up this way: “I think it elevates the product.”

Karis said that the ultimate decision of who does what at trial lies with the client. But she said that clients who have seen the approach of getting younger members of the team involved work in practice are more likely to sign off on giving someone else a shot at handling their first witness or motion, or at elevating a partner they’ve seen in the second chair to their lead trial lawyer.

“I think their confidence in us from having seen us deliver results over and over again helps with our ability to advocate for a junior person,” she said.